For many people in Bangladesh, “poverty” is a bad word – it’s the “P” word if you will. You’re not supposed to bring up the “P” word.
How bad is it to use the “P” word? Well, I was recently met a Bangladeshi (now living America) entrepreneur who is starting up a tourism business to experience Bangladesh in a new and unique way. I had originally met her to do a video and/or blog post about her work, but unfortunately that ultimately fell through. The reason? Because, if I was going to write or make a video about her or her work, I wouldn’t be permitted to use the “P” word. Instead, I was encouraged to use “alternative” words like “building wealth” or “producing sustainability”. Since when did newspeak come to Bangladesh?
In fact, when I told her about what I’m doing in Bangladesh and the nature of my work – she balked. “There’s nothing inspiring that” she said told me. Bangladesh, she explained, shouldn’t be portrayed as a “poor” country in need of aid and/or charity. In her defense, she was a very cheerful and positive-minded person who (like me) shares my hope for a Bangladesh free from poverty. This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the Bangladeshi community criticizing me for me work or for the fact I speak aloud about Bangladesh and poverty. In fact, some of the harshest criticism comes from my own family. Many Bangladeshis can’t seem to fathom why my desire to try and alleviate poverty brought me to Bangladesh.
There is one Bangladeshi who I know wouldn’t question my work…. but he’s dead now. In fact, my grandmother just helped bury him.
More after the jump. Readers beware – I make excessive use of the “P” word.
While, I was in that rural village of Jalchatra trying to document where the Bengal Bouts money gets spent, my grandmother was approached by a family in desperation. This family had recently lost a loved one – and they couldn’t afford to bury him. Why couldn’t they just dig a hole in the ground and bury him? Because every square inch of land (even in this rural village) is owned by someone – they had no legal right to bury him anywhere. Why not cremate him? This family couldn’t afford even the smallest of plots – forget about having the money necessary for the fuel in which to dispose of the corpse through cremation. What did they do instead? They let the body rot for several days – out in the open – until they could find someone to help. My grandmother stepped in, bought some land, and finally let the man R.I.P.
Oh, and what did this man die of? Starvation… and cold. The man literally was shivering and hungry when he died.
The first step to solving a problem – is to admit there is one. Refusing to acknowledge or publicly speak about P O V E R T Y in Bangladesh keeps us further away from solving it. It is extremely disheratening to see that those in positions of influence – be it a Supreme Court judge or a savvy businessperson – try and brush aside the image of Bangladesh as a poor country. I’ve talked about how the elite of Bangladesh perceive poverty before. In my previous article, I quoted Dr. Naomi Hossain (author of “Elite Perceptions of Poverty in Bangladesh”). As she points out, the business and political elite in Bangladesh “do not feel threatened by the extent of poverty, or by poor people”. Rather, they feel that poverty threatens “the wealth or international stature of the nation”.
The reason why I use the word “poverty” so much is because it is the only non-ambigious term. “Building wealth” might just make the rich even more rich and leave the poor further behind. “Producing sustainability” might just force the poor to consume less to allow the rich to maintain their level of consumption. “Ending poverty” is much less ambigious. When I say “end poverty” I mean no one should be dying of starvation only to then be too poor to be buried.
And if that means mentioning the “P” word over ten times in a single blog post – so be it.