Archive for the 'Notre Dame' Category

My Bengal Bouts Journey

Gold Corner Victory

Today, on campus at Notre Dame, is the start of the 78th annual Bengal Bouts tournament. Even though I’m thousands of miles away from the ring, I’m as close to the action as you can get.

The Bengal Bouts are a series of charity boxing matches where the proceeds from those matches come right here to Bangladesh. Ever since I’ve landed in Bangladesh, nine months ago, I’ve been trying to find out where that money goes. It’s been a long journey – literally and figuratively, I feel like I’ve gone through hell and high water to get to this point. Floods, riots, curfews, Cyclone Sidr, food poisoning, hospitalization of a family member, dealing with corrupt officials, dealing with a water crisis – jeez, it feels like the list never ends. Each time some new problem came up, my Bengal Bouts journey took a back seat.

I guess it’s just sheer luck that, when I was finally able to embark upon my journey to see where some of the Bengal Bouts money is being spent, it happened to coincide with the beginning of this school year’s tournament. My trip to Jalchatra (where I got to meet the tribal people known as The Garo) is but one of seven locations in this country that receive funding from the Bengal Bouts. It really seems like Bengal Bouts money goes to every corner of this country. I’d love to track it all and show what happens at each of the seven locations. Unfortunately, my outside-of-Dhaka travel resources are fairly limited (especially since I carry around all this camera and computer equipment wherever I go). For now, it’s my hope the few days I spent in Jalchatra can help shed a light for my friends back home about the good they are doing in this country.

It’s a good feeling to know that, while I am here trying to fight poverty on the ground, there are 185 of my fellow Irishmen back at Notre Dame fighting alongside with me. Fortunately, for me, my way doesn’t involve that many bruises.

One Difference at a Time – The Follow-Up

Before (read my original article here):

PermaNet (Mosquito Net) Given to a Single Mother of Two

Five Months Later:

Five Months Later...

What’s Different?

  • Clothes – no more walking around shiverring and shirtless! (clothes provided by my aunt)
  • Schooling – the eldest son just graduated from Grade One! (school costs paid for by my mom, dad, and I)
  • No more insects and insect-bites! The PermaNet  I donated to them got rid of the cockroaches that used to crawl around their bed at night. It’s also protected them from being feasted upon by mosquitoes while they slept. (PermaNet donated to this project courtesy of Vestergaard Frandsen – they rock)
  • Can Study in the Dark – that windup flashlight I gave them still works and the eldest son uses it to study. My dad was worried that a five dollar camping flashlight from Wal-Mart wouldn’t be useful as long-term light source in the third world. Five months on, it’s still going on strong. LEDs and hand-cranked rechargable batteries rule!
  • Hungry no more! Malnutrition is a big problem here. And, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t eating meals. Rather, it means that people aren’t eating a lot of the proper stuff – because they can’t afford it. Protein and iron deficieines are all too common here. I found out that most of the poorer locals can’t afford beef or other foods high in protein. There are apparently two kinds of salt sold here. The “poor mans” salt is basically old and low in iron. The good stuff – the kind most reading this have on their dinner tables – is high in iron. Not only did we give them money for food but also, whenever my grandmother is in town, she invites them over for a meal full of all the stuff they normally can’t afford like beef and the “good” kind of salt. I was able to share such a meal with them earlier today.

Here’s a photo I took shortly after eating along with them:

One Difference at a Time - The Follow-Up

One of the things I remember Dr. Jeffrey Sachs talking about was how the poor know what they need but just cannot afford to buy it. Now that I knew the basics (protection from insect bites, funds for school, helping with food, etc) were taken care of – I could finally ask them: what do they need? I could tell no one ever asked the mother this question because it kind of took her aback. After some hesitation, the mother turned to the eldest son and quietly talked to him for a bit. She then turned to me and said it would really help if I could buy them a desk and a couple of chairs. They can’t afford it and, because of it, the son needs to study on the bed (as you can see in episode one).

Since Ikea hasn’t opened up a shop yet in rural Bangladesh, I was kind of worried that this would cost a bit of money. Afterall, all the furniture here is hand-made. And when was the last time anything hand-made was cheap, right? I went to the local bazar with my grandmother and we scouted out a couple of good hand-made chairs and a hand-made table to go along with it – not unlike the table and chair I’m using right now. Turns out the whole thing cost eight bucks. Eight bucks. Wow. Let me put it this way: There is a vending machine on the ground floor of the Hesburgh Library back at Notre Dame that has stolen more than eight bucks from me.

