Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dhaka Life: Ride of the Tiger

On Friday 25 March, a group of men will start a four-day bike journey from the Italian Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh towards Kolkata, India.

As it turns out, I am one of those men. It is an adventure with a catchy name, the Ride of the Tiger for a local Bangladeshi NGO, and too great to miss out on considering that I got a bicycle for Christmas and brought it back to Dhaka only last month. Its only a 350km ride on the flat of Bangladesh-West Bengal, and so the biggest worry is the traffic.

We've started doing training rides (to get used to the traffic more than anything else), though it doesn't help that I'm used to riding a scooter and so disposed to making traffic manoeuvres whilst forgetting that I'm on a motorless bicycle.

So far, the main lesson is that people are going to shout/scream all kinds of nonsense as we ride past, and not to take much notice. Instead, I will fly a banner from the back of my bicycle that simply says: I am fine.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Planning a Wedding: Bride Wars 2 (part III)

Now its getting serious. Prince William (and the rest of the British nation) is a couple of months away from the Royal Wedding, whereas I've got a whole 158 days left, and counting... So as the invitations get sent out (once they're back from the printers), the wedding suits bought, our personal battle moves ever closer to its inevitable pinnacle. Before it was a scuffle over minor issues, whereas now it is descending into the true British fundamentals of politics and class. After 10 rounds the scores stand at Us:6 1/2 Them: 3 1/2.

Round 11: Comic Book Heroes
Both Wills and Kate have had comic books drawn about their lives leading up to the wedding. Apparently there are no sex scenes and the whole Diana episode is dealt with tastefully. So I won't be buying it. However, this is pretty cool even if the motivation is somewhat commercial (it is timed to be published at the same time as the wedding to cash in on the interest). On the other hand we're struggling to get all of our guests to even write an RSVP to the wedding, never mind document our romance story in pictures. Point to them.

Us:6 1/2 Them: 4 1/2

Round 12: Political Unrest
Both British Airways and London Underground staff have threatened to go on strike on the Royal Wedding day in another poke-with-a-stick-through-a-vintage-car-window gesture at the Royal Family. To make a funny comment about how Kate and Wills probably don't give a shit about the strike as they would never fly on a commercial airliner or use public transport is not fair, as Kate's mum was once middle-class enough to work as an air hostess. However, this stands to affect every single person who wants to be at the Royal wedding and doesn't live in London. My bride-to-be's mother is a union rep in France, and so we have the workers on our side scoring us a point back.

Us:7 1/2 Them: 4 1/2

Round 13: Profiting Parents
The British people are not concerned about cuts to government spending, failing multiculturalism or democracy in the Arab World. No! It is whether Kate Middleton's previously middle class, social climbing, nouveau riche family who dare to get their daughter to marry into the royal family are going to profit from the wedding. And they are! The comic was cool, but making your own line of themed wedding party memorabilia is not. The one thing we respect about the royal family is that they are paid by the UK tax payer to do nothing, and the Middleton's continue to fail to understand this (by being paid for doing something). I can safe say on the other hand that my parents and I will make a clear financial loss after my wedding.

Us:8 1/2 Them: 4 1/2

Round 14: Constitutional Reform
As if striking transport unions and re-opening class wounds wasn't, the Royal Wedding is now expected to directly influence the upcoming electoral reform referendum in the UK. The "yes" campaign (to the Alternative Vote) are attaching themselves to the wedding as "around the wedding it will be a coming-into-summer, more optimistic, more of a yes mood". I'm not a politician, but it seems a little flimsy to leave my campaign resting only on that strategy (and I will vote "no" in the referendum just to piss off the Lib Dems). Still, the only legislative change my wedding could give rise to is France choosing to prohibit the marriage of French people to English people.

Us:8 1/2 Them: 5 1/2

Round 15: Wedding Suits
William is going to get married in his RAF uniform. I can't compete with that, as everyone loves a man in uniform. Not even with my Calvin Klein wedding suit.

Us:8 1/2 Them: 6 1/2

So we're still winning, even as Wills and Kate force home their superior social and political status. Is there enough time for another battle?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Development as Distraction: Aidworker Valentines

Whoever said that being an International Aidworker kills romance wasn't wrong:

Him: I've been invited to join the first day of an EC monitoring visit which is on the 14th Feb in Islamabad, so I can change my return ticket to Dhaka and come back via BKK and see you!

Her: Perfect, so we can spend Valentines day together.

Him: Well no, the monitoring visit is all day and the flight leaves Islamabad at 23:00. You'd see me on the 15th though and the 16th is a national holiday in Bangladesh.

Her: Errrrrrrrr ok, but wait as my Thai visa expires on the 15th, so I can't be there. Unless I can get my Indonesian visa approved in 24 hours so that I can join the workshop in Jakarta so that the Thai visa gets renewed.

Him: That would be perfect, but no pressure.

Her: I queued all day and got the Indonesian visa, so I'll see you on the 15th. But I'm not sure if I can take 2 days off because there is too much work with the new job.

Him: Don't worry, I can visit my regional office and say hi to some colleagues. And go shopping and eat junk food.

Her: Great. Oh crap, they've processed my Myanmar visa a lot quicker than expected, so now I'll be in Rangoon that week.

Him: I can't make it earlier for that weekend because I need to be in Islamabad for the EC visit. Otherwise I'd have to travel straight back to Dhaka.

Her: Oh well, next year?

Him: Inch'allah.

Aidworker love. Apart...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pause and Rewind: Finding my voice, but for how much longer?

