As an American student in Bangladesh I have learned that there is one question I will inevitably face in every interaction. Wedged somewhere between the handshake and friendly smiles slips the question, “What brings you here?” It’s something I have been asked by customs agents, taxi drivers, chai wallahs, school teachers, businessmen, village leaders, and even friends. In Bangladesh this is a completely justified question. With virtually no tourism industry and monsoon season fast approaching, many wonder why someone would come to their country to tromp around isolated villages for days at a time. Thus far, the simplicity of my response has never failed to solicit a smile. “I have come to learn from you,” I tell them.
A more complete response is starts eight months prior as I read Nicholas Kristof’s column titled “More Schools, Not Troops.” In his column, Kristof compares the different developmental paths of Bangladesh and Pakistan in the 30 years since their partition in 1971. Pakistan, choosing to spend its aid dollars on military spending has come to face a militarized and divided society. In contrast, Bangladesh has chosen to focus on educational and societal development, which Kristof argues, has led to a healthier, better educated, and less radicalized society. He went on to attribute this progress, in part, to an NGO called BRAC for their education and development initiatives. As an international relations and economics major, learning how development organizations such as BRAC can provide more effective solutions to pervasive transnational issues is nothing short of an academic dream. Eight months later I find myself living this dream thanks to the support of BRAC and a research grant from the John Parke Young Fund.
With over 120,000 employees in 16 countries BRAC is the largest NGO in the world. The pure innovation and scale of BRAC’s many programs is astounding making it one of the leaders in the international development community. While all of BRAC’s programmes are innovative in some way, one initiative clearly stood out, BRAC’s “Targeting the Ultra-poor Program” (TUP).
Focusing on the poorest 10% of Bangladesh’s population, the TUP program works to remove the poor from “ultra-poverty” within two years. This is quite a feat considering that 62% of ultra-poor can’t even meet their dietary needs upon entering the program. Naturally, the program provides the poor with an array of economic support in the form of “transfers,” such as cows, chickens, or seed. However, more interesting (and less understood) are the social “transfers,” or social capital, that the program tries to create between the ultra-poor and the rest of their community. Specifically, the TUP program calls on village leaders to support the “ultra-poor” both economically and socially through village assistance committees called GDBC’s.
This focus on utilizing village leaders has become increasingly prevalent in other development organizations as well; perhaps the most notable of which is Greg Mortenson’s NGO, the Central Asia Institute. Working to construct schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan for over 17 years, Mortenson has come to amass experience with village level organizing, making him an influential figure within the development community. In his books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, Mortenson clearly describes the process he goes through before a school can be built. Interestingly enough, he claims the first, and perhaps most important step, is obtaining the blessing and support (both socially and materially) of all a village’s leaders, without it he refuses to construct even an outhouse. Other development initiatives, such as the Afghan Government’s “National Solidarity Program” (one of the most successful development programs in Afghanistan today), also depends on support and cooperation of village elite to support the governments reconstruction efforts.
With many organizations adopting a similar approach of relying on village elite, I felt that I was on to something. However, what is perhaps the most striking about this strategy is not who uses it as a tool, but who doesn’t. In researching development programs a clear division in strategy quickly became apparent. Development organizations that originate in the developing world, run by individuals from the developing world seemed to universally embrace the importance of social capital and involvement of community elite. In comparison, organizations that are run from developed countries seem to completely disregard, or at a minimum, undervalue the importance of social capital. Instead these organizations opt to focus primarily on material and economic resources or “transfers.”
It is at this stage that my interest was burgeoning—why is it that organizations in the developing world see elite as a valuable tool, while “Western” development organizations seem to completely disregard elite? I had to find out. With encouragement and support from my professors (and friends at Jolkona) I applied and was accepted to intern with BRAC’s TUP program.
THEREFORE, WHAT AM I DOING IN BANGLADESH?
“I have come to learn from you,” I tell people here. They may not know it, but these village leaders and NGO field staff posses a unique understanding that many well-regarded western development organizations fail to grasp. I am here to learn from them, about them, and why it is they feel community elite are so important to their development.
“Why are you smiling?” I once asked a man in return.
“Because for the first time someone has come, not to tell us information, not to observe us, but to learn from us…God has brought you to learn from us, now let me tell you what I know.”