A Primary School in Rural Bangladesh – Miniature Version of Our Broken System

Very recently, the World Bank has elevated Bangladesh to the category of lower-middle income countries. Well and good. Indeed, keeping aside increasing religious fanaticism, the progress in Bangladesh has been quite remarkable in many fronts. Among the much cited success stories are: lower child and maternal mortality compared to other poor nations, women empowerment because of the garments sector and NGO activities and, last but not the least, higher rate of primary and secondary education among children. But if we dig deeper beyond the glossy statistics, the picture that we get is not so rosy.

Last week I visited the government primary school in my ancestral village, Kadamrasulpur. The village is well-connected with Dhaka city as well as Mymensingh and the school in question is a very old one, producing majority of the notable people from the village. The teachers are proud of the quality of their students and informed me that despite such a heavy rain and bad weather for last couple of days, the school is swarming with kids.

However, if you go there, you will need to stretch your imagination to match the reality with the mental picture you might have formed from the description. The front of the school compound has most probably been encroached by the local bullies who built ugly shops there, hiding the school from the main street. Once you are on the school ground, there is an abandoned single-story building on your right, a decrepit tin building in your front and a two-roomed, relatively better-looking brick-building on your left; one of the rooms is used as the office for the teachers. You will keep wondering where exactly the classes are held.

The Only Workable School Building
The Only Workable School Building

Actually I went to that school to discuss about the possibility of doing a reading and painting projects for the kids. The teachers showed me a number of high-quality children’s books that they have recently received through a donor project. But most of those books were in English and, by default, beyond the reach of the students and even the teachers of primary schools in rural Bangladesh. I wonder who chose those books. Two smiling, young teachers told me that they read the Bangla books to the children, who like it a lot. One of them, teenager-looking, always smiling and according to the other teachers, very passionate Roma Didi, told me how badly she wanted a library for the kids so that they could sit there and read by themselves after school. They once let the children take those books home, but half of the books rented were either lost or destroyed. After all they are kids.

They took me to the bare bone tin-building, which is basically a single room with mud floor where the fifth grade and the first grade students are huddled together facing opposite directions. I learned that the first graders are usually accommodated in a room of the abandoned building. There, they simply sit on the mat because there are only forty benches for the four hundred students of the school. But because it is raining a lot this year, the floor of that decaying building is leaching; so the first graders have temporarily migrated to fifth grade.

The Tin Building
The Tin Building
The Fifth and First Grade Students Huddled Together
The Fifth and First Grade Students Huddled Together

As I peeped through a window of the abandoned building, a fetid smell overwhelmed my nostrils and the soggy floor with moldy walls made me very sad. I wondered how the first grade kids sit there even when the floor is not leaching and what exactly they learn.  The only good classroom, which the second graders were lucky to have, is in the newer building beside the teachers’ room. Third and fourth grade classes are held during the second shift because of room shortage.

The Regular First Grade Classroom Which is Leaching in Monsoon
The Regular First Grade Classroom Which is Leaching in Monsoon

However, it is not all grim. After repeated request for a very long time, finally the authority has sanctioned construction of a new school building, though the teachers don’t know when exactly the work will begin and how the illegally occupied land will be rescued. Roma didi told me very earnestly that she really wishes to have a space for a library when the new building is a reality.

I wished them best of luck and said goodbye. As I stepped out of the school, I asked when the only workable school building was built. 2003, the headmistress answered. I sighed. The building already looks double that its age, thanks to the very honest engineers and contractors who built it and the authority who is supposed to maintain it.

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Obstacles faced by the poor – The Case of Education

When I was a college student, I remember watching a movie about a homeless girl who made it to Harvard. It was a true story. It made me cry; yet I wondered if it was really so sensational that it would be a Hollywood story.  I come from one of the poorest countries in the world. I am very much familiar with the face of poverty. But back then, little did I know how it engulfs the entire life of the poor, their hopes and aspirations.

Poor people often do not have an aspiration because they know that it will only break their hearts. Yes, there is a social ladder that they could possibly climb. But the bottom rungs of that ladder are too far apart. Or maybe the poor are so stunted by malnutrition that they just can’t reach the next rung. They could strive and jump. But most probably they will fall through the gap facedown.

