Archive for the 'Military' Category

The Nexus of Aid Work & Islamic Extremism

Hartel (Strike) in Bangladesh

With less than a month before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, violence, protests, and strikes have erupted in Bangladesh. Much of this is fueled by an Islamic political party called Jamaat-e-Islami. This is a political party that exists both in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Their goal? To advance the Islamization of Muslim countries (with the goal of ultimately ruling by Sharia Law).

When acts of violence and religious extremism occur in a far-away country, we usually don’t think of it as having anything to do with the charities we donate to, how NGOs operate in these countries, or how the attitudes and approaches of aid workers affect these issues. But the two are closely interlinked.

What surprises me the most is that aid workers are often the ones least willing to admit that such a connection exists at all. The impression I get from many of my friends and colleagues in the humanitarian sector, is that many see themselves as Starfleet officers operating on their own version of Gene Roddenberry’s Prime Directive.

Unfortunately, while there is a great deal of nobility, selflessness, and self-sacrifice in the aid industry, the notion that one can provide humanitarian aid and development while being impartial and above the fray of local conflicts is science fiction.

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Real Heroes

Lest We ForgetI have a confession to make: when someone leaves a really flattering comment on one of my videos – I squirm. Nothing makes me feel more uncomfortable than being called a “hero”. And I guess there isn’t a better time to talk about this than on a day when we honor the real heroes of the world.

For most of Canada and the USA, Remembrance Day (or Veterans Day) just ended. Let me spare you the gushy speech and cut to the point. The men and women we honor on this day have a hell of a lot more guts than most of us – and I definitely include myself in the “not enough guts” category.

I’ll admit: if I was put on the beaches of Normandy, in some trench in the middle of World War I, or even on deployment (like some of my friends have been and some still are) in Afghanistan or Iraq – I’d probably soil myself and cry until I got home.

For me, the reason I started this project is because I wanted to show that you don’t have to be a hero to make a difference in the world. The term hero gets thrown about way too easily and I think today, out of any other day in the year, we should recognize who the real heroes are.

Lest we forget.

The next day

A REAL Conversation about Poverty

After my latest video got featured on the YouTube homepage, there were so many people leaving comments about how fat I was, how I talked, or just leaving racial epithets, that I was resigned to the fact that my message had been lost among all the hateful messages. Then, something really amazing happened. A group of well-spoken, intelligent, and considerate group of commenters appeared. And, for the first time since being featured, a real conversation emerged.

Of course, as with any discussion, we didn’t all end up agreeing. But at least we addressed some important issues. Here is a summary of some of the topics that were touched upon:

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Dhaka Rings In New Year with (Limited) Curfew

For those used to life in Dhaka City, the only breaking aspect of this story might be that the curfew has been imposed a few hours early this year. Police and military imposed curfews happen with such regularity here, they really need a more efficient system of announcing them. I, like many people here, found out by getting a call from a relative. This relative, in turn, found out from her children as they were returning home. Thank God for cellphones – I made it back with but minutes to spare.

Curfews are not at all uncommon here in Bangladesh. My very first blog post here was regarding the post-riot curfews that were imposed across the country. This curfew is a lot more limited. It’s restricted to the parts of the city where foreigners tend to live, shop, and hang out. These areas are also the few places in the country where you can get alcohol. I guess the official government/police/military explanation (it’s really hard to tell them apart now seeing how democratic rule is currently suspended) is that they want to avoid drunk and disorderly behavior.

But some people aren’t buying that story. I’ve written up an article for NowPublic talking about some of the speculation that I’ve been hearing. I guess, when you live in a place where curfews can be imposed on short notice, it’s easy to start speculating.

A copy of the NowPublic article is available after the jump. You can also read it at this link.

Continue reading ‘Dhaka Rings In New Year with (Limited) Curfew’

Site Changes, Personal Changes

When I first started this blog, I didn’t have much to show for this project. In fact, the day I wrote my first blog post I was stuck in a relatives’ home because all of Bangladesh was under military curfew.

Since then I have a lot to show: I’ve given away two cases of water during the summer flooding season. I’ve given over fifty mosquito nets (including one long-lasting insecticide treated mosquito net called PermaNet) to rural villagers. I’ve given wind-up flashlights to low-income students trying to study without electricity as well as one to a low-income disaster relief volunteer. I’ve helped to pay for a large group of poor children to have a balanced and healthy meal. And, recently, I’ve distributed 70 blankets (30 of which I did with Save the Children, another 30 with Muslim Aid UK, and 10 I gave out one-on-one) to victims of a Cyclone Sidr.

