“What about the taxes?” asked one of the students. It was my last day of talks at the American International School in Dhaka. I was in the middle of recounting my experience doing Cyclone Sidr Disaster Relief. Everything seemed to be going well – but this question kind of threw me off.
“Uhh… taxes?” I asked. Before the student replied, I quickly gave him one good look and realized that he – unlike most of the students in the classroom – wasn’t an expatriate. Rather, he was among the small percentage of Bangladeshis that were actually rich enough to be able to send their children to this school. Judging by the expensive and fashionable Western clothing, perfectly matching accessories, and perfectly styled hair – he was from a rather well-to-do family.
“Yeah, you see,” he started to explain, “if local families wanted to give aid to the Cyclone victims using their own name – they weren’t allowed to do so. They had to give it to the military to distribute instead. And, anything we gave could be taxed. Don’t you think that’s a problem? A lot of people didn’t give aid because of that,”
I made a slight groan underneath my breath. Find out why after the jump…
When I was first contacted by teachers at the American International School, I was warned about something called the “expat bubble”. Being inside the expat bubble – even for a few hours – can be a very surreal experience. It’s like taking a plane trip and coming to America – all without leaving the city. Many expats even have access to special secure foreigner-only grocery stores fully stocked with all the luxuries from home. With various national clubs (with imported food), the American International School (with its imported tables and chairs), and expat apartments (stocked with imported goods) – one can almost forget one is in a foreign country.
The downside, some of the teachers warned me, is that expat families can be unaware of the hardships many people face in this country (especially the poor). Quite frankly, I didn’t really find that during my time talking to various expat students at this school. They seemed to be very grounded and well rounded people. Although highly sheltered and protected from the world that they were in – they had a general idea about the situation around them. I guess it’s kind of the same way someone in Syracuse or Los Angeles can be aware and concerned about the plight of those in the third world even though they are removed from the situation.
It’s the local well-to-do families that seem to be aloof to the plight of the poor – in an almost bizarre kind of way. If foreigners can live in a sheltered “expat bubble” than many local rich and elite Bangladeshis live in something akin to an “aristocratic dome”. To my surprise, many of the local Bengali students I talked to didn’t know the poverty rate of their own country – until I told them what it was. This would explain why so many well-to-do Bangladeshis – inside the aristocratic dome – claim Bangladesh “isn’t a poor country”. And this could also possibly be why, when I was in the middle of a talk about the death, destruction, and hardship that Cyclone Sidr caused to the rural poor of Bangladesh – I was fielding questions about taxes.
In all honesty, I didn’t know the specifics about this government policy. I knew the caretaker/military-backed government had changed some things – but that didn’t stop a lot of people from donating. My grandmother, for example, spent days and days buying food, rice, clothes, and other supplies – packaging them all up – before dropping them off at the government drop-off locations. She didn’t care whether or not she got credit for her charity or whether or not she would be taxed for her donations. It didn’t matter – there were people in need. Then again, my grandmother is probably as far away as you can get from the aristocratic bubble.
As I stood in front of this student whose one set of clothes was more expensive than my entire grandmother’s wardrobe, I wondered why on Earth would his question even be a legitimate concern? It made sense to have a co-ordinated relief strategy. If various wealthy families just rushed to the disaster area with their own relief – it would compound the disaster. Even with the 70 blankets I brought with me to the disaster area, I had to confirm (through the NGO I came with) to make sure there wasn’t an over abundance of such items in that particular region. If they said there was – I would have had to leave them behind in Dhaka. And, if the government did indeed allow wealthy families to donate items without taxation, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a few families to dump their old hand-me-downs as an easy way of getting a huge tax-write off.
I tried my best to explain that (believe it or not) his government had everyone’s best interests in mind – only to be interrupted by another local Bengali student. “That’s not how it works,” this particular student interjected. Yes, because – God forbid – anyone speak of anything but harsh criticism for the government in power. If anything, the recent devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis and the poor response by the Burmese government should be a clear example of how the Bangladesh government did many things right. I then tried to explain that that taxes might not be so bad given that a lot of infrastructure was lost due to Cyclone Sidr – and it would fall to the local government (and not foreign countries) to repair these basic services.
“Yeah, but I don’t want to pay taxes on this” he rebutted – I could see in the periphery the few other local Bengali students were nodding in agreement.
I took one deep breath and gritted my teeth. I then pursed my lips and in the most calm school teacher voice I could produce said, “With all due respect…” I paused for a moment to try and make sure the next few words I said were G-rated. “If your biggest concern after Cyclone Sidr is paying taxes – than maybe you are better off than the rest of the people in this country.” The student started glancing away and started looking at the floor. I continued. “With over 80% of this country earning less than $2 a day – most are too poor to be taxed at all”.
“Yeah…” he said quietly. “I.. I suppose you are right”. As I turned away to answer the next question from another student – I heard the student next to him softly say. “Dude…you just got owned“.
Pulling this country out of extreme poverty has little to do with popping the expat bubble, and has everything to do with breaking down the aristocratic dome.