While studying art in school, I came across the term that I found intriguing: juxtaposition, which is the placing together of two seemingly different ‘things’ that contrast each other. Having grown up in several countries, I wrestled with how to make sense of my varied experiences. These ‘things’ often contrasted each other, yet together they contributed to who I am. As we experience more of Bangladesh, we are beginning to see more contrasts, yet these juxtapositions are enabling us learn more about this fascinating country.
April was a great month for enjoying the richness of the Bangladeshi culture because we got to celebrate Nôbobôrsho (Bengali New Year). In the weeks prior to the celebration, our language school invited us to learn a song by Rabindranath Tagore, the Noble Prize winning Bengali poet, to commemorate the occasion. We were also able to learn a traditional dance which we performed for our school and work’s New Year celebrations.
On the actual holiday, we had the opportunity to go see the festivities happening in the city. Despite the overwhelming crowds, we were able to get a good view of the parade from the top of a wall adjacent to the road. We then walked around for a few hours enjoying the different activities, exhibitions and food. As the heat started to take its toll on us, we began to look for a rickshaw to take us home; this was when we noticed people with severe disabilities lying helplessly in the middle of the roads amongst the throngs of people, begging for money. What a contrast. Unfortunately, seeing beggars in Bangladesh is not a startling sight, but in that moment I was caught off guard.
For five or six days a week, we commute across the city. As with most metropolitan cities, there are numerous advertisements that line the streets. One of these billboards promotes tourism in Bangladesh, referring it to the land of green fields; the green in the Bangladesh flag also symbolizes the lushness of the fertile land. Lush, green fields are such an integral part to Bangladesh, but here in Dhaka it is hard to imagine as I am surrounded by endless concrete and some of the world’s most polluted air.
On our typical commute, we pass by parliament. Just at the edge of this area is a junction where we have to wait for traffic to slow down before we can pass. This spot is a convenient place for beggars to come onto the road and ask for money. Here we frequently see a young lady called Fathima. Fathima’s legs are badly deformed, and as a result she maneuvers through the vehicles with her hands on the ground. Here, at one of the most beautiful spots in Dhaka, are some of its most destitute residents.
As one who has been educated in development theories, I knew that in coming to Bangladesh I would wrestle with how to respond to the poverty we encounter. Generally speaking, over the past 60 years, the model for development has and is shifting from being charity based to a more local and sustainable market driven model. In development, best practice tends to lean away from ‘handouts’ and looks for means through which the poor can be integrated into the economy and benefit from it. A lot of emphasis is placed on incentivizing people so that they ‘own’ their participation and any assets they may need so that they do not become dependent on outside help in the long term. This shift in development thinking has come from a long history of trial and error, and the realization that one can actually make those we want to help worse off if our intervention is shortsighted.
There are numerous dimensions and stages of poverty, and for each stage, there is a different approach for those that want to help. Those that work in development tend to work with those that are closer to the poverty line, and those in relief work with the extreme poor and destitute. The challenge is to move people up the economic ladder in a sustainable manner. Prolonged poverty is also detrimental to one’s identity; therefore “Restoring identity and recovering vocation must be at the focus of a biblical understanding of human transformation.” (Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor, 115).
Two weeks ago I had the privilege of participating as a coach in a training camp for rural entrepreneurs. OPEN Accelerator is a program that specifically targets small to medium enterprises (SMEs) that have the potential to scale their impact in rural communities. As with most business ‘accelerator’ programs, this initiative does not directly work with the poor but rather supports SMEs in rural areas that have the means of sustainably providing employment for the poor and providing market access to a deprived market segment.
From a development practitioner standpoint, I know that participating in programs like OPEN Accelerator is a best practice route. Well-designed programs like this can be scalable and have measurable positive impact for a large sector of the poor. Still, how is one supposed to respond when constantly confronted by beggars, who could be deploying their effort ‘productively’? How is one supposed to respond to beggars like Fathima, who risks her life as she drags her body across a busy intersection in Dhaka with the hopes that she can get a few taka (pennies)?
In these situations, I am reminded of the teachings of Jesus when he says “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42). In a famous parable Jesus taught, he used the illustration of a shepherd leaving his ninety-nine sheep in order to find and help his one lost sheep. The combination of these two teachings place a lot of emphasis on the worth of an individual, and it highlights the importance of helping all those that cross our path.
Every day we all face juxtapositions in our life, yet together they help provide a holistic understanding of the world we live in. Being in a new country, these contrasts have been brought to our forefront and it has caused us to deeply reflect on our actions in our work and with those we meet at the most unexpected times. Back in February, after seeing my first beggar in Dhaka as we drove from the airport, I wrote “to ignore them denies their identity,as being created in the image of God”. Although I do not work with people like Fathima as part of my job in market development, there is still a personal responsibility for us all to help those we encounter in need. These can be simple actions, and although one may not be able to justify their ‘intervention’ with a ‘log frame analysis’ or rigorous ‘monitoring and evaluating’, these actions must be done in love.
PLEASE BE PRAYING THAT:
1. We continue to see all those we encounter as being created in the image of God
2. We transition well as we end our time in Dhaka and move north to Mymensingh in June
3. We continue to transition well out of full-time language study and into our roles with MCC
Nishant (and Erin)
PHOTOS:Check out the full album at: April 2014
Check out more photos from the OPEN Accelerator training camp for rural entrepreneurs at: OPEN Accelerator
There are numerous modes of transportation in Bangladesh and each one provides a unique experience.
The above video is a short clip on a cycle rickshaw.
The above video is a short clip in an auto rickshaw (locally called ‘CNG’ for being powered by ‘Compressed Natural Gas’).
The above video is a short clip from inside a car navigating the roads of Dhaka.