Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Traveling the Third World Way

Day 4 (Wednesday) is drawing to a close and I certainly earned my pay today. We left the hotel at 6:30 a.m. and arrived back at 9:30 p.m. I have many impressions I’d love to share with all of you, but I’m kaput. Okay, okay, here are just a few.

It took us 3 hours to reach Phulpur in the Mymensingh District, just 25 kilometers short of the northern border with India. I saw one fascinating thing after the next pass by my car window. The lead auditor, my partner Sol, was getting sicker and sicker as we drove north and by the time we were in the opening meeting with the staff, she was “hanging by a thread,” she told me. At the meeting’s conclusion, she had to go lie down, so I was in charge – after having so successfully programmed myself the previous two days not to take the lead on anything!

With Tarikul, the translator, I did the usual interviews in the main office. He’s a quick learner, so he remembered from the previous day some of the topics we needed to cover and we made a good team. Lunch was served to the Manager, Tarikul, and me in the Manager’s office: rice, fish in sauce, chicken in sauce, vegetables in sauce, and lentils (daal). The irony was that they had their gender equity specialist serving us. Let me tell you, they have millions of miles to go on their goals for what we call “gender mainstreaming.”

After lunch, Sol roused herself and went in the car to a sub-office, where she reviewed files and interviewed sponsored children. Tarikul and I went to visit projects traveling by motorcycle. We couldn’t go by car because the narrow, dirt pathways that lead from the main road to villages, threading their way among the rice paddies and fish ponds, only accommodate motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, and pedestrians.

Now, imagine – in order for WV to take me by motorcycle as a passenger, they had to find a woman driver. No way could they have me straddle a seat behind a man! They had to survey all the sub-offices in that part of Bangladesh to find the best two women motorcyclists (preparing to take both Sol and me), confirm they had licenses, and then ask them to come for the day. Indeed, my driver (a Project Officer, not a chauffeur) was excellent and all went smoothly as we made one short trip after the next from project site to site. By the end I was quite good at putting on and taking off my helmet, staying relatively modestly covered, and keeping my long scarf out of the motorcycle wheels. Some day I’ll tell you about my challenge with scarves, if you’re interested.

The projects were interesting (adolescent reproductive health, student tutoring, crop diversification, etc.) and the children and adults generally enthusiastic. Tarikul did a great job at each stop when we interviewed the groups. He would take my initial questions and carry on a good exchange with them, acquiring just the type of information of interest to Sol and me, as he had learned the previous day.

I could write a few pages on the harrowing 4-hour ride back to Dhaka, but maybe it’s best left undescribed. Bottom line is, our driver didn’t hit or kill any of the thousands of people on the road, many of whom were emerging after 10-hour shifts in the huge garment factories we passed by. Whew.

Tomorrow we finish our review, prepare our findings, and debrief the Dhaka team. I head to the airport then for an evening flight. See you back in the U.S. soon!


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Education vs. Immediate Income

On Day 3 (Tuesday), we went to the northwestern part of Dhaka to see programs for children and their families. It’s always a lot of fun to witness the hope and the empowerment of the beneficiaries and the commitment and energy of the staff and volunteers who are helping to make it happen.

“My daughter is in 11th grade,” said one mother who probably only completed 4th or 5th grade herself. “After she graduates from high school, my daughter hopes to go on to college. She is so confident and capable that I am sure she will always be able to fend for herself in the world,” she said with a big smile.

All this education for a girl was made possible by WV providing encouragement as well as support for school fees, uniforms, and basic school supplies each year. Imagine what the parents think: Can I afford to send my girl to school? What will it cost in cash outlay? What will it cost in foregone income – money she might make if she weren’t studying?

This raises the question, what does it take to tip the balance to education over child labor? Not much during the first few years of a kid’s life, but more and more as the child becomes older.

Sorry, sorry, I’m sounding like a fundraising letter. I just wanted to share with you how inspiring my days can be.

(As we sit in traffic jams, it's been interesting to learn from our translator about his usual work, which is conducting social compliance audits of garment factories here. He checks on whether the factories are hiring child labor or abusing their workers.)

On the less inspirational side, in between visiting programs we reviewed documents – invoices, receipts, letters to sponsors, child progress reports, program plans, project evaluations, and more. We learned more about three different computer systems used for sponsorship management, program monitoring and evaluation, and financial tracking and reporting. We drank coke and tea and accepted flowers and presents that on Thursday we will give over to the staff in the main office. Although we had told the director that as auditors we are not allowed to accept gifts, cultural norms get in the way.

Tomorrow we’ll be visiting programs in a distant rural area. Will we ride on boats, motorcycles, or bicycle rickshaws? We’ll see!


Monday, August 25, 2008

Getting down to work in Bangladesh

Day 1 (Sunday) on the job here in Dhaka went well. In the morning, I met up with my audit partner Soledad (called Sol) at breakfast. She is a Venezuelan Brit who lives in Brooklyn and is proving to be easy to work with and well organized.

The WV director joined us at 8 a.m. and gave us a welcome packet that included a security and cultural briefing, which I appreciated. We heard a bit from him on the history of their work here in Bangladesh over the past 38 years. He is Bangladeshi and joined the organization in 1978. We talked about logistics, including whether Sol and I wanted to join the staff for devotions, which they hold every morning from 9-9:30 a.m. We were noncommittal in our responses.

