25. Work (1): Aste…aste…(slowly…slowly…)

While my journal is dominated by work-related entries, I have been putting off committing a post to my blog for two main reasons. Firstly, my experiences at work, so far, have been far from ideal. And secondly, it would be inappropriate to post on a public forum about all the detail of my particular placement situation. So, I am faced with a dilemma: how do I best describe my work experiences (because I know that many of you have expressed much interest), without exposing some of the essential, but perhaps sometimes sensitive, details that illuminate the reality of the situation. One thing I can do is ask a couple of trusted colleagues to read drafts of these posts, before I publish them.

I have read many wonderful stories from development workers and it has been very interesting to follow the progression of their work. When I first considered writing this blog, I had imagined that it would be structured very differently. I intended it to represent the story of my time in Bangladesh through my experiences of working here. My work placement, after all, was my principal reason for being in Bangladesh. In fact, I had originally hoped to go to Africa, but I chose Bangladesh because of the remarkable fit between the placement offered and my particular skills and experience (see post 3).

Meaningful work is something that is very important, and indeed necessary, for me personally. For more than a decade now I have been trying to redefine the relationship between ‘work’ and ‘non-work’ in my life. I have been trying to find ‘work’ – and a way of working – that can be an integral part of my life – interwoven with who I am and what I do. So, for example, I don’t subscribe to the juxtaposition of ‘life’ and ‘work’ as implied in the term ‘work-life balance’. In an ideal situation, both would be interconnected meaningfully as part of a whole. Of course this approach means letting go of conventional ideas like ‘career’, ‘career path’, ‘career ladder’, etc.  Instead abilities such as ‘flexibility’, ‘tolerance for change and unpredictability’ and ‘merging of self-and-other interests’ need to be fostered. My decision to volunteer for a year in Bangladesh was entered into in this spirit. I envisaged it as a year when I would combine my interests in development and social justice; adventure and travel; people and place; research and mentoring; while living, learning and making a shared and meaningful contribution to life in a new cultural milieu.

My placement: What and where?

My placement is as research and training adviser in the National Institute of Local Government (NILG), a research and training institute under the auspices of the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The institute was established before independence in 1969 and had a name change in 1980 to become the NILG. It is mandated to strengthen the capacity of local government throughout Bangladesh. It does this in three ways. First, it provides capacity-building training to local government officials (both elected and appointed). Second, it undertakes research on local governance issues. And third, it supports various projects (in consultation and collaboration with other bodies) that aim to strengthen the capacity of local government organisations.

My responsibility as a VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) volunteer is to contribute to VSO’s Participation and Governance Programme, which aims to increase community participation and ensure that poor people’s voices (especially those of women) are heard at the decision-making and policy levels.

In order to make this contribution my task is to strengthen the institutional capacity (and thereby accountability to stakeholders) of the NILG in the areas of research and training, and to ensure that gender and minority-group concerns are mainstreamed in all activities. The aim of my placement, then, is to enhance the quality of research and training, ultimately for external stakeholders. Specific placement objectives are:

  • to assess the need to review the existing methods of research and training design;
  • to mentor and support NILG staff in developing training techniques and in designing and conducting research;
  • to assist in the mainstreaming of gender and minority-group concerns in both training and research programmes;
  • to liaise and cooperate in projects and consultancy work with the NILG’s partner organisations and funding bodies.

My placement: Why?

To understand why my placement is important, it is necessary to understand why a focus on governance is important in Bangladesh. So, what is governance? The International Institute for Environment and Development state simply that:

Governance is the process or method by which society is governed.

A large literature exists on the complex concept of governance and I have been dipping into it over the last few months attempting to unbundle its components. In a book that I’ve been reading here (A Ship Adrift: Governance and Development in Bangladesh (2008), edited by Nurul Islam and M. Asaduzzaman) governance is described as comprising:

the traditions, institutions and processes that determine how power is exercised, how citizens are given a voice and how decisions are made on issues of public concern.

Mary Robinson describes the importance of participation in governance as follows:

Participation and active involvement in the determination of one’s own destiny is the essence of human dignity.

Meaningful participation in governance in turn is reliant on partnership, accountability and transparency. Many posts in this blog make reference to the weaknesses in governance in Bangladesh. (See for example post 8, post 30, post 48post 51, amongst others.) While a return to democracy was facilitated through elections last December (2008), which were generally considered to be free and fair, analysts agree that if meaningful positive change is to occur in Bangladesh then the instability in the political system, the failings in governance and the corruption in the public sector must be rectified.

