Thursday, 6 September 2012

Bangladesh: the context for transformative development

To understand the context in which transformational development is taking place as well as appreciating its impact at the community level, a brief description of Bangladesh is necessary. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It has a population of 160 million people in country that is slightly smaller than Iowa covering an area of 143 990 sq. km. 98% of the population are Bengalis while the rest are indigenous people commonly referred to as the tribal people. These are the minority ethnic groups living mainly in the country’s areas bordering India and Myanmar. There are 45 different ethnic minority groups that in total constitute about 3% of the entire population. Much like the indigenous people of Canada, the tribal groups have historically been subjected to discrimination, violence, exclusion, and denial of their rights. Most have been edged out of their lands causing some to flee to India. Their suffering has not abated very much in the recent years prompting various groups including CRWRC to work towards justice and upholding of human rights for such groups.

Conflicts over land rights between the majority and the minority groups have choked the Bangladesh judicial system for decades.  Over the years, there has been a phenomenal increase of landless people in Bangladesh as prime land is also seized through corrupt means that takes advantage of the century old land registration system that is now just being updated. In addition, Bangladesh is susceptible to the catastrophic impacts of climate change which has been affecting most fertile land. Half of the land is less than ten metres above the sea and as sea level rises, much of the land is swallowed up turning people into climatic refugees. The rivers flowing from the Himalayan glaciers have also been depositing silt on a large scale covering most arable land down stream.  It is now feared that approximately 60%- 70% f the country’s population is either landless or owns less than 0.5 acres of land.  There has also been significant rise of disputes over unregistered land and shared waters.

The tribal groups are also grappling with the problem of language loss.  While Bangladesh could take the pride of linguistic diversity, this status is threatened by the loss of several languages due to among other things, nationalist pride, modernization and economic growth. About 20 languages mainly of the tribal groups are on the verge of extinction.  An example is the vulnerability of the Laleng language spoken by the Patra tribe living in the far northeast of the country.

Bangladesh is a predominantly Islamic country with 90% of all the religions being Muslims, 8% Hindus, 1% Buddhists, 0.4% Christians, 0.4% Animists and 0.1% Communist-atheists. Many of the tribal groups are Christians especially the Garos, Bawms, Lushais, and Santals. Islam was brought in the country by Arabian traders, Persian preachers and through Turkish invasion. Majority of the Muslims are Sunni; but there are some Shi’ite Muslims. Dhaka has often been referred to as “the city of Mosques.”The UN considers Bangladesh a moderate Muslim state.

There are about 700 000 Christians in Bangladesh up from 50 000 in 1947. The Catholics constitute 50% of the number while the rest are divided among 50 protestant denominations. The constitution of Bangladesh allows for the practice and preaching of religion but ‘subject to morality and public order.’

Like any other country, Bangladesh grapples with multiple issues including corruption, poverty, religious tensions, superstition and other cultural and religious practices that hinder development and cultural integration.  Bangladesh has a parliamentary representative democratic system with the executive power exercised by the government while legislative power is vested in both the government and parliament.  The prime minister is the head of government and holds most of the power. The president is the head of state- a largely ceremonial post. Since it’s writing in 1972, Bangladesh constitution has undergone thirteen amendments. Though there are about fourteen parties, the two main parties are the Bangladesh Awami League which forms the government and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which leads the opposition and has some support from the Islamic Fundamentalist parties who wants Shariah law to be the law of the land eventually.

Bangladesh is one of poorest and most corrupt countries in the world. Its largely agricultural economy is subject to frequent threats and serious setbacks from cyclones and floods. While some economic gains have been realized, they seem to be jeopardized by corruption and the rivalry between the two largest political parties.  Besides the problems related with governance, Bangladesh suffers other constraints to development which include:

Inadequate infrastructure especially power and ports. Governance concerns have stagnated the possibility for any increase in the capacity for generating power supply.  Also, “Bangladesh’s main port, Chittagong is among the most inefficient and cost effective in the region” (World Bank)

Urbanization. Urbanization has been rapid especially in the capital city Dhaka, and has largely been imbalanced. Currently, over a quarter of the population lives in urban areas; a sharp contrast from 1960 when only 5% of the population lived in the urban areas. Dhaka is among the fastest growing metropolis in the world, a growth that is taking place in an already overwhelmed physical space. This adds to the troubling concerns of “congestion, lagging urban planning and management, and skyrocketing real estate prices” (World Bank 2011)

Education. The country has made impressive gains in developing the education sector. However, its education is yet to be competitive both locally and internationally. There is also a stark gap between education access in the urban and rural areas. Illiteracy is still high in Bangladesh but it is much worse in the rural areas. Surprisingly, the advances in educational disciplines such as Information Technology have benefited surrounding Asian countries but has by-passed Bangladesh.

Uncompetitive export economy. The country has and still is one of the most closed economies in the world. It lacks global competitiveness and has cumbersome immigration process that discourages foreign investments.

These are a few challenges that organizations such as the CRWRC are responding to. However, any development initiatives have to be carried out with a spirit of cultural awareness. For this reason, integrated development identifies the inherent potential within a community despite all existing limitations and nourishes these potentials to achieve life-changing outcomes. My next posts will consider integrated holistic development as we saw it in Bangladesh. 

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Bangladesh Calls

 On August 19th 2012, a team of six King’s University students led by Roy Berkenbosch left Edmonton for a long flight to Bangladesh to participate in a experiential learning on transformational development that is happening in this predominantly Muslim country. For the two weeks we spent in Bangladesh, we were guests of The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee(CRWRC) now renamed World Renew. CRWRC has been working in Bangladesh since the early 70s after the war of liberation in 1971 that led to the secession of East Pakistan which became the independent state of Bangladesh. CRWRC’s mandate is “to meet the needs of the poor, work for justice and educate its constituency to a fuller understanding of development issues.” In Bangladesh, CRWRC started by participating in “rehabilitation activities including relief and agricultural assistance which was carried out in cooperation with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)”

Today, although CRWRC Bangladesh/India still offers some relief support mainly in times of immediate need such as during natural disasters, it mainly focuses on strengthening partnerships with national development organizations that in turn are well equipped to identify the potential of the poor and to build their capacity to transform their lives. CRWRC offers consultation, training and other resources to partner organizations and in this way, achieves its mandate of transforming communities through the partners who mainly work directly with the poor.  The staff of CRWRC and partner organizations received us with open arms and hearts and a sacrificial commitment to make our experience a memorable and indeed a rewarding one. In the two weeks of our stay in Bangladesh, we were granted the opportunity to witness how CRWRC through development initiatives answer God’s call to model the compassion of Jesus towards those around him; as well as answering prophet Micah’s call to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly before the Lord (Micah 6:8).

CRWRC focuses on transforming communities by actively applying holistic principles to development. Its main partners include Pari Development Trust (PARI), Sustainable Association for taking Human Development Initiatives (SATHI), Garo Baptist Convention Primary Health Care Project (GBC PHCP), Prottasha (meaning ‘hope’), and Scheme for Under-Privileged People to Organize Themselves (Supoth). A description of each of this organization’s work is available on this link- In the upcoming posts, I’ll offer my observations, impressions, and reflections on the work in Bangladesh and how this experience has impacted me.