If I was looking for a pat on the back about my work – I’d end this article here. But, no good deed goes unpunished and nothing good comes without trouble. So click the jump to hear more…

Continue reading ‘One Difference at a Time – The Follow-Up’

New Episode: Super Tuesday

What does Bangladesh have to do with Super Tuesday? Just some friendly (non-partisan) words of advice:


I’d write more but, much of what I said I have already written up earlier when I was giving my take on the Davos Question.

My Take on the Davos Question

What do I think will make the world a better place? Well, that’s what this whole project is about. I don’t have a 100% set-in-stone answer, but I’m trying to share as much of my journey finding that answer. One thing is certain, the more I let Dr. Jeffrey Sachs’s message sink in – the more I believe it to be true.

Jeffrey Sachs and Me at the Notre Dame 2006 Forum on Global Health

What will make the world a better place? Ending extreme global poverty.

Why? Because:

1) Ending extreme poverty will keep us all healthier. Global pandemics incubate among the global poor before migrating to richer nations.

Don’t believe me? Well, as Dr. Sachs pointed out, recent studies into the origin of the AIDS virus suggests that it originated in Africa – years and years before it first appeared in America. But, no one cared. Why? Because Africans die – that’s seen as “normal” in this world as Dr. Sachs points out.

2) Ending poverty will help us fight terrorism. Terrorists recruit from the desperate and offer them a fictitious reward for sacrifices the leaders are too cowardly to make themselves.

When I went to the Cyclone Sidr Disaster Area, there was one thing I noticed most – everyone was in shock and everyone was vulnerable. Many had lost loved ones and were struggling to find the strength to carry on. They could be very vulnerable to a message from a radical extremist promising a better life if they just sacrifice themselves to a terrorist cause. Thankfully, Bangladesh isn’t as prone to Islamic Extremism as elsewhere in the world. But, as long as this extreme poverty (and with it extreme desperation) continue – terrorists will always have an easy recruiting base.

3) Ending poverty is critical to maintaining our personal identity as good natured human beings.

I decided to start this project because I couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror anymore. As I point out in my about page, everyday, 30,000 children die due to poverty and illnesses that can be easily treated. Am I doing enough? Over half the world – over 3,000,000,000 people – live on less than $2 a day. Am I doing enough? Each year, over 8,000,000 people die because they were simply too poor to stay alive. Am I doing enough? Before this project, all I was doing were just a few paltry donation here and there – usually around Christmas time.

I kind of envied others for not having these thoughts when they saw themselves in the mirror. I think a lot of us don’t think about these issues because we kind of assumed that the problem is so immense and so huge – it can’t possibly be solved and we are too small and insignificant to be a part of the movement towards that goal. But look at me – I’m running on small family donations and my 2006 tax return. It’s not a lot of money – but look how much I’ve been able to do! I’m just one person – currently unemployed. Imagine what we could all do if we tried?

Okay, so how this sounds all high and noble – but how do we get to that goal? It’s simple – we complete the eight Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations and agreed upon by almost every country in the world. We’ve been laxing on our commitments to fund these development goals – but we always seem to find money for other things.

PermaNet (Mosquito Net) Given to a Single Mother of Two

Why is this approach the best?

1) It can appeal to those who are either politically left or right leaning.

What if there was this terrorist cell working in Africa trying to develop a pathogen that would kill many Africans before spreading to Europe and America? It wouldn’t take much effort to get people on both the left and the right to unify and authorize millions and millions of dollars in spending to stop this from happening.

Why then, does the consensus break down when the threat is the same but the situation causing it is a little less dramatic? Because of the poor state of health in Africa, disease festers, mutates, and grows. Nature will create this pandemic on its own if we continue to neglect things – the only thing terrorists need to do is sit back and wait.

Supporting the MDGs isn’t a slippery slope to “one-world government”, global taxation, or the lessening of national sovereignty. It’s a logical, non-partisan, self-interest based course of action.

2) It is not a move towards socialism or communism, nor is it a refutation of market economies.