It is a common wisdom that education can push anyone up the ladder. I saw people expressing their annoyance about why poor people do not send their kids to school despite free education? Well, the path to success through education is not unconditional. It is full of loopholes. Schools that poorer children go to are also poor. In those schools, quality of education tends to be much worse than average. Uneducated parents stressed out with their constant battle with poverty are not much of a help. Many poor kids learn almost nothing after years of schooling.

Even if a poor kid somehow rises from the ashes and get a chance to go to a good college, where would the money come from? I read a news about a poor kid who got admission in a leading public medical college in Bangladesh. Any middle-class parent would be overjoyed by the child’s success. But the parents of that kid were concerned and sad because they did not know how they would pay for his education. Even he somehow manages to scrape by and completes his education, what is the guarantee that he would get a good job? Would he be smart enough and speak good English like his middle-class friends? Does he have the social network that is crucial for landing him a job? Who knows?

With all these ifs and buts and the opportunity cost of sending the children to school, poor parents often make the choice of sending them to work instead of school. May be they make the best possible decision for their children? May be they don’t want that their children to be educated with a lifelong aspiration to transcend only to become a part of the “ant tribe”, as they are called in China, disillusioned and heart-broken.

Education is just an example. Invisible obstacles litter the path to success for any poor anywhere in the world. So it is insensitive to make blanket comments about the poor judgment of the poor, as many of us often do. We need to be more sensitive about their situations.

For policy makers it is absolutely important to wear the shoes of the poor to have a better understanding about their world and to be able to make real poor-friendly policies. It is not just about giving out food stamps, it is about creating an environment of social mobility where poor people can be assured that if they work hard they can reach their destination.

Right People in the Right Place

The data from the first round was messy because of the flaws in questionnaire design. In this fish value chain research, there was no way to find out how much fish is sold, how much cost is incurred and how much profit is made. That’s the reason we overhauled the questionnaire. That’s why we told the enumerators about the areas of weakness and how to avoid those. That’s why we prepared a checklist for the supervisors to scrutinize every questionnaire for accuracy. That’s why the research coordination team visited one research team after another to provide assistance.

But it’s the same story all over again. Too many incomplete questionnaires, too much inconsistency and a lot of room for suspicion that the data was not collected sincerely. This is absolutely undesirable when each enumerator is paid a handsome amount per day and are supposed to be supervised by experienced managers. My assessment is that this repeated failure to collect accurate data is not only a matter of capacity or design of the questionnaire. It is also about accountability and supervision. If the supervisors feel that they can get away without checking the questionnaires, the enumerators also get the signal that they can get away with whatever they produce. So, the payment for their work should be somewhat performance based in my view. And anybody who is doing the work needs to know that their performance will actually be assessed!

But it is not that easy to assess the performance of such activities. Yes, we can check each and every questionnaire for accuracy and completeness. But how would we know that the data is not fabricated? One solution is unexpected random visits during the work. In this case, the people in the field should know that there will be unexpected visits. Another solution could be to randomly call respondents whoever provided phone numbers to check whether they were really interviewed. Yet another solution could be the use of technology, which would make it difficult to fabricate. In fact, a combination of all available tools can make a project worthwhile.

But most importantly it requires sincerity of the key people managing the project.  These key people should “own” the project that will make them determined to undertake such a difficult job. The job that often involves week after week of field visit, hundreds of miles on bad roads and unpleasant encounter with people.

Development in general is hard. It needs intelligent people with their hearts in the right place. I am not saying they don’t exist but often it is not easy to find them. So, it is the job of development leaders to find those people and put them on the right place to make a difference. 

You Cannot Eat Potential

So, after substantially correcting the disorganized questionnaire from the first round, our second round of data collection for the fish value chain research has started. We are hopeful that this time the data will be more accurate and meaningful. But we needed to be vigilant about how authentically and correctly the data is being collected. It is not that we are undermining the capacity and sincerity of our enumerators. But it is also true that when supervision is sloppy, the resulting work is almost always poor. From my limited experience, I have gathered strong doubts about the effectiveness of data management in the development sector. May be this is one of the reasons why we have many more unsuccessful or “pseudo-successful” projects than the really successful ones.