Since the NILG is the only mandated national level training and research institute for local government, it has (potentially) a very important role to play in promoting and fostering good governance throughout Bangladesh. Therefore, working in an organisation that can influence governance at the local level, through the training it provides for elected and appointed officials throughout Bangladesh, appeared to me to offer a real opportunity to influence and contribute to meaningful change. And while there is much debate with regard to the governance-development interrelationship, many studies have shown a positive correlation between good governance and development. Therefore, it seemed to me that my placement in the NILG would enable me to contribute to a core issue in development in Bangladesh. This belief fired my initial enthusiasm about my role.

But…

The organisation I am assigned to is part of the government, part of the public sector – in other words, part of the problem, as documented in analyses and research on governance in Bangladesh. However, there is government commitment to tackling governance issues in the current (and second) Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) II 2009-2011 – Steps towards Change: National Strategy for Accelerated Poverty Reduction II (NSAPR II). Five supporting strategies are outlined in Chapter 4: Roadmap for accelerated poverty reduction: supporting strategies. Supporting strategy number two is titled: ‘Promoting good governance’. I hoped that perhaps I could play a part (however small) in that project. Otherwise why would I be here? Why would the organisation I was to be a part of have sought a volunteer in this context if it was not their intention to promote change? (I was, in fact the only VSO volunteer in Bangladesh who was assigned to the government sector: all other volunteers were placed with NGOs – i.e. non-governmental organisations.)

The reality of my placement: 1. Early days and culture shock

Imagine your first day in a new position. There are certain ways you might orient yourself e.g. by researching your organisation on the Internet beforehand, by reading any material the organisation might present, by being met by a co-worker and shown around the building(s), by being introduced to your colleagues, by chatting to somebody who may have been in your post before you and maybe later, by joining staff during tea/coffee break.

While I didn’t expect a situation anything like the above in my new cultural setting, neither did I expect the reality of my first weeks in the NILG. I was excited and also a little nervous setting off on that first morning, especially since my start date had been pushed forward due to illness (see post 15). That particular morning, it took me over two and a half hours to find the NILG. I knew where it should be – on my map. The CNG-driver got me to Agargaon – eventually – but nobody had heard of the NILG. (I was the source of much amusement for all of whom I made enquiries – me and my map!) Luckily, I had left ample time to get to work and explore the area that morning, so I was only slightly late arriving.

I spoke to a receptionist inside the front door who, after some time, brought me in to meet the director with whom I would be liaising – as organised by VSO. He gestured to me to sit at the back of the office behind a row of empty chairs, saying that he was busy, and I spent the rest of that day watching a stream of people come and go, carrying piles of brown paper folders fastened with red fabric strings. (I couldn’t help but admire the symmetry here with the ‘red tape’ of bureaucracy.) They each approached the large desk reverently, and tentatively presented the director with folder after folder. He would scan documents from within each of the offered files and, if satisfied, would sign a sheet, and its multiple carbon copies. There were innumerable forms to be signed in triplicate in each folder. It had been a long time since I had seen carbon paper! Between visitors, we had brief snatches of conversation, while he continued reading and signing papers from other piles of folders. After signing he threw (as in flung) each file on to a pile that was forming on the floor beside his desk. Occasionally, obviously dissatisfied with something he was reading, he pressed a button on his desk and summoned an assistant to go and get someone or clarify something. This same button was used to order cups of ‘lal cha’ (black tea) which were brought in by yet another assistant, over which he told me that there was no place ready for me yet in the NILG. So much for my needless worry about being late starting! He gave the impression that the whole ‘VSO thing’ was a bit of a nuisance. There had been one previous VSO volunteer in the NILG, but over a year had lapsed since she left, and from what he said this had not been a ‘good experience’. (Incidentally, I had contacted this volunteer (who is from the Philippines) before arrival and she very kindly replied at length, mooting that there had indeed been difficulties: in hindsight, perhaps I should have delved deeper.)

My first day felt extremely long but was fascinating too. I had read, many times, about the level of bureaucracy in developing countries, but to be honest, I had suspected that it was a bit clichéd. My observations on my first day in the NILG, however, made me wonder if the systems and procedures introduced by the British Raj all those years ago had ever been updated or even questioned. All that was missing from the scene of which I was a part was the whirring of a ceiling fan. (There was indeed a fan, but the directors in the NILG have air-conditioning.) I noticed too that there was an old computer tucked away in a corner and I asked the director if he used it. He doesn’t use it in his day-to-day work, but told me that he had received some training. Throughout this day I was thinking too about how I might fit in here. I was trying to get a feel for the culture of the organisation and thinking about my training. I was inwardly struggling to foster ‘patience’ too: I don’t find it easy to sit still for an entire day. I could see that I would have to take things very slowly, and try to gain the confidence of this man, if I was to establish a good working relationship and have any chance of surviving, let alone succeeding.