Most of the rest of the day, Sol and I reviewed documents that were e-mailed to us ahead of time. These included plans, budgets, reports, and marketing materials. In the late morning, as per expert advice on combating jetlag, we left our hotel to take a walk around the neighborhood. It was a rough start, as we were initially hounded by bicycle rickshaw riders and then dodging both moving and parked vehicles as we tried to walk along the edge of the hotel’s street. (Bicycle rickshaws are three-wheeled vehicles made up of the front ¾ of a bicycle with a carriage-like seat in the back under which are two wheels.)
Shortly, though, we rounded the corner and it was much quieter. This is an enclave with embassies, expatriate housing, and an international school – it is protected by guards in booths at every entrance.

After a few blocks we arrived at a lake along which ran a narrow park with a nice walkway. We scoped it out and saw enough women around that we decided it was safe going. We did most of our walking along the lake, which was very pleasant, then returned to the hotel – sweaty but happy.

Day 2 on the job went according to plan. We were joined by Tarikul, our translator, who is a Bangladeshi social compliance auditor in training and whose help we will need out at the project sites. (In the Dhaka office, all the professionals speak excellent English, though some of the accents require a great deal of concentration on my part.) The WV driver picked up the three of us from the hotel and off we went through the crowded streets. The traffic situation is less chaotic than when I was last here about 11 years ago, improved by the banning of bicycle- and foot-powered rickshaws on certain streets. On one such street, I saw a police officer chastising a bicycle rickshaw driver by hitting the rickshaw’s tires hard with a long stick. Quite curious.

Sol is the lead auditor, which means she took the lead today during the opening meeting and subsequent interviews we held with staff in all the different departments. We learned about how they are organized, what procedures they use, and how their programs are structured. We reviewed a wide range of additional documentation and got a demo of their financial management system. We checked whether they are in compliance with the official standards against which we conduct the audit. For example, is the organization properly registered in the country? Does each employee complete and sign a conflict-of-interest form upon hire? Are U.S. sponsors’ addresses kept confidential? Is there credible evidence of the positive impact the organization is having, for example in reducing infant mortality rates?

Tomorrow we’re off to see urban projects and the people they are benefiting. I had to stop on the way back to the hotel and have Tarikul help me buy a $3 scarf in the market, as I forgot to bring one with me. I think I’m ready now.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Report from Dubai and Dhaka

On the way to Bangladesh, I flew to Dubai, which is one of the United Arab Emirates. This is a new country for me, making my total countries visited and lived in 70, if you include the United States. I feel very privileged to know so much more of our globe than most people.

Since I had a 5-hour layover in Dubai, I decided to leave the airport and pay a taxi driver to give me a tour of this tiny emirate and afterwards leave me at a mall near the airport. The ride wasn't cheap but was a good way to get a bit acquainted with this country. It reminds me of Kuwait, only more extreme. It’s a land where you hear a bit of Arabic, a lot of South Asian languages, and a lot of English. It’s a land of men, where more than 2/3 of the population is male, thanks to imported male labor from South Asia and elsewhere, and where women are less visible. It's a land of sand, cement, and sea. Everything is the grey of sand except for the exquisite turquoise of the Persian Gulf waters. Developers and the government are pumping sand out in the Gulf to build up islands that together form huge designs in the water like a “palm tree” and “earth.” Then they build huge bridges to the islands, where they build hotels and other large buildings. It's really crazy.

The mall was, well, a mall, but surprised me by having postcards, postage stamps, and a post box, so I sent off 2 postcards. I enjoyed checking out the shoppers, who are a mix of peoples from all over the world.

After the 12-hour flight to Dubai, the 4-1/2-hour flight to Dhaka seemed short. Unlike on the first leg, I didn’t indulge in watching some of the 50 movies (!) available on the system. I had 3 seats across to myself, so I stretched out and slept soundly.

The hotel sent two people to meet me. One had the job of greeting me at the exit from customs and escorting me to the parking garage, and the other had the job of driving me to the hotel. A third, an airport worker also looking for a tip, had the job of taking the luggage cart back into the airport. In these developing countries, they often have creative ways to make a lot of jobs.

The ride to the hotel took about ½ hour and I enjoyed seeing some of Dhaka’s evening activity. The traffic doesn’t seem as chaotic as I remember it from 11 years ago, at which point all different sized vehicles – from truck to car to 3-wheeled taxis to bicycle rickshaws to human-pulled rickshaws to mopeds to pedestrians – shared the roadway however they could. There seems to be more organization now, but tomorrow’s explorations may reveal otherwise.

(Dhaka has nearly doubled in population size in the interim and now is at about 12 million in the city and 23 million in the metropolitan area. Bangladesh has a total population of 150 million, making it the 7th most populous country in the world – about the same population as Russia but with 1/120th the land.)

The hotel seems to have good Internet connectivity. I will stay here all 5 nights, because the trips to the project areas are day trips (Tuesday and Wednesday).

My working partner Sol (Soledad) from the audit firm CCSC arrived earlier today and has the room across from mine, so we're set to get to work at a leisurely pace tomorrow, which is designated as "documents review" time. The documents of this sponsorship organization seem to have a lot of talk about capacity building and sustainability, with a lot of reporting on implementation of projects that are just one hand-out after the next. Should be interesting to see what the real situation is.

It’s 10:30 p.m. here (12:30 p.m. in the U.S.), so I’ll be heading to bed with the hope that my body is ready for a solid 8 hours of sleep.

I hope the house foundations and building of our stone wall are coming along well.