Archive for the 'Corruption' Category

“The Big Man”

El mundo es tuyo...So when I entered Uganda at the Entebbe Airport, I naturally handed my passport over.  I got the 20 questions routine that I was expecting.  One of the standard questions is, “Why are you coming to Uganda?” FSD alerted me that the only choices are business or tourism, so a volunteer should choose tourism.

Unfortunately, when I answered “tourism,” the customs lady didn’t quite believe me.  “Ten weeks is quite a long time for tourism, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, I guess.  Not really, though.”

So, she used her ball point pen to carve a big “2 MO” across the top of my passport. This means that I am authorized to stay for two months.  Eight weeks.  Not ten.

Now what?

Continue reading ‘“The Big Man”’

“No Good Deed…” – The Trouble of Raising Awareness in Bangladesh

As soon as I saw the look on his face, I knew something was wrong. I was in a DHL shipping office in Dhaka City. Just outside was a dusty back-alley full of the pungent aroma that can only be caused by the mixture of open sewers and rotting garbage. Inside, however, was an office that wouldn’t seem out of place in any major modern city – complete with porcelain white walls, fancy computers, and various scanning equipment. The contrast was quite surreal. It was only the look on the DHL guy’s face that reminded me just exactly where I was.

“Umm…. what is this?” he asked as he picked up and examined what I had just put on the counter. Now, I was the one with a confused look. Even across the counter, I could still see the object – clearly labeled: ‘SONY DV Tape’.

“It’s a tape”
I answered.

“A tape of what?”
the DHL guy asked. Taken somewhat aback by the question, I answered, “an interview”.

“An interview of what?”
the DHL guy asked. This exchange continued back and forth in ever increasing personal questions (what’s it for? why are you sending this? what’s it going to be used for?) until finally the DHL guy said “Sorry, we can’t ship this”. In hindsight, I probably would have got hassled less if I had been asking to ship a pound of cocaine and a loaded gun. Because, in this small South Asian country, one of the most controlled and restricted items for export is video footage.

For the average visitor to this country, Bangladesh seems like a fairly open country. Most people can come off a plane, go through customs, and vacation in places like Cox’s Bazar (the world’s longest unbroken beach) with relatively little hassle (and take their tourist videos back home with them). But, for those trying to make a difference here – whether it be helping the poor or raising awareness about poverty – the government of Bangladesh makes it as hard as possible. The only reason I’ve been able to do what I’m doing without interference – for the most part – is because I’ve been able to be small scale enough to stay under the radar.

But this was one of those times I had bumped into some hurdles. It all started with my recent trip to Jalchatra, Bangladesh where I encountered a Catholic priest who got infected by malaria. He got infected not once, not twice… but nearly forty times during an eleven year period. Two of those infections were cerebral malaria – a disease so dangerous it can cause death in just under a week. I interviewed him on camera (which I’ll put on YouTube in the future) but I also thought this might be footage worth sharing on a global scale for World Malaria Day this coming April. A contact of mine in Switzerland, was more than willing to take a copy of the raw footage and use it as part of their global awareness campaign.

Unfortunately, getting this footage to him is proving to be next to impossible. Unless I can pass this tape onto someone who is flying out of the country (so they can put it in their carry-on as tourist footage) than this tape will never reach Switzerland. I’d like to say that this problem is just an unintended consequence of a draconian law. But, in reality, it’s footage like this that the Bangladesh government wishes to stop. Journalists and aid workers are among the most scrutinized people in the country. While poverty in Bangladesh is no secret, some of the regions with the most suffering (such as the Chittagong Hill-Tracts, where this priest was repeatedly infected by malaria) are closed off to foreigners without express written permission.

This also isn’t the first time I’ve run into trouble with customs while trying to do my independent aid work. In one of my YouTube videos, I briefly touch upon the fact that some of my aid items were being held in customs despite being legal items of shipment. I eventually was able to retrieve these items after giving over $100 USD in bribes (aka “commissions” as the bureaucrats call them). The more time I spend on the ground in Bangladesh, the more I am convinced that ending poverty not only requires mobilizing governments abroad into action – but also ending the intentional immobilization caused by the local governments right here in the developing world.