The next day began in much the same way, but after some time it was suggested that I sit in the library until a room could be found for me. The library was dark and dusty and a group of men sat in silence around a table reading newspapers. I asked the director if there was anything I could read on the NILG, or from the files of the previous volunteer, but there was nothing. I was later given a ‘temporary room’ that was dusty, hot and airless: the ‘window’ opened into an internal corridor and the faulty ceiling fan thumped noisily in fits and starts. (Only the directors in the NILG have air-conditioning.) There seemed to be a lot of mosquitoes too. Off the main room there was a tiny, dark room with squat toilet (no toilet-paper) and scuttling cockroaches. (It would take a further six weeks before ‘my’ room was ‘ready’. I didn’t have to move far: it was across the corridor about three feet from my temporary room. The latter was locked up again after I moved out and remained so for the rest of my time in the NILG.) Without going into much more detail, suffice it to say that those first weeks – which ran into months – were difficult. There is no Internet and so no e-mail. I had no phone in my room (though I later tried on numerous occasions to make a case for an internal phone-line in order to try to communicate more effectively with colleagues. In fact, the line was there – I just needed the actual handset, and wondered if there might be one in any of the nearby, unused offices. ) There are no ‘water-cooler moments’ here. No communal meeting points (e.g. morning tea/coffee breaks) and no regular staff meetings (though this is something I tried to make a case for later). The building has five floors – one for each of the four functions of the NILG (research, training, administration and projects) and one where there are a lot of vacant offices and the Director General’s office. It was on this latter floor that I was situated – at the end of a corridor surrounded by locked and empty offices. The bare corridors running by offices on all floors are eerily quiet, and I rarely saw anybody walking about during those first weeks. There appear to be many empty offices on all floors – or at least empty of people. I wasn’t formally introduced to any of my colleagues – apart from the other director I would be liaising with, and briefly to the Director General – the head of the NILG. Some of the support staff did come and go from my office, some of the women bringing their babies and chatting away in Bangla – leading me to conclude that I needed much improvement. A few support staff asked me for money in those early days and I felt very uncomfortable with this. Some told me that the previous VSO volunteer had been very ‘generous’. However, I made it clear that I wouldn’t be giving money and these visits petered out after some time. (There are 22 ‘faculty members’ that I am to work with. In all there are 95 staff in the NILG. As in all other spheres of life in Bangladesh, there is a large proportion of ‘support’ staff – assistants, drivers, groundsmen, cleaners, messengers, tea-makers, etc.)

In many ways, it was as if I hadn’t been expected at all – and those who had expected me did so reluctantly. This was a bit of a blow, but I tried to set it aside. At least on a personal level I knew that I was forming good relationships with the two directors I was supposed to be liaising with – as arranged by VSO. However, when I would try to broach the subject of work they would disengage. It was most peculiar. They even went as far as to suggest that they liked me as a person but not as a VSO volunteer. I felt powerless – as though a rug had been pulled from under me, but I vowed not to allow these initial experiences set the tone for my placement. I chose instead to see this situation as a challenge and I was determined to meet it. I needed to try to get to the bottom of things and I hoped that I would have the necessary confidence and creativity to turn the situation around.

The reality of my placement: 2.Developing a plan of work, finally

I spent these early weeks desperately trying to get a handle on the organisation, trying to figure out what it was they were doing and how they were doing it.  (It took me a long, long time to get to the point of being able to write the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of my assignment, as outlined in the above paragraphs.) Day after day, I kept tentatively knocking on the doors of the two directors (two of the longest-serving staff members in the organisation) with whom I was supposed to liaise, carefully trying to avoid annoying them and rupturing relationships. I spent most of my time waiting…..and waiting, and got used to the refrain, ‘Sir is not available’. Or, ‘Sir is praying. Come back later’. Or, ‘Sir is resting.’ I soon realised that I wasn’t getting anywhere or meeting any other staff, and after a short time I knew that I would have to make a choice. I could keep my head down, keep waiting – in the slim hope of fostering some cooperation over time with these two men – or I could take matters into my own hands and be proactive in trying to turn the situation around. I decided on the latter course, despite niggling reservations about the cultural ramifications of such action.

Once I made this decision,  I then decided to liaise with the Director General, instead of with the two disengaged directors that I had been assigned to by VSO. When I got the go ahead from him, I got stuck in and I began to regain my enthusiasm. First of all, I sourced reading material on local governance in Bangladesh. I found Kamal Siddiqui’s book in the library which I began reading, together with other material that I sourced online, outside of work. I started to build up a stakeholder map, from which I intended to carry out a stakeholder analysis. I decided that I would undertake a ‘needs-analysis’ straight away. I desperately wanted my work here to be participatory and to be ‘owned’ and driven by my colleagues. Though my brief from VSO gave me a bit of background on the NILG, and suggested what was needed, I wasn’t at all too confident about this information now. On the contrary, I was beginning to get the feeling that a volunteer wasn’t needed (or at least ‘wanted’) at all. I felt that it was essential to find out what staff (including management) in the NILG felt. Who had decided that I was needed in the first place, and what was that perceived need? What do they think is important? How do they think their problems should be solved? Is there work currently underway that I can contribute to? A ‘needs analysis’ would also provide me with a good opportunity to meet every member of staff individually – most of whom didn’t even know I was here. I hoped that by talking openly, we could begin to establish some sort of two-way understanding. Fundamentally, I just wanted to talk to people initially and try to get to know them. Maybe in this way I could begin to build working relationships, and a meaningful and mutual set of objectives for the time I would spend in the NILG.