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The roads under construction from Mongu to Kalabo

Hence we hit the road. We are using the makeshift “so-called” road from Mongu to another district headquarter Kalabo. Kalabo is situated on the other side of Zambezi, beyond the floodplain. Making a road across the floodplain is extremely challenging. Previous two attempts actually failed. Currently the Chinese are executing a $250 million project. People in the floodplain villages and in Kalabo are crossing their fingers that this project will not have the same fate. The road will open up enormous trading opportunities for the fishers to trade their fish directly with the traders, avoiding the middlemen. These middlemen are locally known as casinos, who keep the fishers hostage to buy fish at a ridiculously low price and make an excessive profit.  The roads will enable fishers to bring their fish to any part of the road instead of a handful of docking points. This dispersion of the trading points will hopefully prevent these casinos from controlling the trade anymore.

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Fisher trying to sell the fish to passengers in the boats passing through their village

However, just after 10-15 miles from the Mongu harbor, I was surprised to see verdant and rich soil on both side of the road. I asked my Zambian companion how is it possible. Because I heard that Western Province is actually a part of the Kalahari Desert and thus full of sand. He told me that every year flood brings a lot of alluvia and make the soil fertile in many parts of the floodplain. Then I asked why it is not cultivated. He told me that most of the land belongs to the people who live upland and if a local farmer wants to cultivate it, the owner will create problems. It seems like the concept of sharecropping is absent in this region. As a result this vast fertile land is lying fallow. The land is full of potentials to produce all-types of winter vegetable to meet the nutritional demand in Barotseland. But virtually the only available vegetable here is rape, a kind of spinach. Well, you cannot eat potential. Can you?

We reached Kalabo at noon after a very jerky trip. It is a district headquarter, but there is almost nothing going on here and it has a certain kind of sleepy quality written all over on it. We checked some of the questionnaires collected by one of the data collectors. Despite indicating the mandatory questions in block letters, and despite a 4-day long training, she did not fill in some of those questions.  We explained to her again what to do and instructed her to go back and fill in those mandatory questions, with no idea if she would really do it. Later on we went to the fish market. Almost all the traders were women. When we asked how they preserved their fish, they replied that there is no way. Potentially they can make better profit if they use ice as the fish will remain fresh for much longer period. They said that they would definitely buy ice if it is available. The enthusiastic DoF secretary in Kalabo who accompanied us instantly decided to produce ice in her home and sell it to them. Let’s see what happens.

Next day, our destination was Senanga, another district headquarter. We were in a mission to find out what the data collector based there was up to. Our research coordinator tried to reach him over the phone for last two days with no luck. It was quite suspicious. We had to track him down in his home. He was not at all happy to see us on the Saturday morning. We had to wait for 10 minutes before he got on the car grumpily. We went to his office and checked the questionnaires. The quality of data was extremely disappointing. Again he did not fill in many of the mandatory fields. Our project coordinator was strongly suspecting that the data “have been cooked under the mango tree”. But I wanted to give him the benefit of doubt. Later we decided that we will randomly call some of the respondents who provided their cell phone numbers in the questionnaires to check if they have been really interviewed.

I hate to mistrust people. But as I said before, lack of supervision can make people lazy and often dishonest. But proper supervision in development sector faces several challenges including misalignment of incentives at different levels of a project implementation, lack of motivation of the supervisors themselves and physical challenges including remoteness of the project site. Lack of supervision and effective management are some of the reasons why potentials rarely become real.

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My field experience is increasingly making me think hard how we can overcome this obstacle, how we can make use of technology in supervision. If we can develop an online platforms where people can work offline with simple electronic devices and be constantly monitored and supervised by automated central systems, it may be possible. Online tools like Formhub (https://formhub.org/) offers some glimpse of how the future of automated and low-cost effective development might look like. I am hopeful. The little girl in Kalabo who gave me a heavenly smile before I left reminded me that we must remain hopeful.

