Sunday, August 2, 2009

This is Rural Bangladesh Pt. 2

Following my time in Netrokona, I met up with Richard and Sohan, who were traveling to the village in which they work, named Goichachia, to peform water analysis. Check out their organization, Basic Needs Program. I was tagging along to get some interviews.

To get to their village the three of us rode a packed, dusty bus an hour and a half from where I already was, then a CNG (check the picture, basically an auto rickshaw) over bumpy roads through the pitch-black night, before traveling via rickshaw over even rougher and darker roads. Tired and hungry, we had dinner served to us over lamplight while lounging around in our lungis...kinda like camping. The camera flash is deceptive - there's no electricity here.

They next day my morning run basically brought out every child in the village, running
after me like a Rocky montage, or Austin Powers opening scene, whatever your preference. However, they might have already been up because there was a kid crying from 6:15am on - there's not much privacy in a village where walls are thatch and windows are open air. We performed our research in tag-team fashion. Richard would test water, and Sohan would translate for my interviews. Most of the people in the village were even poorer than those I had already interviewed. They were living on less than $1 per day (although slightly above $1 when you account for cost of living) and most were farmers who only had work 6-7 months out of the year. They had two crop yields per year, but because they were only farming rice, they had nothing else to harvest during down seasons.

During the middle of the work day you'd see many people just sitting around (except Donnie carving our duck for lunch) - not because they are lazy but simply because there are no outlets for employment. The nearest reasonably sized town is a couple hours away, and farming, like I said, is seasonal. Many people consume much of their yield in the first place, and all it takes is a bad season to put them in the red. One farmer told us how after seed and fertilizer expenses of 60,000 Taka were covered, they were only able to sell it for 40,000 at the market, leaving them with a 20,000 loss for the season. Some farmers even turned to money lenders, mortgaging their land to procure farming supplies. The money lender doesn't take interest. Rather, he takes 1/2 the farmer's crop yield until the loan is paid back. Sohan called it a form of "sucking their blood".

I like Basic Needs' approach. They are bringing a doctor and plan to set up a clinic in the village, providing somewhat of a safety net from below. At the same time, they are looking into alternative crops to grow, such as strawberries, which command a high price and are said to be a feasible crop. While this is providing immediate income, they have built a school for the children so that they don't have to grow up illiterate like their parents - a way to get ahead and out of poverty. Basic Needs, with these three deveoloping components, seems to be heading in the right direction.

Well, with all my talk about microfinance and empowering women to
earn their living, why aren't I touting that option? Only one women out of four in the village (admittedly not a representative sample) I talked to who used microfinance was really positive about it. For the others they said the interest installments were just too tough for them to make with seasonal labor, and the loans really weren't big enough to start a business. Instead they might use the money just to get by or improve their husbands' businesses - not really empowering women like you often hear from the NGOs. One pitiful lady (really nothing was going right for her) we talked to had taken out a loan to buy a cow, which had died shortly after. Sad.

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