Trying to get to talk to every member of staff was much more difficult than I had envisaged. (Trying to get a list of staff, and their locations, was the first stumbling block.) I kept knocking on doors, and slipping notes underneath when I got no answers. (I spent a lot of my time in the NILG tramping the corridors along the five floors, trying to meet people). The ‘notes’ gave me an idea that might go some way towards solving my communication problem. I decided I would instigate a system of regular memos, through which I could elicit information and suggestions, and keep people updated on ideas and on what I was doing, etc. So, I would type up a memo and then print and photocopy it, in the VSO office in Lalmatia. (I didn’t have access to any office facilities in the NILG (e.g. printing, photocopying, etc.). They were of the opinion that VSO should provide these if needed, but VSO did not have the resources to do so. Luckily, I had brought my netbook with me which, though small, I used at work.) Back in the NILG, I would then physically deliver a memo to each of the twenty-two members of faculty (once I had finally figured out where they were) – sliding them under their doors if there was no answer. (Mind you, I also suggested notice boards for every floor, and though considered a good idea, it hadn’t been implemented before I left.) While this was a very time-consuming process, I felt that I was connecting in some way with staff, in the absence of e-mail, phone or one-to-one/group communication opportunities. (I had tried, on a number of occasions, to organise focus groups, with little success. Later on, I began to question this ‘communication strategy’ too, as these memos seemed to go largely unread – or at least did not provoke any response/action.)

The needs analysis proved difficult. In general, though respectful and polite, people were hesitant and guarded. They seemed surprised and almost taken aback that I was seeking their views/ideas/opinions and I sensed that this was uncomfortable territory. I realised that I would need more time to gain their trust before open and frank discussion could occur, and I abandoned the needs analysis exercise as originally planned in favour of a more relaxed, ‘informal’ discussion. At least it proved to be a way of letting people know that I was there.

Once people began to hear that I was in the building, they started producing documents that they had written in English for ‘correction’. (One director gave me a draft of his entire PhD: another suggested that I might work with him towards developing a topic for a PhD that he hoped to pursue following retirement.) Soon, I had a large bundle of documents on my desk. I realised that I could very easily spend all my time in the NILG editing documents. (And in fact during my ‘needs analysis’ discussions, many stated that this is what they would like me to do.) Apparently this is what the previous VSO volunteer had done, and so it was expected that this is what I would do too. It would have been an easy option for me to sit quietly at my desk all day editing, but there would be no long-term benefits for either the individual staff member, or the organisation. What I needed to do was to institute improvements that would continue without me – after I had left. So I took the unpopular route of relaying this message verbally (and individually) to staff: I also put it in writing in a carefully worded memo, circulating it to all faculty members. I suggested that it would be more beneficial, in the long run, if I facilitated research and writing workshops. I was glad though to have had an opportunity to look over this material, because it gave me a good insight into the current writing and research skills levels in the Institute.

As I began to get bolder and knock on more doors a pattern began to emerge which at first I didn’t see. If the person was there, I would be welcomed politely into an office. In some instances, tea would be immediately ordered. After an exchange of some pleasantries, I would bring up the work-related issue that I came to discuss. I would once again refer to my role, the agreed objectives and recent, circulated memos. While it was always difficult to elicit opinions or ideas, there would be a positive response and total agreement with my suggestions. Delighted, I would then move on to a discussion around what steps we might take to progress the issue in question. Again, any tentative suggestions on my part would be met with an overwhelmingly positive response. Finally, I would moot that perhaps we could meet in a week’s time to assess mutual progress in the task at hand and I would get a ‘ji, ji’ – ‘yes, yes’. I would leave those meetings buoyed up with a renewed sense of confidence and optimism. I would later discover that there never was any follow-through. I would call again for the review meeting and it would be as if the first meeting had never taken place, or else I would be told that there had been ‘no time’ and that we should meet again ‘later’: it was almost always impossible to tie down an exact time.