Experiencing the Rural Life in Barotse Floodplain

Though rural life is somewhat romanticized by townsfolk, in reality it can rather be nightmarish for them. In a few days they would start feeling empty to be away from all the hustle-bustle and glittering lifestyle of their cities. And if the concerned village is in an unfortunate corner of South Asia or Africa, the pain starts from the very first day. Either there’s no electricity or there are long and frequent power-cuts. Almost all amenities of modern life are absent. There’s no running water, let alone hot water. The best available toilet is a hole dug on the ground, surrounded by thatch, where people need to squat on. Forget about hygiene, squatting itself can be quite painful for a person not in good physical shape. If roads are non-existent and people have meager purchasing power, even the varieties of food available can be woefully boring.Image

Mapungu is a perfect example. When we arrived Mapungu by a boat, the sun was already setting. People standing at the docking point clapped their hands twice at each of us, a gesture of politeness, and murmured Muchwani, meaning “how are you”, with a broad smile. We replied “Hande” – I am fine, and clapped back.  We found a vacant government house to take shelter. There was no power.  The women teammates immediately started cooking in the dark; the men created a bonfire and started chatting while waiting for food. The women served food to the men first (and also to us, cause we were foreigners!) and ate whatever was left behind. Ironclad gender roles, with no hope of change in sight.

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President Obama!

In the morning, we met the President. He tried to run for US presidential election and he should have been at least the Zambian president. But unfortunately he lives in a 10 feet by 5 feet palace that he made from scrap metal and wood he found on the street. But he neatly decorated his statehouse with papers and books he collected, and there’s a little corner where he sits down to perform his stately affairs. He lives on piecework, guarding people’s house when they are out and washing their clothes. But he is an avid reader of newspapers and talks like a well-educated person. He has a childlike curiosity and an innocent smile. He kept us amused for the rest of our stay. Every time a kid passed by him, it would shout at him, OBAMA!!!

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Children playing football, the most popular game in Zambia

However, we were in Mapungu to conduct a meeting with the community on the progress they made on a set of “dreams” that they created a year ago. There are two volunteer community facilitators in the village to mobilize the community in working towards the dreams.  The meeting started at least one hour later than the scheduled time, a usual scenario here. When the facilitators started asking about their dreams, some villagers began protesting that they didn’t know anything about it! Most of the conversation was in Lozi, the language of the Western province. So I could not catch most of it. But I had a feeling that the community mobilization was not going very well. Later on, groups of villagers made presentation about their progress. They claimed that the came up with “bylaws” for fish conservation and at least 75% of the fishers in the village stopped illegal fishing. Sounds encouraging, but I tend not to take these verbal claim seriously. Because, without proper external evaluation, it is hard to say what really happened. Besides, I felt the level of community mobilization, mentoring support and supervision to the facilitators were not enough to have such a big change anyway. But it is a research project.  Perhaps the idea is to find out how such loose models actually work in the field.

I was already getting sad about the food. The tendency of the people in this region is to deep fry everything, fish, chicken, beef, you name it. Our menu was limited to a combination of fried fish, fried country chicken, rape (a kind of spinach, virtually the only variety of vegetable available here) and maize meal. I guess here people fry and add a lot of salt in their food out of boredom with the lack of variety. But I was alarmed to think about the potential consequences of such an unhealthy habit. May be development practitioners also need to focus on food habit. But who does not know that food habits are hard to die?

Next day we had a similar meeting in a nearby village named Muandi. The floodwater was receding. So the only means of communication was walking on the sand. It was an hour long walk but my feet were aching. Walking on the sand is not easy. I couldn’t imagine how people travel from that village on a daily basis. What happens if someone n Continue reading “Experiencing the Rural Life in Barotse Floodplain”

Diving into the World of Value Chain Again!

I learned about value chain analysis and the whole business of “making markets work for the poor” in my first job in Bangladesh. I think I also developed an understanding about how hard it is to make market work for the poor.  Probably I shouldn’t have started in such a pessimistic tone. But I feel it is better to be aware of the limitation of a tool before starting to use it. And again, I don’t want to say this approach cannot be used as a means of poverty reduction. But we need to balance between market and other approaches whenever necessary.

Nevertheless, value chain analysis is certainly an instructive tool to pinpoint the key problems in different parts of the supply chain that prevent poor people to benefit. It eventually helps to design targeted actions to fix those specific issues. My assignment here in Mongu is to participate in a research on the Barotse Floodplain fish value chain.

When we arrived in Mongu, the first round of data collection was already complete. The questionnaire designed to collect different value chain information including fisher/trader profile, fish species, products, prices, costs, trade channels and the enabling environment was very long. Besides, the informal nature of the business and varied measures and methods of transactions that are in place presented several challenges to collecting the correct information, particularly in the area of price and quantity.