Dhaka University Professor Speaks Against Corruption

Please don’t ask me where I got this. In fact, some in my family are worried this could get me in serious trouble. Below is a copy of the letter written by Dhaka University Professor Hawlader to the Bangladesh Anti-Corruption Commission Chairperson.

Dhaka University Professor's Letter to the Anti-Coruption Commission - Page 1 of 2   Dhaka University Professor's Letter to the Anti-Coruption Commission - Page 2 of 2

The reason I’m posting this is because this is a side of Bangladesh that most people abroad don’t know about. I’m not talking about the allegations of corruption. I’m talking about how politically active students and university professors are in this country. Back in Toronto and at Notre Dame, I’ve known tons of students (and a few professors) that have signed petitions, endorsed politicians, and even participated in protests and marches. But their political activity pales in comparison to most of the students and professors in Bangladesh. In fact, those curfews that were imposed a few months back, were instigated when students and professors took to the street and started rioting in protest of the government. It’s kind of weird and surreal to see this kind of passion.

I’ve talked about the problem of corruption in this country previously, but even I feel this professor’s letter is a bit over the top. Maybe I don’t know the political situation in Bangladesh well enough, but I’m simply not one of those bloggers that has to analyze and critique Bangladesh’s political system. There isn’t anything wrong with voicing dissent, of course. But, as someone who has come to this country as a foreigner, there is more to praise than criticize about Bangladesh’s political system. Bangladesh is one of the few Muslim-majority countries which is a constitutional democracy. Bangladesh also has had more years under female leadership than Western Nations like the UK and Canada. They are also at peace with all of its neighbors (albeit, Bangladesh is surrounded on all sides by India).

Unlike Professor Hawlader, in my books, Bangladesh is far from “hapless”.

Bangladesh Corruption – I’m Sick of It! Five Facts That Boil The Blood.

Literally and figuratively – I am sick and tired of this country’s corruption. Corruption alone maybe what keep this country firmly entrenched in its third world status. Here are five facts that bring my blood to a boil.

Fact #1: Paying the Bills Isn’t Enough.

I was at Notre Dame College the other day. Notre Dame College is a middle school and high school for Bangladesh children that provides education to middle class and extremely poor Bangladeshi children. It’s founded by the same Catholic organization that founded my alma mater in South Bend, Indiana. Some of the staff there used to be Rectors at some of the Halls at the American Notre Dame too. I’ve spent a lot of time there during this trip – makes me less homesick. My last visit there I was surprised to find the phone lines were cut – and it had nothing to do with forgetting to pay the bill.

In fact, the bills were paid on time and in full. It turns out that, in Bangladesh, paying your bills doesn’t get your service. I’ve talked about the corruption at the local water authority. The sad news is that this type of corruption isn’t limited to water. This corruption exists at the phone company and the electricity company too. If your water stops flowing – you need to ask for the water company to send a water tanker to your building. If the phone lines stop working – you need to have a technician come to your place. And, rest assured, every phone technician, water truck driver, and the middleman you need to deal with will be asking for a “commission” (which is just a nice term to legitimize bribery).

Fact #2: People suffer when this happens.

Believe it or not – there are honest people in this country trying to make an honest living here. But, rest assured, they are given a hard time by those a bit more corrupt. This is the Muslim month of Ramadan. For those not versed in Islam, it’s basically as important as Christmas is to Christians. A lot of people are buying and shopping at this time of year. It’s a time when those shopkeepers – who want to be able to survive for the rest of the year – need to be able to do business. This was made impossible for shopkeepers at the Bongo Bazaar in Dhaka (I found this great video of some foreigners shopping in the Bongo Bazaar if you want to see what it looks like). Despite paying their bills, the shop keepers didn’t have access to electricity. This wasn’t like a rolling blackout – that’s quite common here. This was a complete shutdown of electricity. Most of these shopkeepers could not afford backup generators. In much an enclosed and non-ventilated space – even local Bangladeshis couldn’t tolerate the heat there for more than two minutes.