All of my ‘meetings’ ran like this. One of my tasks was to act as a mentor/adviser for researchers and so I became involved with a research team, who were undertaking a small funded research project. (The project was being part-funded by VSO – hence my mandate.) I was delighted to be getting a chance to participate at last. There were to be a number of research sites outside of Dhaka, and I was excited about the prospect of engaging in fieldwork too. It was good to be in at the early stages and I suggested that we meet as a ‘team’ to discuss how we might proceed and how I could be of help. This ‘meeting’ ran much like the meetings described above, except that this time I started with a discussion on the protocol and benefits of teamwork and team meetings, and again there was overwhelming agreement. After the meeting, I compiled, printed, photocopied and circulated the minutes of the meeting, including the agreed-upon actions to be taken by each team member, and the date decided for our next meeting. Only one person turned up at the next meeting and so I visited the others individually there and then, and was told that they had ‘no time’ (though one was reading a newspaper). Nobody had undertaken any of the agreed actions – apart from me. I have to admit that I expressed my frustration at one of the subsequent ‘meetings’ that finally took place, and ran along similar lines. The response was one of genuine surprise, with the most senior member of the team advising me to relax: ‘Aste, aste (slowly, slowly) Dr. Ann….all in good time….don’t worry … there is no hurry’. There were times when I was tempted to be a ‘do-er’, rather than an ‘adviser’, and undertake the research tasks myself, in order to get the project moving. But my role, as a volunteer, is to work my way out of a job by the end of my placement, by transferring some of my skills and knowledge to the organisation, so that any change started or implemented is sustainable in the long term. It can be very frustrating though when nothing is happening.

All volunteers make a presentation, together with VSO, to their organisations early in their placements. Eventually, after much struggling and many requests, I finally got the go-ahead to formally introduce myself and develop my programme of work. The event was a great ‘success’. While not all of my colleagues attended, the Director General and all the directors were there and each stood in turn, complimented me profusely and at length, and made rousing speeches about the great work that would result from this placement. I was astonished: I couldn’t believe it! Yet, I found myself beginning to hope – again. If such glowing rhetoric translated into reality – albeit a shade duller – I would be in business. Maybe now that they had heard a little about me, my hopes, my aspirations for my placement, my suggestions, my genuine wish to entrust ownership of the process entirely to them, maybe now they would be more willing to engage with me. I had put a lot of careful preparation into the presentation after all: it was the culmination of my work and thoughts thus far – and a vital lifeline at this time. And now it would pay off – or so I thought.

During my presentation, I took the opportunity to launch a small development initiative, Celebrating Stories from Communities, the idea for which had come to me during the stakeholder mapping exercise, and during discussions with colleagues as part of the ‘needs analysis’. Throughout those discussions, I had prompted my colleagues to make a connection between the work they were doing, and improvements in some aspect of the lives of poor people – an individual, a family or a community – on the ground. (This was also something I was very interested in personally. I wanted to bring some sort of development perspective to my work as a volunteer.)  Some were able to make a tentative connection; others said they would have to think about it. Most seemed to think in quantitative terms e.g. we ran so many courses, for so many participants, or did so many pieces of research. Often, such a focus on the quantitative can obscure the reasons for doing the work in the first place. In any event, all agreed to participate. I thought it would be a great idea if everybody collected one or two short stories – or case studies of one page or less – in whatever form or media they wanted. You could argue that ‘stories’ are universal, and so I thought that a story-telling endeavour would be a good way of bridging any cultural barrier. I suggested ways we could collect stories. One way would be to ask a past trainee from an NILG course for feedback on how his/her training impacted positively on his/her practice in local government. Or maybe a researcher could demonstrate how his/her work had resulted in improvements to the NILG training programme, that had addressed a problem at community level. Perhaps they could (through past trainees) provide examples (e.g. a positive change in somebody’s life that resulted from facilitating increased participation of women in local governance). I suggested that I could help them to formulate the kinds of questions we needed to answer. Those involved in ‘research’ may already have case studies to hand – in fact, some said as much. It had transpired during discussions that staff went on a lot of ‘field trips’ or ‘learning visits’ – trips that I hoped I could participate in at some point. These trips might also provide a source for such ‘stories’. (See January 2010 – post 49, when I finally got to experience such a visit.)

