Snapshots of Bangladesh: inequality on wheels, evil prawns, resilient garments, acid attacks and dodgy infrastructure

August 25, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

Just spent a week on a ‘busman’s holiday’ (where the distinction between work and leisure gets very blurred), visiting Bangladesh with younger son Finlay (17). A few headlines, and then tomorrow, something more substantial on climate change.

Prawns, raised in paddy fields for export, have long had a bad press in Bangladesh, and no wonder. Prawns need salt water, rice needs fresh; the battle over who controls the water regime pits powerful exporters against small farmers, and in many cases the prawns win. Prawn farming has led to the creeping salinisation of the soil, and the road down from Dhaka runs a dismal spectrum from the lush green paddy and jute fields up country to the barren, salty expanses of the coast. Prawns have also undermined the embankment system, increasing the risk of prawn sculpturefloods – more on that tomorrow.

But surprisingly, activists in the prawn town of Khulna (there’s even a giant prawn sculpture on one of the main crossroads, see pic) oppose any kind of boycott by consumers. Despite the salinity and the handful of jobs it creates, they argue that the country needs the export income, and if properly taxed and regulated, prawn production could be a force for good.

Infrastructure: the roads are great, and the mobile (cellphone) reception was five bars, even standing in floodwater in the middle of the cyclone-devastated coastal area. But the electricity cuts out every few hours dhaka traffic(conversations don’t miss a beat – people are so used to it), and Dhaka must be a candidate for some kind of global awful-traffic prize (see pic, the guy in the foreground is my rickshaw driver).

Garments: Bangladesh has been transformed by the globalization of the garment industry, which now employs about 2.4m people, 85% of them women, earning $11bn a year in exports. While the global recession has hit garment exports in more up-market producers, Bangladesh’ exports are still rising, albeit at a slower rate of growth. Why? Because it produces the cheap stuff that people buy, even in a recession. In fact, by driving higher cost competitors out of business, the recession could leave Bangladesh in a stronger position to cash in on the upswing. The downside is that margins are getting squeezed as buyers drive down prices, and the pressures on garment workers (already intense) are growing.

Acid Attacks: Our hotel in Khulna was host to some deafening kids’ parties, which largely drowned out our efforts to talk to local NGOs about climate change. But all the mothers (there were no fathers) had terrible skin lacerations – they were a survivors’ group for women who had suffered acid attacks. This particularly barbaric form of gender violence is meted out to women by men for a range of ‘crimes’ including conflicts over dowry and land, alleged infidelity, or simply rejected advances.

Inequality: Dhaka’s traffic provides an in-your-face demonstration of Dhaka rikshaw inequalityinequality. Take the rickshaws (as I did) – stick-limbed men sweating their way through the traffic transporting a stern faced, pot bellied businessman (sometimes more than one), often with a mobile glued to his ear (see truly terrible pic – I really should stick to the written word). And the rickshaw wallah must wend his way through the SUVs of the even better off.

And the prize for the question that left me gasping like a beached fish? ‘What is your opinion of dialectical materialism?’ (from an unnamed Oxfam staffer)

August 25, 2009
Duncan Green