May 26, 2012 - Ryan and I have been on our first field visit in Sherpur (a region north of Dhaka) for the past five days. Rural Bangladesh is so much more tolerable than Dhaka! The people are much friendlier, the area is by far more gorgeous, and the amount of people is considerably less overwhelming.
We are staying at the local Poverty Eradication Program (PEP) office. William--the PEP founder and director--refers to this office as "The Palace" due to its tall brick stature and nice facilities. Although the building is lacking in luxuries such as air conditioning and Western toilets, Ryan and I are fairly comfortable with the accommodations. The intense heat and tendency for the electricity to go out frequently and randomly are the two hardest conditions for us to adjust to, but--then again--it seems like most of the Bangladeshis have an equally hard time adjusting to these same things!
It has been very educational and eye-opening to visit the homes of the local poor. Over the past five days, Ryan and I have already met over 30 families! PEP has helped these families in several ways. Some families have had the opportunity to buy animals and food from the program at discounted costs, others have received help purchasing materials for their businesses, and others have benefited from sending their children to the local CDC schools--which are funded by PEP. Although the families are all very different from one another, many of their stories are very much the same. Due to institutional inefficiencies and corruption, most of the families do not own property and are unsure if they will ever be able to do so. Many of the children have also dropped out of school after completing third grade in order to work. On average, these families only earn about 50-150 taka (equivalent to about US$ 0.80-$1.90) per day--an amount insufficient for sustaining a healthy livelihood.
Today, Ryan and I had the opportunity to speak with the Sherpur PEP workers about their experiences and insights into local development. When we asked them what they viewed the largest obstacles to development in Sherpur to be, they answered with the following: (1) Lack of job creation, (2) governmental failures and corruption, (3) loans from wealthy moneylenders--who tend to charge interest rates of over 100%, (4) lack of assets and collateral--used to obtain loans from banks, (5) environmental conditions such as constant flooding and cyclones, (6) large population and population density, (7) lack of property rights, and (8) lack of a social safety net. Ryan and I were quite surprised as they named off this list--it was perfectly in line with nearly everything we have learned in our development courses at C of I!
The PEP program itself also very much falls in line with what we would have called a "successful poverty alleviation program" within our development courses. The majority of the workers--currently all but one--are local Bangladeshis. As a result, the workers understand the cultural values of the poor and are able to better understand the needs and desires of those in need of aid. In addition, the aid given to the poor is all very individualized. PEP social workers take into account the skills of those involved, which type of aid would best lead to a more diversified means of income, and to what extent each means would be sustainable. For example, one local blind man was given a grant to buy 900 taka worth of bamboo for making stools, while another family was given a grant of 600 taka to purchase rubber tubing for making construction materials. Also, the program does not just provide the aid, then never speak to the families again. Instead, the social workers maintain constant communication with the families in order to ensure that the materials and/or aid is being used effectively and efficiently and to help in whatever way they can. So far, I have been impressed with this particular program!