“Are we trying to prove a theory, or are we trying to save lives?” asked Dr. Sachs in regards to laissez-faire economics. Even if you believe that market economics will eventually benefit everyone – a lot of people can die before that benefit reaches them. The MDGs isn’t akin to starting a Soviet Russian-style command economy. This doesn’t involve telling people what to produce or how to work. Rather, it’s about opening up possibilities. Someone who isn’t fighting off deadly disease can focus on work and building a life. Someone who knows how to read and write has more job options than someone who is illiterate. Those who aren’t starving can aspire to earn a living that is more than just subsistence.

If people can earn a living – they’ll eventually want to live it up.

3) It doesn’t require drastic change or expenditure.

The amount of money required by any individual nation to contribute towards completing the MDGs is in the single digit percentages. In fact, as Dr. Sachs points out, if we stopped Pentagon funding for just ONE DAY – every man, woman, and child in Africa could be protected from Malaria for the next twenty year. Many Americans consider America to be a Christian nation. What if, every Christmas Day, the money that would normally be directed towards military expenditures gets redirected towards projects that reflect the spirit of Jesus and the message of the Bible?

I didn’t have time to make a separate video for the Davos Question on YouTube. But if you want the world leaders to be able to see Episode One of the Uncultured Project (which includes clips of ND 2006 Forum – used with permission) here’s how you can help make that happen. Go to this page and click on “view/vote”. Then there is a search for videos section. Search for unculturedproject – there is no space between “uncultured” and “project”. Episode one should appear – click it, and give it a thumbs up. Voting ends pretty soon actually – so don’t worry if you’ve read this after it’s too late to vote.

YouTube and Davos – Trying to Do Good Amid the Noise

In one of the last courses I took before I left Notre Dame to start this project, I had a professor who was highly critical of the World Economic Forum.

What’s the World Economic Forum? It’s an event that happens once a year in Davos, Switzerland. World leaders, economic leaders, and prominent citizens get together to discuss the future of the world. According to this professor, the World Economic Forum was not only something to be seriously critiqued – it should be boycotted. Many people share this professor’s view and, as a counter to the World Economic Forum, have formed something called the World Social Forum. Why all the criticism of the World Economic Forum? The argument is that the World Economic Forum is too elitist, with not enough grass-roots input, and too undemocratic.

Well in 2008, thanks to YouTube, that all changed.

This year, anyone with a message to world leaders could make a video and put it on YouTube. These videos would then be rated, judged, and evaluated by other YouTube users. Anyone with an account on YouTube can go to the channel called “The Davos Question” and view and vote on which videos should be seen by the World Economic Forum members. The Davos Question was a question put forward by the World Economic Forum asking us – what do we think needs to be done by corporations, individuals, and governments to make the world a better place? The videos with the highest ratings would then be screened in the World Economic Forum. Bono, Bush, and Blair – they would all see what you had to say. All of a sudden, ordinary joes with good ideas got a voice at one of the world’s highest forums. Fancy that.

Okay…. so it’s not that simple….

The biggest problem with getting a message across – no matter how good – is dealing with haters (or “haterz”). Haters are a problem for people who get popular on YouTube. Fortunately, I haven’t run into that problem – which probably speaks to how much I am an unknown on YouTube. But, for many people trying to put good ideas forward in order to answer the The Davos Question, a lot of them are being picked apart by haters. One of my favorite videos to the Davos Question was done by a high school teacher (and fellow Canadian) by the name of Greg. He calls for greater consideration towards the global poor. As you can see in his video, he’s articulate and he makes a passionate plea.

But, after his video got popular, what do the haters have to say?

Find out after the jump.

Continue reading ‘YouTube and Davos – Trying to Do Good Amid the Noise’

Advice to New Comers to Bangladesh

Once you’ve get settled in Bangladesh, there is no shortage of resources to find information on where to go, what to see, and good places to eat. But what about advice for those just thinking about coming here? Or practical advice for the first few hours in this country?

I’ve talked about my friend Alicia before – a friend of mine from Notre Dame who decided to come to Bangladesh as part of a Fulbright scholarship she earned.

Well, what advice did I give her?