I thought that this initiative might be motivational too – lack of motivation seemed central to the resistance I was meeting. If colleagues could see how their work was benefitting the lives of real people, the effects would surely be a source of satisfaction and a reason to excel. The stories could also feed into any existing monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system. Part of the rationale for this project was to get people thinking about the qualitative impact of their work – in addition to the quantitative indicators. It might inspire them to think about what they are setting out to achieve in their work in the first place. Ultimately, it could get them thinking about the issue of ‘accountability’. If I could inspire people to be excited about being accountable to poor people on the ground, then that in itself, I thought, would be a worthy achievement. I suggested that I could collate/edit all the stories, pictures, etc. and that we could have a ‘festival of stories’ before I left – a sort of celebratory, end-of-placement event. We could create posters and maps to highlight the positive work of the NILG, and cover some of the many bare walls along the corridors of this large impersonal building. We could even go as far as publishing them. Stories about the positive effects of the Institute’s work on the lives of real people could prove to be quite powerful communication tools – externally as well as internally. (One of my other ideas was to establish a newsletter to create some sense of cohesion between the different functions (and floors) in the NILG. And this could feature some of our stories.) There seemed to be genuine engagement with the idea from colleagues during individual discussions, and the initiative was very well-received during my introductory presentation. [Truth be known I would love to have had the opportunity to go into the field myself and undertake this exercise. I could explore the linkages between poor people’s participation in local governance, the resulting perceived improvements in issues of critical importance to them, and the ways that both participation and/or improvements were facilitated (or not) by the training local government personnel had received from the NILG. The ‘lessons learned’ from experiences in the field could feed into revisions back in the NILG, etc. But this was not within the remit of my VSO placement. And it may be that such research exists somewhere. I just haven’t succeeded in finding anything like it yet.]

I could write a book about the experiences of my first few months in the NILG. There is so much that I cannot write here (or that I have removed on the advice of colleagues). To be honest, there were times when I wondered if there was any point at all in me being here. I envied those volunteers who seemed to be welcomed wholeheartedly into organisations (NGOs), and were participating fully, in both the office and the field, beside their colleagues. There were many other volunteers, though, who also had problems in their placements, and indeed one courageous volunteer decided to leave an impossible situation, rather than wait around doing nothing.  It would be easy of course to ‘play the game’ and bide one’s time here quietly. Or, I  could use the defence mechanism of rewriting the script of my work experiences. But that would be a waste of time, and in any case I have to ask questions. I don’t want to hide away and spend this time sequestered in my room. I need to learn from these experiences and attempt to find solutions to the problems I am facing. I am beginning to question the VSO development ethos and way of doing things – at least in Bangladesh. But of course I can’t base an assessment on a handful of placements in one country. Disillusioned, at times, I wondered if perhaps I too should leave. I agonised over the decision: I had given up so much to be here and I had waited so long to do something – but something that would be shared and meaningful. I certainly didn’t want to impose myself on an organisation that didn’t want me in the first place. Eventually, I knew that I had to decide one way or another and then stick by my decision. I decided to stay.

On the day of my presentation, I felt that a new chapter might be beginning. (My placement was turning out to be a roller-coaster!) I had four reasons for hope at the end of that day. Firstly, I had persevered, and by chipping away and taking the initiative I now had a set of workable, ‘agreed’ and ratified objectives. True, every day had been a struggle in patience and creativity, but I was still hopeful that I could make a difference. Of course I knew that my plans were only good intentions unless they translated into hard work – and for that to happen I needed cooperation. Secondly, while it was proving difficult to develop working relationships, no culture is homogenous and I now had two people on board who were interested in working with me – and that was a start. One was the Director General himself, who I had decided to report to and liaise with directly (instead of the two disengaged directors that VSO had designated). This turned out to be one of my better ideas. I found him to be an intelligent and creative man and a good listener. Although he remained detached and formal throughout, he was professional, appeared well-intentioned and he understood and empathised with my difficulties, which was reassuring – especially since VSO did not seem to understand my concerns. The other staff member was one of the most junior in the organisation: his enthusiasm was in complete contrast to the general apathy I met with every day, and was a joy to behold. There were two other seconded staff (see post 48) who recognised and empathised with my predicament – though their circumstances did not permit collaboration. Their friendship and insights helped my understanding. My third reason for hope that day was my personal ‘documentation project’.  As I came up against a perceived difficulty (or ‘problem’), I would think of it as an opportunity to first question whether it was a ‘real’ problem  (in the context of the paragraphs below) and, if it was, to search for a possible solution. I decided to document everything for VSO and the NILG, and if nothing else works out, at least I will be in a position, hopefully, to present recommendations for both parties at the end of my placement. If another VSO volunteer is to be appointed to the NILG after I leave, then perhaps s/he can start from a better place initially, and then build upon my learning, using the knowledge as a stepping stone for her/his placement – rather than having to reinvent the wheel as I had to. I need to believe that if I can offer possible solutions, based on my observations, then maybe, just maybe, I might act as a catalyst for change. And fourthly and finally, if that change – from whatever combination of actions it emanates – eventually translates into a contribution towards improved institutional capacity in the NILG, then that in turn might trigger the kind of cascade effect which will improve the lives of the poorest of the poor – albeit at some unknown time in the future. That is my real hope, and the one that I cling to through difficult times.