No electricity means no fans. No fans means no shoppers. No shoppers means no business. No business means no income. No income means that it’s impossible to bribe the electricity company so that the power gets put back on. Sometimes I feel Bangladesh does a good job of keeping itself trapped in the poverty cycle.

Fact #3: People get sick when this happens.

In medieval Europe, people would put the contents of their toilet into a bucket (or just use a bucket as their toilet). When it needed to be emptied – they’d go near the window and dump it all out. This is how people lived when indoor plumbing didn’t exist. It’s good to know that corruption helps to keep the medieval spirit alive and well. Because, when there is no water, my neighbors in the adjacent apartments sometimes scoop out their toilets with a bucket and dump the contents out the window. This would be less disgusting if the entrance to the place I’m staying didn’t happen to be where they dump their stuff. Disgust aside – with medieval practices come medieval diseases. It’s no surprise that everyone who lives here has had pink eye, typhoid, and stomach related illnesses.

And like the bazaar that had no electricity, Notre Dame college which had no phone lines, or my residential block which (once again) has no water – this all is happening during the month of Ramadan. A time when people need extra cash to shop and spend on their family. And it just so happens that the electricity, phone line, and water all magically come back when you give the right person the right amount of bribes. Corrupt people need to shop for their families too – but it’s innocent victims that line their pockets.

Fact #4: Corruption disproportionately hurts the poor.

I was visiting someone who had an apartment in a region of the city called Baridhara. Baridhara is a diplomatic zone – it has the US Embassy (along with other embassies from other countries) and is the home to many foreigners and rich locals. Many of the apartments there would put most homes in North America to shame. LCD TVs in every room, each room with its own independent A/C, marble flooring and countertops, and all the fancy fixtures and accessories to go along with it. If the power goes out – there is a generator that can power everything for up to a day. If the water goes out – houses and apartments there come with massive reserve tanks. And when bribing is necessary, the apartment building manager pays off the right people and adds the cost to the apartment fees. Bribing for a flat rate – how convenient is that?

The same is true for the stores that cater to the rich. At a local supermarket called Lavender, one of the few places where white customers out number Bangladeshis, a small bag of cookies costs about 8 US Dollars. In local terms thats over 500 of the local currency – or about 4 times the daily income of over 80% of the population. But, unlike the Bongo Bazaar, the shoppers there never need to worry about a lack of electricity for the A/C. The high price of goods helps pay for the bribes. Not every store can be like Lavender and add the cost of bribes to the price of the products.

Fact #5: Corruption is so bad, even aid agencies don’t trust the locals.

One of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals is to stop the spread of HIV, tuberculous, and malaria. To help in this cause there is a Global Fund – literally called the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculous and Malaria. The Global Fund helps many countries – but when they decided to try and help Bangladesh, they decided not to work with the government or most local NGOs. When it comes to purchasing things like mosquito nets, the government and or an NGO needs to place a request to a foreign agency like the World Health Organization. The UN then acts as the honest broker and makes the purchase ensuring that money meant for poor people doesn’t get pocketed by corrupt officials.

I don’t think anyone really understands what kind of corruption this country has until you come and live here. Where is Don Corleone when you need him? The man would be a saint in this country.

Dhaka Water Crisis: Corruption in the Pipes?

In a country like Bangladesh, its hard to tell where the corruption ends and the legitimate difficulties begin.

Take this recent water crisis in Dhaka. I wanted to wait a couple of days to be sure, but it seems that – for those living around me – the water shortages are over. Both my house and the neighboring apartments have had continuous access – without interruption – to city water for over 48 hours. But here’s the thing: no pipes needed to be replaced, no pumps needed to be repaired, and no city capacity had to be increased in order for this to happen.

In fact, the only thing that happened was that I showed up at the Water Authority with a camera and started asking some questions.

Click the jump for more of on this including a picture of one of the city’s tube well stations….. Continue reading ‘Dhaka Water Crisis: Corruption in the Pipes?’