  1. The Shock Factor: If you’ve never come to a place like this before – prepare to be shocked. The sights, the smells, and people – will all seem alien at first. There isn’t really a way to prepare for this. Just don’t get worried if you find yourself in a bit of shock when you first arrive.
  2. How Safe Do You Want to Be?: If you want to fully immerse yourself in the experience, you will have to take some risks. Riding a rickshaw or CNG is quaint, but there is a chance that something bad can happen. This isn’t just an urban legend. I know friends and family that have been assaulted, robbed, and even kidnapped. The more authentic an experience (live like the locals, etc) you want – the greater the risk.
  3. You Will Get Sick: Even if you don’t drink the water, avoid suspicious ice cubes, use hand sanitizer every so often – you will get sick sooner or later. Don’t treat it like you’ve somehow failed to take enough precautions. It happens to everyone.
  4. You Can’t Buy Everything Here – Bring That Stuff With You: Hand Sanitizers, Pepto Bismol, and Spray-On Mosquito Repellent are all things I’ve never been able to buy here. My advice? Bring as much of what you think you will need to use (and a little extra) with you from home before you fly here.
  5. People will stare. Sorry: The more foreign you look – the more stares you draw. You can sometimes even draw a crowd. No insult is inteded – it’s mostly just curiosity. The exception to this rule are establishments which specifically cater to the rich and foreigners. Those places you’ll probably fit in stare-free.
  6. Don’t tough it alone at the airport: The cabbies there are highway robbers and will treat you poorly (I’m also looking for a link to a newspaper article that has more info on this). The professional beggars at the airport will harass you for foreign currencies. If you have a friend that is there to meet you and give you a ride – that makes all the difference in the world. Seriously.

So what did we do on the day we met up?

Well, the first important thing was getting her a multi-plug (aka a powerbar) that would fit her US-style three-pronged laptop adapter. I had advised Alicia to NOT bother buying adapters before she left. I had spent a lot of time going to a lot of Radio Shacks to find adapters that work in Bangladesh. Turns out I was wasting my time. In Bangladesh, its very easy to buy powerbars/multi-plugs and adpaters which have a special shape that fits all kinds of plugs. And most modern electronics (like laptop adapters) automatically convert voltage (whether its 110v or 220v). If you have time to spare – spend a day shopping here and buy those adapters here instead of wasting your money in Radio Shack.

The second thing we did was buy her a cellphone. Cellphones are much more common than landlines in Bangladesh. There are a lot of cellphone providers to choose from. I had recommended her GrameenPhone. It’s what I use to connect to the internet – and am using right now to upload this blog post. GrameenPhone has been pretty reliable – it was working despite the nationwide blackout caused by Cyclone Sidr. It also worked in rural villages where there was no power – including the Cyclone Sidr disaster area when power had yet to be restored. As I’ve said in the past – in both reliability and cost of cellphone plans and service – Bangladesh beats Canada.

It’s a bit compliated to sign up for a cellphone here. You need to bring your passport, passport photos, and you also have to give your thumbprint and have a reference contact. I acted as her local contact and had told her ahead of time of what she needed and so she came prepared. We were able to get it all setup in one go.

Friend from ND Signs up for Cellphone in Bangladesh

I tried to take a photo of all the people staring at her – but most people scattered when I tried to take a photo. I guess some don’t mind staring – but don’t like it when you stare back. Ahh well.

Friend From Notre Dame Comes to Bangladesh!

Wow – when I first came to Bangladesh, I never thought I’d be staying here for so long. I definitely never expected to be able to see any of my friends until I went back home. But, as fate would have it, one of my friends from Notre Dame is actually coming to Bangladesh. Her name is Alicia and she’s going to be studying for her Master’s in Public Health at BRAC University.

In many respects, I feel that Alicia and I have come to the same destination by the same inspiration – but on different paths. Notre Dame is a huge part of that inspiration. Before I came to Notre Dame as a graduate student, I was able to experience what it is like at other universities and colleges. What makes Notre Dame unique is that it really does inspire you to want to make the world a better place.

It was thanks to Notre Dame – and the cancellation of classes for a day as part of its Campus-Wide Forum on Global Health – that allowed Alicia and I to hear Dr. Jeffrey Sachs for the first time. It was Dr. Jeffrey Sachs who inspired us to believe that poverty can be eliminated in our lifetime. And it was Dr. Sachs’ work that instilled in us an importance on global health as a key to ending extreme poverty.

I’m going to try and encourage Alicia to try and blog (and video blog) as much of her experience as possible. But, I seriously doubt that can happen. The reason I put my academic life on hold to do this project is because it is really hard to blog and video blog when you are in demanding Masters program. This Masters of Public Health program at BRAC University (that Alicia is in) requires extensive field work in remote rural villages.

I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement for ND, but – seriously – if everyone was as committed as the people I’ve met at Notre Dame to try and make the world a better place, can you imagine how much better the world would be?