The reality of my placement: 3. Reflection

All during my time in the NILG I am continuously engaged in self-questioning. I ask myself if I am being too demanding. (I definitely feel that people see me as being overly enthusiastic. Against their relaxed and laid back attitude to work, I must sometimes seem like one of those pink Duracell bunnies. But I’m working on this!) I worry too that I am offending cultural sensibilities. It most certainly is not my intention to do so but I struggle at times to work out what the alternative is – unless I just hide in my room, ostrich-like, fearing the boundaries and not moving out at all. But I can’t spend my time here flinching and apologising for who I am. This would completely negate any possibility of effectiveness. So, I choose to keep going – navigating carefully, tactfully and thoughtfully.

I ask myself if I am succeeding in getting a handle on the shared frame of reference – the shared narratives and reference points – that have shaped the workplace in the NILG. I know of course that this will take time. In the face of such lack of engagement, I need to understand the context that might help explain this behaviour in the workplace. In the meantime, what can I do to ensure that I am engaging respectfully with this work culture that I don’t yet understand fully? And if I do gain that understanding will I be able to work ‘successfully’ within this cultural frame? I wonder what cultural faux pas I am making and indeed I have already had one socially painful experience. This happened because I used a person’s first name. Now I was well aware of the hierarchical conventions in the organisation. Indeed I made a point of asking the Director General at our first meeting how he would like me to address him. (Everybody else addresses him as ‘Sir’, as indeed all ‘subordinates’ address their ‘superiors’ in the organisation.) However, he told me to call him by his first name and so I did.  This was fine during our one-to-one encounters. While in the office of a director, with other colleagues present, I inadvertently let slip the Director General’s first name in conversation, and the director in question was aghast. He immediately switched to Bangla and I could only imagine what he was saying to the other staff members in the room. His tone of voice sounded irate. I caught bits of it. About ‘DG Sir’ and ‘name’ and ‘volunteer’, and all the time I stood there with radiating red cheeks. (As it turned out there was another possible explanation too for the unfriendliness of this particular director – see post 48.)

I also question my mode of working. Culturally, I suppose I expect a certain degree of straight-forwardness at work. However, I now know that I am not getting a ‘true reading’ during my meetings and encounters with colleagues.  There’s quite a bit of ‘saving face’. I’m finding too that people don’t want to give constructive criticism, or challenge my ideas, because they want to avoid giving offence. Instead, they drag their feet when it comes to cooperating or supporting project implementation efforts. Again, time is required to get to the bottom of this. Another thing I’m having difficulty with is the lack of any culture of planning. Thinking ahead constructively is central to the way that I work, but people just don’t ‘plan’ here. (See post 48.) This requires changing the way that I go about my work. Instead of planning to meet somebody, I have to try to meet them ‘spontaneously’.  This means I have to try to find them first, and if they are not in their offices, or otherwise engaged, I have to go away and try again later. It’s so much more time-consuming this way. In practice, it could take days (or even weeks) to ‘meet’ someone. (The absence of a culture of planning was something I was to encounter again and again, and not just in relation to my work. For example, when I was trying to ‘plan’ my trip to the Sunderbans (see post 38), I couldn’t get dates for the Ramadan break from any of my colleagues. I was to discover later that these dates are subject to annual change, and dependent on moon sightings (see post 37). Even the ‘calendar’ militates against planning!) In addition to difficulties with planning at work, I am also having problems trying to instigate changes (however small). This is because there doesn’t appear to be a culture of reasoned argument. I am used to laying out my reasons, and following a certain line of logic, in order to make an argument for a particular course of action, which might result in changing someone’s mind. Or not, of course, if the other person convinces me in a similar manner. So, for example, when I explained carefully and at length, why spending my time in the NILG editing texts would not fulfil the function of my placement, and suggested that holding workshops or sessions to explore and solve the difficulties would be a more sustainable solution, people would agree and say ‘ji, ji’ (‘yes, yes’) but then proceed, the very next day, to ask me to edit a text!

I know, of course, from having studied anthropology and inter-cultural communication, and from my volunteer training, that there are ways to work with these differences. But it takes time – which is something I don’t have a lot of. And while I’m definitely sensitive to the cultural nuances and differences, trying to put theories into practice in the context of the workplace is difficult – especially when the placement is structured along Western cultural lines – with objectives and deadlines and so forth. So, above anything else, I am questioning the validity of placing a Western volunteer in such a culturally complex government organisation as the NILG, for one year, in order to effect some degree of institutional change. My particular situation is further complicated by the issue of how a ‘volunteer’ (and indeed an ‘outsider’) is seen in this context, and whether or not there is any perceived need amongst staff for such a person in the first place. I will come back to this in my next work-related post. (See post 48.)