I'm stuck in a guesthouse in Islamabad and so reading back through some blogs to avoid work emails on a Saturday morning. I came across one that summarises perfectly one of my principal motivations as an aid worker and blogger:
If there is a common thread running through our understanding of effective aid, it is the need to experiment, learn, and adapt. This means admitting to -- rather than hiding -- things that don't work, so that we can learn from them. 
In a previous post, I had already confessed to my self-censorship:  It would be unprofessional for me to do so, as any criticisms could be misinterpreted by the staff with whom I work, partners that implement the projects I am supporting, and organisation that I am contracted to. This isn't to say that development organisations are alone in wanting to be careful in selecting hiding the results and lessons learnt that they share, but neither is it something that I feel comfortable engendering that situation.

One way to get around this is the anonymity which a lot of aid bloggers employ, and which I do too though not very successfully . Having been spotted by the regional comms of my organisation, I was asked to blog for during the 2010 Pakistan Flood Recovery. But I never got posted as they watered down the post that I wrote as it was still felt to be too open to a critical interpretation of our implementing partners. A clear demonstration that I'm not able to control my message.

So I'm stuck: I want to be open critical (constructive), but I don't want to be openly critical (negative) as I see it as breaking ranks with the local staff. I also don't want to give ammunition to the people who look for disillusioned aid workers as justification that the whole international development industry is corrupted.

But anyway, my next country is Rangoon, and I've got my date: on the 5th April I'll finish my current contract in Bangladesh and take a plane to Myanmar to join my fiancĂ©e who has started a new job there for an INGO. Considering that the country has been listed as the worst place to be a blogger in the world, internet access is very restricted if not cut altogether cut, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of blogs coming out of there. At least it solves my dilemma as I fear I won't be doing any blogging at all. False anonymity there won't be enough.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Development as Distraction: Humanitarian Sporting Analogies

Sportsmen and women can be relied upon to provide generic quotes, which often don’t make any sense (I’ll give 110%; it was over early doors etc.) and there is no doubt that sport has the ability to move a nation. Just look at the disbelief and grief that washes over England every four years as they fail to get anywhere in the Football World Cup.

However, Imran Khan’s latest offering that compares the recent cricket betting scandal with the 2010 Floods seems to have taken the sporting quote a little too far:
"It was great humiliation for the people of Pakistan as the kind of ignominy it brought made people more demoralised than the floods in the country," 
Seriously, do you really think that the people of Pakistan were more demoralised at the story of 3 cricketers accepting money for an act of corruption that cannot even be properly described as cheating (bowling the no-balls had no effect on the outcome of the Test), than they were by the worst flooding in their country’s history, which directly affected 20 million people many of whom are still in refugee camps, and a large number of which are facing the onset of a food security crisis. I work with kids, and I don’t think that the 10 million children that were affected (and certainly the 2.5m under 5) are even aware of the cricketing scandal. But they were very aware of the floods.

Great player that represented a nation, crap politician that talks nonsense

So I don’t think so Mr Khan. You could swing the ball, but you can't spin a story. Hopefully, this isn’t a new precedent of using humanitarian crises as analogies summarising tepid sporting emotions.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Development as Distraction: Speaking NGOish

I previously wrote on how the NGO sector likes to professionalise itself through the creation of its own language,  and in particular with the over-use of acronyms. In an article in the Economist, this has now been developed further with a list of our favourite words:
Top of the list are “empowerment”, “capacity-building” and “stakeholder” (not someone actually carrying a stake). “Governance”, “civil society”, “facilitators” and “disadvantaged” follow fast behind. British NGOs have a fondness for “focal groups”. Americans like anything that leads to “inclusion”, especially of the “excluded”.
As the article pointed out that "NGO-speak is particularly cherished and fostered in the grant applications", I put this to the test with a tag crowd of the previous five funding concept notes that I have submitted (2 on child marriage, 1 on farming, 1 on vocational training and 1 on Early Childhood Care and Development):

created at
I don't seem to be very guilty with the usual culprits, and am pleased to see "child", "rights", "women" and "girls" coming out. "Community" I'm not so sure about, as it is used to describe a group of people who you want to engage with but don't really know, pretty much "nice and woolly, hard to define and harder still to contradict."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Development as Distraction: Paying for the Pope

On the 3rd of June last year, the British Development Secretary said in his first speech that a fundamental change of direction was needed in Britain's approach to development aid, and that results and outcomes were the new focus, not merely inputs. Nothing overly controversial there really, nor with the commitment to create the first ever independent aid watchdog, which would create:
"people around the world who can see where aid money is supposed to be going – and shout if it doesn’t get there.” 
So lets all shout.

It was revealed yesterday that the Department for International Development (DfID) spent £1.85m ($3m) on the Pope's September 2010 state visit to the UK. Very quickly DfID has justified the spending as having come out of its admin budget, and therefore not having affected the money it spends overseas, but then put its foot in its mouth by further justifying:
"Our contribution recognised the Catholic Church's role as a major provider of health and education services in developing countries."
Lets shout some more.

The Catholic Church's Sexual Reproductive Health approach in 2005 stated a great concern "that the fabric of African life, its very source of hope and stability... is threatened by a contraception mentality." In 2009 his Holiness added to this by saying that using condoms may actually lead to an increase in the prevalence of HIV/AIDS:
"a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem."
In 2010 following his trip to the UK, the Pope then added that condoms are:
"not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection." The "sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalisation of sexuality" where sexuality is no longer an expression of love, "but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves".
Seriously? So following the trip to the UK the Pope decided to associate condom use with drug addiction.

So let me shout myself: this is an awful outcome of DfIDs $3m spent on his trip.

The Catholic church's approach only serves to undermine the achievement of MDG 6 by 2015 (to which DfID is committed), and place more people at risk throughout the world (not only in developing countries). It's simply embarrassing that the International Development Department of my own country even tried to justify itself in carrying out this funding, and revealing of the politicisation of the aid budget (now both admin and overseas) which is taking place under the coalition government.