So it’s about time I tweak the look of the site a bit. Gone is the static photo of my Notre Dame hat and Dr. Jeffrey Sachs’ book. I’m still using that photo – but the main picture on my site now changes randomly every few minutes (you’ll have to reload manually) to shows some of the things I’ve done and interesting people I’ve met. This change also reflects a decision I’ve made.

When I first came to Bangladesh, I thought I would stay here for a couple of months and then go. But since coming here, I’ve kept changing my departure date. September departures became October departures – and so on. I don’t know when exactly I am going to fly home – but I know I will be here in Bangladesh Christmas and the New Year. For the first time in my life – I’ll be spending Christmas and New Years away from both my Mom and Dad.

It’s not easy staying here. There are bugs, germs, and it’s easy to get sick. I’m far from my friends and I am kind of getting homesick. This has also had a cost on my family (in particular my mother who had contracted Dengue Fever during the time she was accompanying me on this project). But, despite all this difficulty, I have a unique opportunity. I’m doing something no one has ever done before (at least in terms of how I’m sharing my experience and work online with others through Flickr, YouTube, and blogging). And I’m helping others while I do it. How many people can say that?

I also want to share a message and inspire others. It’s hard to do that if I’m just uploading old footage and photos from my home in Canada. Hopefully by staying this project can grow and perhaps inspire others.

Uncultured Project Inspires Family – Blows My Mind

“So exactly how many blankets did you buy?” asked my uncle on a phone call shortly after I returned from the disaster area. “About 70” I answer. “Uh huh. And how much did this cost?” he asked. “About 14,000 taka [$204 USD]”. “Uh huh” my uncle replied. The phone call pretty much went like that for a few more minutes. He was asking very probing questions like where I bought these blankets from, how did I take them to the disaster area, and where I got the money to buy these blankets from. I answered them in a matter-of-fact manner. After a few more “uh huhs”, he gave me his best wishes, said goodbye, and hung up.

Little did I know that I was about to be upstaged by my uncle. And the best part is – I love it.

This is the same uncle I called while I was in the disaster area with Nick Downie from Save the Children. After my uncle retired from military service, he went into business for himself and has become somewhat of a successful man in the private sector. Less than 24 hours after this very inquisitive phone call, I find out that he, his youngest son, and his daughter-in-law have organized a self-funded family aid operation of their own. This aid operation blows what I’ve been doing right out of the water.

Whereas, I bought 70 blankets to give away for about $200 USD – my uncle and his family has bought two-thousand blankets for over 500,000 taka. That is over $7,000 USD in blankets. Given the fact that these are “family-sized” blankets (where more than one person will be sharing this blanket – sometimes a whole family of four) – this means that anywhere from two to eight thousand people will be sleeping warmly this winter. In addition, my uncle’s daughter-in-law (do I say cousin-in-law or just cousin?) will be giving out cold hard cash on-site so people in the disaster area can cover any emergency expenses they have. Approximately 10,000 taka (over $140 USD) in cash will be given out in the disaster area.

Now, here’s the crazy part: I am going with them to help distribute all this! I leave tomorrow. I’m leaving my computer behind because a lot of the journey will be via speedboat down rivers. I hope to come back after three days and hopefully will have lots of photos and videos to share.

Once more unto the breach.

Google Blocked? An Update.

There is a good reason I have a link to the blog called “The Third World View“. The author of that blog (Rezwan) is one of the hardest working bloggers I know. When it comes to issues about Bangladesh the guy never seems to sleep. And, when it comes to his investigative journalism, he often puts the mainstream media to shame. In fact, his recent investigation has lifted a weight off my chest.

About a week ago, I broke the story that Bangladesh was blocking access to Google and its related web services (like GMail, Blogspot, Blogger, and so on). This ended up becoming the most linked to story I have ever written in my life. But many local Bangladeshis decided to take a “if it’s not true for me – it must be false” approach and contradicted my report both on this site and elsewhere. When access to Google was restored a day or so later – I apologized for being so alarmist and wrote the whole problem off as a technical glitch.

While I was busy apologizing, Rezwan was busy fact-checking my story. First, he was able to get independent confirmation of Google being blocked from other Bangladeshi internet users during the same time. Second, he was also able to verify that this problem existed on even more ISPs than I had originally reported. Finally, he was also able to get independent confirmation that access to some Google services were restored with tools like OpenDNS (which bypass Bangladesh DNS servers) and TOR (which bypasses censorship and filtering).

But what really shows off Rezwan’s investigative acumen is his analysis of why there were conflicting reports about Google being blocked in Bangladesh and why this might in fact have been intentional censorship instead of a technical glitch.

A summary of his analysis after the jump….. Continue reading ‘Google Blocked? An Update.’