Fishers and traders use different measures of volumes to sell their products. They do not use weight. So there is an element of inaccuracy built-in as fish size, shape and dryness will determine exactly how much fish goes in one container. Again, the standard bowls used for selling fish can be just full or cramped and heaped. Different types of containers are used to measure different types of fish. How do we get consistent measure? To further complicate the problem, there are several species of fish. The price of fish varies by the species and by size of the fish within the same species. Price also depends on the channel that is used for selling. How many options can we include without frustrating the data collectors and the respondents? All these complicated issues rendered some of the first round data not so useful.

However, in the analysis workshop in which all the data collectors participated, we had a long discussion on how to standardize the measure and how to deal with the species-size-measure complexity to get the closest estimate. Based on the discussion, we designed the questionnaire for the second round, which we are hoping to pretest in next week. I am praying that the questionnaire will pass! We also need to find out the best way to input the enormous data set.  Excel is not suitable for inputting such a large amount of data in the same row. I am planning to use Formhub for easier input. But I found some issues with data output from Formhub. I am thinking about consulting with Modi Research group for some advice.

My learning from first few weeks is that designing a questionnaire may seem a straightforward task, but actually it is not easy, particularly if we need to gather compex market information. A great deal of effort and time needs to be invested to devise a questionnaire that works!       

Barotse Floodplain of the Great Zambezi

The specialty of Mongu is sand. When we entered Mongu, the capital of the Western Province of Zambia, we did not find anything special about this place. It is exactly like a typical district town of an ex-colonial developing country; broken roads and single-storied tin-roofed houses. But when we took the smaller roads from the main roads, we found it is all sand. Even the yards of the houses are full of sand. Our office is literally a block away from where we live. But we have to walk there in ankle-deep sand. I stopped using my shoes and sneakers. I would always wear my sandals and every time I would enter the house or the office, I will shake me feet vigorously to jerk the sand away.

I guess Mongu is full of sand as it is at the edge of the Barotse floodplain. A five-minute drive took us to the harbor from where we could see nothing but water and the sky. We took a boat to meet the communities we are going to work with.  As we moved along, children and adults alike, in boats and islands, smiled at us and waved their hands. Perhaps it was the only exciting part in their event-less day. The rainy season has just passed and the water is still deep and crystal clear. On both sides, the islands are green with some kind of grass and are full of different species of birds. In most islands, there are a few flimsy fishermen’s huts. In some of the islands, there were herds of cattle. Every now and then, we passed a canoe curved out of a whole tree trunk.

village

Everything was so pristine and picturesque, yet the grueling life of these island dwellers was apparent. Lack of infrastructure, schools, hospitals and livelihoods options must make their life very hard. I was also thinking about the challenges of working with such marginal communities in such a difficult environment. It reminded me of the marginal fishermen in Northeastern Bangladesh living in a similar, perhaps more difficult, environment. We wanted to do something for that vulnerable community there. But we failed to develop any meaningful project that would not need substantial financial support and change in government policies and politics. Eventually we gave up. I was hoping that this will not be the case here.

barotse birds

The first fishing camp that we landed at had a church, a few mud and grass houses, men, women and a number of children, mostly girls. Later on we learned that the fishermen support the education of their boy children as long as they can. And most of the boys live far away from the communities for their education. That is why the islands are so full of girls! It was a Sunday morning, so many people were still in the church. We met the leader of the fishermen’s camp, who was already drunk by this time. Fishermen would spend a good chunk of their income on alcohol. In the island we also met two women fish traders who trade only dry fish. They do not trade fresh fish as it needs more capital and often paddling the channels for hours to find a buyer. On average they make a profit of 4 to 6 dollars per day.

boat

 After a brief visit of the island we got on board again and kept moving towards the Zambezi.  I was mesmerized by the beauty of nature, thousands of birds basking in the wetlands, small wooden canoes carrying fish, passengers and all necessary goods, and clarity of the water and the blue sky. We also came across a hippo! It was peeping from under the water. We learned that hippos create a lot of trouble for the fishermen here by tearing the fishing nets. After all, we are in Africa! Finally we reached the Great Zambezi, a vast sheet of water with islands on both sides.

barotse little boy   Now it was time to go back. The sunset was magnificent and the dusk hovered around the horizon for a very long time. The soft mystic light accompanied us until the first stars were out. I came back home, tired but composed. I hope I can make some contribution, no matter how small, in the lives of the people living in this beautiful region.

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