A staple problem in much of the developing world is the presence of corrupt governments. Bangladesh is no exception to this trend and in fact corruption is so bad here it cripples the development of the country. While having a discussion on Bangladeshi culture with a high up at a local NGO that focuses on education (more on that next), we came upon the topic of corruption. What this guy told me was truly shocking, for every Taka dedicated to a specific construction, or public works project only about 15-20% ever make it to completing the project. Can you imagine such a thing? 80% of the money disappears. This is made perfectly clear when you stop to take a look around at the street scene in any part of Bangladesh. Private cars have a 100-150% tariff levied against them. So that $25,000 Camry is now a $50,000 Camry; and that’s before tax is even applied. In terms of Bangladeshi income that is Tk3.75 million. In a country where the median male income is $12,000 (Tk900,000) and generally only the male of the household works this is quite a drastic markup. Yet somehow there are private cars everywhere, even more so in Dhaka. From the locals I talk to think most of the private car owners make illegitimate money on the side; most likely through bribes. As terrible as this system may be in helping the rich get richer and keeping down the growth potential In a way this system is helping lessen the strain on the poorly developed infrastructure.

There is a rampant problem with bribes, called bakshish , most times you deal with the government. You can get stuff done the legal way, but be prepared for it to take up to four times longer; and if you live in Dhaka even traveling 10 miles can take you two hours and you may not get an answer that day. Most of the time bakshish is only about Tk100 but that amounts to little over $11 and on a salary of $12,000 a year that can add up if you need something to get done in a hurry. There does seem to be a trend with the new government employees shying away from bakshish, and the people are starting to voice larger amounts of frustration at the practice so hopefully soon this will be a problem of the past.

One of the things that has really gotten to Jordan and I while here has been the occurrence of hartal. If anyone missed that blog post hartal is a general strike called by one of the political parties. Hartals are called for a variety of reasons, court decisions, government decisions, arrests, etc. During this time NO ONE can work, the political party that calls the strike ensures that limited amounts of businesses open, the long distance and local bus services are disrupted, and numerous marches through the streets occur with members chanting support or anger toward the hartal. There can be some extreme violence during hartal days; if enough people get riled up buses can be stopped on the highway and flipped over and set aflame. Often at the start of hartal a few homemade bombs will be set off in Dhaka. Amazingly, no one ever seems to get injured when the bombs go off. I have a feeling that these bombs are more like an M-80 or something similar and not like what went off in Boston or in suicide bombings. Still come on Bangladesh it’s time to grow into a democracy and use your voice not violence. The most maddening part is the current political party, the left leaning Bangladesh Awami League or BAL has the power in both the executive and legislative branch to ban hartals completely. They refuse to do so for one primary reason, in all of Bangladesh’s democratic history not one political party has ever held power for more than one election cycle; the second leading party is the conservative leaning Bangladesh National Party or BNP. Being able to call hartal is a romantic thought for the process here as in theory it can be a powerful tool to rally the country. In reality the people hate hartal. The people want hartal to be made illegal but the minority has a loud voice and for some reason the government doesn’t really follow the will of the people (hum seems to be similar to other areas too, 12% ahem, ahem). Things got really interesting earlier this month when the Supreme Court of Bangladesh deemed the leading Islamic party, Jamaat-e Islami, to be in violation of the country’s constitution. While Bangladesh is officially a Muslim country it is also secular, meaning it doesn’t make laws based on religion. Since this clause is in the constitution and Jamaat-e Islami is an Islamic political party they were banned. While banning a political party can be a dicey proposition, if the political party is platforming on an Islamic interpretation of life and wanting to impose various forms of Islamic law then it was the right move. So, another kudos is due to Bangladesh for sticking to the constitution, I hope the hartal and violence that ensued after the decision was passed down was a lesson to stay on top of these issues in the future; something tells me it won’t though.

We can take a lesson from this book back home too. We live in a similar country where there is to be no state religion, however, we also live in a country where people are more crafty and can sneak in agendas under our noses. We should always be vigilant during our own elections to make sure propositions being made are not founded by religious ideals. What may be right for the spiritual morality of some may not be for all. Not saying that all laws crafted from a religious ideal are always bad, but great care must be taken to ensure the law does not impose specific morals on others not of that religion. Fact, logic, and debate are all cornerstones of our culture and we are envied for it around the world; Fear is rampant in Bangladesh (soft vs. hard power, more on that in the Education post) and the people are miserable when hartal is called; let’s work together to keep fear out of our lives at home.

