The Great Samaritan
For Jahanara Hasan life has been a long laborious journey. She was born in India and grew up in Bangladesh only to move on to the USA. In 1973, a lecturer in Economics at Eden Girls' College, she went to the US to join her husband, who was on a USAID fellowship programme. But the love for her newly independent country has made her take new projects, organisations that will help the deprived and marginalised communities of Bangladesh and the expatriates living in her adopted country. She is Joint Secretary of Samhati, an expatriate Bangladeshi women's organisation in Washington DC. Explaining its work she says, "It helps expatriate Bangladesh women victims of family abuse and violence. It has extensive adult literacy, vocational and computer learning programmes. Samhati also operates three such centres, one each in Katakhali in Potuakhali, Charani and Bathgari in Rangpur and Hatiandaha in Natore. Besides this, it provides scholarship to the students based on performance and need."
Samhati, which has celebrated its 25th anniversary this October, has funded the construction of Mahila Parishad's Rokea Sadan, a shelter for destitute women and girls, in Dhaka. During the time of natural disasters the organisation has come with the flag of rescue: "It has provided the Mahila Parishad substantial funds for relief works in the southern part of Bangladesh during natural disasters," Jahanara says, "We have also provided direct help in Katakhali area and built 60 houses for the SIDR victims in the coastal areas." The organisation runs a clinic in Bara Baishdia in Potuakhali.
Asked what role expatriate Bangladeshis like her can play for the country they have left, she says, "With high a rate of population growth and massive corruption in almost every sphere of the public sector, economic development has remained stagnant. The government itself is a contributory factor to this stagnancy. Now there is a growing sense that more private and individualised efforts may, if not the way out, play a vital role in leading the country towards development."
She says that expatriate Bangladeshis can bring in with them the much-desired investment with foreign currency, technologies, the expertise and a new idea of management with them. "Being the source of capital, entrepreneurship, along with the intimate knowledge of the country, they will bring in speed in project implementation and above all shall eliminate the sources of corruption," she says.
She believes that one of the biggest problems that the country is now facing is illiteracy. But she calls it a misnomer saying, "Literacy is a misnomer. Do we mean functionally literate or do we include those who somehow can write their name?"
She thinks that a person's mind and attitude is almost set by the time he or she gets into middle school. In that sense kindergarten and primary schooling is decisive for later success. "Although the government is showing its interest in this area by creating a new ministry for primary education, it is a long way to go," she says, "Here, again, the Non-resident Bangladeshis (NRB) can make a difference. Instead of rushing to build universities, I think we should get more involved at the kindergarten and primary schooling levels. An NRB individually or in a group can undertake one school at a time. If we all get involved it certainly can help the government succeed.
"I have come here with a donor foundation with commitment to build between 50 to 100 school buildings in poverty stricken remote areas. We visited several schools in Sylhet, Sunamganj, Mymensingh, Narsingdi, Natore and Rangpur. All the schools we visited, with an exception of two, are in dilapidated condition with only two or three teachers. One has to see to believe such conditions can exist."
Her organisation has a model architectural plan for the school buildings, which will be followed with required modification in terms of availability of land and topography. "We have made an initial selection of three schools for building. These are pilot projects. If it goes as we are expecting it to go, we will go to more schools," she says.
She says that a one-stop service to the NRBs who want to invest in this country must be a reality, not just a slogan. "The government may also consider tax holiday on return from foreign investment for 5/10 years," she says. One hopes that the government gives her a patient hearing to make the dream of a digital Bangladesh come true.
-- AM HUSSAIN
(R) thedailystar.net 2009