For now, I am trying to learn too from the alternative perspectives I am encountering. So, for example, when I was advised to go ‘aste, aste’ (‘slowly, slowly’) and told that everything would happen ‘in time’, it made me question my ‘scheduling’ and my obsession with my diary – nobody wrote a meeting date in a diary here, so how could they remember it? Yet, a meeting that was essential might occur instantaneously (presumably because ‘diaries’ were empty). And things do happen – eventually.  For me a sort of epiphany occurred on the day I got that advice. Back in my room, after yet another ‘non-meeting’, I paced the floor wanting to scream (among other reactions – some involving the use of expletives!). Then I remembered the advice proffered ‘Aste, aste, Dr. Ann!’ and I found myself starting to smile. I wanted to shout out to everybody in the NILG that I understood: from their cultural perspective, I was the one who was out of kilter. They were not going to make it easy for me, but I could stop fighting a war, and instead accept the terms of engagement. I needed to ‘relax’ (as advised) and stop pushing and worrying about meeting ‘objectives’ and ‘targets’. But what is my role if I back off professionally and let things evolve at their natural rhythm? I need to discover other ways of working within that rhythm. I am willing to remain open to possibilities outside my frame of reference: I know from experience that the world is much larger than I can imagine. I would hope too though that I might in turn provoke questions and raise issues not previously considered by my colleagues. I am not at all claiming to have the answers, but perhaps I too could be that outsider provoking them to consider other ways of doing things.

In a way I feel privileged to be able to work in a government environment and see the inner workings – blemishes and all. No amount of reading or study could replace the actual experience of being here and of  trying to work within this system. Despite the difficulties I remain committed, determined and enthusiastic. Above all, what keeps me going is my love of living in Bangladesh (as you will see from other posts in this blog). Whether or not I will be able to make some meaningful contribution towards poverty alleviation, during my time here, remains to be seen.  Insha’Allah (God willing).

To be continued………(see post 48)

A few photographs follow. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (15 photographs in all). Enjoy!

1. Dhaka traffic

I don’t have many photographs of work, or of work colleagues – though see post 49, when I was invited to join a group of NILG staff on a learning visit to the BRDTI (Bangladesh Rural Development and Training Institute) in Sylhet.

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3 responses to “25. Work (1): Aste…aste…(slowly…slowly…)

  1. Harriet Williams

    This is a very thoughtful reflection on the reality of working in the international development arena and one many a new development worker could realistically relate to. You describe the social and cultural complexity of the work situation very well. I know I have yet to read your follow-up ‘POST 48’ (which I’m looking forward to) but the fact that you were aware of these complexities and difficulties was a great starting position and can only have helped your situation.

    As someone with over twenty years experience of working in development (and currently considering a short-term assignment in Dhaka), I recognise exactly what you are writing about. However, the difference is that I’ve never been ‘alone’ in an organisation as you were, always working with a minimum of two/three fellow development workers.

    Based on my experience you can’t ‘over-think’ it, for the sake of your sanity if nothing else! I would argue that when you make a conscious decision to go and work in development for a period of time your expectations for your work are more heightened than normal, often unrealistically (sorry).

    And if you really think about it, it can often be just as hard to find truly ‘meaningful’ work in our culture too. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the ‘bullshit jobs’ phenomenon that hit London last year (based on the work of anthropologist David Graeber)? Case in point.

    I am enjoying reading your blog. It’s very informative and helpful for anyone thinking about working in or visiting Bangladesh.It’s going to take me a while though. A lot of reading! 🙂

    • Sorry for the delay in replying and thank you for commenting Harriet. Though it’s a long time ago now, the experiences described in this post (and in the follow-up work-related post) remain powerfully vivid. Yes, I agree with you: my expectations probably were a little unrealistic. But when you choose to volunteer a year to something you feel passionately about you want it to be a real success: at least that’s how I felt. But of course you have a point: the task of work anywhere could be thwarted and rendered potentially meaningless. On reflection, I think that one year was much too short, in my particular circumstances, to achieve the impact I had hoped for. In this regard, I’d be very interested in chatting to you further about your views after 20 years in the sector.

      Yes, a friend did send me a picture of one of those ‘bullshit jobs’ posters that she took on the tube on her way to work one morning – well over a year ago now I think. And I remember looking up Graeber’s work at the time.

      Glad the blog is proving useful: if there’s any information in particular that you are looking for, I’d be happy to try to help. Regards, Ann

      • Harriet Williams

        Hi Ann

        Thanks for replying. Nice to see your message in my inbox.

        I only realised that the blog was archived when I read your reply. It’s great that you are still answering comments. The entire blog feels very current.

        I’d be delighted if we could stay in touch and chat further. I haven’t made a final decision about Bangladesh yet so maybe you could help me with that!

        I’ll e-mail you later tonight.

        Best wishes, Harrie

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