So much foreign aid has gone into Bangladesh to build infrastructure most of which has disappeared due to corruption. This country faces many of the same problems faced in The States when it comes to large public works projects, getting the land. A great example is two new projects slated for construction in Dhaka metro and the Dhaka expressway. Both of these projects are sorely needed in the capitol as there is no real commuter rail from outlying urban areas and there are no freeways in the country at all. The most traveled highway would be akin to a red highway on a Rand McNally atlas, two lanes, no median, and a small shoulder. While I applaud the foresight of needing this upgraded infrastructure I do question its size. The expressway is a 27km long elevated freeway that is a total of four lanes. While you do need to balance size and cost two lanes in each direction in a city of 20 million?!? San Diego can barely function with an 18-lane freeway (I-15). It isn’t quite a fair comparison as Dhaka doesn’t have as many cars, but still, anyone heard of future-proofing. Bangladesh has to start somewhere, and investing in an elevated freeway in a flood area while maintaining a lot of residential buildings is courteous it is still an odd call for the country. The Dhaka metro will be an amazing addition to the city, possibly allowing people to get from one end of the city to the other in a timely manor and for little cost. It has the potential to revolutionize the way the city operates.  With $2.8 billion in funds having been approved on February 20th 2013 with help from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) I sincerely hope this succeeds. The JIAC is like US development aid but from Japan, yay other countries are helping the world! I really like the JIAC mission statement

 “We, as a bridge between the people of Japan and developing countries, will advance international cooperation through the sharing of knowledge and experience and will work to build a more peaceful and prosperous world."

In another uplifting sector of Bangladeshi events since we have been here the 2013-2014 budget has been released. Within this budget is $0.88 billion toward the construction of the Padma River bridge. The Padma River is the name of the Ganges once it crosses into Bangladesh. This bridge will be over 6km long and will link the southwest portion of the country with the central portion. The money was unthinkable even just a few years ago, but the currency reserves bolstered by increasing remittances and foreign exports have really done something to boost confidence in the nation. Currently, road traffic either has to take a ferry across the river or drive 2.5 hrs north and out of the way to cross a bridge further upstream. The government of Bangladesh has decided to forgo foreign investment in the project vowing to show the world it is not a nation of beggars. I hope this project can be completed with minimal corruption as it would bolster national pride and inflate GDP growth by an estimated 1% every year. The World Bank withdrew its $1.2 billion funding offer on allegations of corruption just a few years ago, so it remains to be seen if Bangladesh is really trying to become the little engine that could.

Here’s to investing in the future! But now back to the now, we have left a gaping hole in Bangladesh’s woes – Education.

Fran Hyberger
08/30/2013 8:32am

Clark....your Blog has been very informative and interesting. I have talked about your ventures and given your blog address to many of my friends. They indicated they would be very interested in reading about your experiences and adventures. I hope they have. I have enjoyed all of it and I am anxiously awaiting the next chapter. I am looking forward to your comments on Education.

Your insight is amazing, your solutions very workable....let's hope someone listens. Your ability to communicate and understand those around you is awesome. Not many people have that touch..

To learn how our way of life is affecting others around the globe was an eye-opener to me....but I have to inject that the USA is not the only country that is producing the CO2 and making the non-biodegradable items. . I do believe the Far East countries and the Old World (Europe) are just as responsible. It is not wrong for Mankind to use its power, curiosity and intelligence to improve our lives but as in all learning situations, there is always a "learning curve" on how to use it wisely. I would say, right now you are gaining that insight. Remember, we cannot go back...but we can learn to correct what is wrong and keep what is good. What you have learned, use wisely. You have the ability to put it to good use...and the personality to find the right people who can help you make this a popular movement.

Think of the Wave in a football stadium....it starts in one place and grows one section at a time.....until the whole stadium is in synch. When that happens, it is a powerful awesome event. Go for it! You can be a force to be reckoned with.


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