This post should be read in conjunction with post 25. It’s a long one. I thought of splitting it between a number of posts but it makes more sense this way. Once again I’m using Zainul Abedin’s image Sangram (‘Struggle’) which has the capacity to be representative of so much in Bangladesh.
I ended my last work-related post (25) with the term Insha’Allah (God willing). In retrospect, this was very appropriate and almost prophetic (albeit unintentionally so). I have since discovered that the meaning of the term Insha’Allah cannot easily be expressed in English. Yes, Insha’Allah does mean ‘God willing’, or ‘hopefully’, as I had used it in that last post, and it is used too in relation to an event in the future. However, for us the future is malleable: we envision ‘outcomes’, we set ‘goals’ and we create ‘actions’. One of the basic tenets of Islam is that we humans have no business planning for the future: that’s Allah’s department. Insha’Allah is therefore a term of fatalism: it is resigned, passive and accepting, neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It is the opposite of ‘can-do’. It is often used too when there is no hope whatsoever of something happening. ‘We will have that meeting tomorrow, Insha’Allah’. Or, ‘Insha’Allah you will get a phone’, implying that it is not Allah’s wish and, therefore, you will not be getting one. It can even cover uncertainty: ‘The government official will call tomorrow between 4 and 6, Insha’Allah’. That means that you do not know if s/he will come before 4, after 6, at the allocated time or even at all. And if there is a pause between the end of the sentence and the Insha’Allah, it means either that the person is not so sure any more, or just can’t be bothered. Yes indeed, I have experienced all forms of the Insha’Allah. In fact, I sometimes think that the Insh’Allah philosophy could be a metaphorical thread connecting many of my work experiences in Dhaka. (Of course, this fatalistic acceptance of Allah’s will serves the people of Bangladesh well too, fortifying them against fear in the face of the many disasters they must encounter.)
Isolation: splendid it’s not!
You are probably wondering what ‘progress’ has been made towards ‘achieving’ the ‘objectives’ referred to in my last work-related post (25). Unfortunately, the optimism expressed at the end of that post was fleeting and the roller-coaster ride between hope and hopelessness continues. You will have read in the aforementioned post that I took pains to ensure that the placement objectives were established from within the organisation, in so far as was possible, from my individual discussions with colleagues and calls for suggestions and ideas. While they were indeed ‘agreed’ and ‘ratified’ following my introductory presentation, I continued to sense a lack of any real ‘buy-in’ in my day-to-day work. Trying to understand the culture of the organisation, and finding a way of working within that culture, continued to occupy much of my thinking. Part of the problem lies in my isolation.
I think that if I had been assigned a counterpart within the organisation from the very beginning, with whom I could work closely to share skills and knowledge, or, alternatively, if I had been assigned to a particular team with a particular task (at their request), this placement may have had a better chance of success. As it is, I am the one who sallies forth daily knocking on doors striving to comprehend: to listen and talk and elicit engagement. It would be great to have a colleague to collaborate with, to help me understand how best to approach tasks, to talk things through with or, simply, have a laugh with. There is also the fact of my physical isolation on the first floor, surrounded by vacant offices and away from the main work of the organisation, as described in my earlier post (25.) It is so difficult to get any understanding (not to mention a comprehensive understanding) of the organisational context. Just recently, for example, I discovered, quite by accident (from a seconded member of staff – see below), that a comprehensive training needs analysis for the Institute was undertaken just last year. I have now managed to secure a copy of the report, which includes a detailed training strategy and individual training plans for each NILG (National Institute of Local Government) faculty member. A capacity building project is currently underway! Great news, but nobody mentioned this to me, despite the fit between that project and my brief. [Note: I have since discovered that the NILG capacity building project is part of a major national Danida-funded project to support ongoing local government reforms in Bangladesh. The project is the Local Government Institution (LGI) Capacity Building Project for the Water Supply and Sanitation (WSS) Sector.]
So, there is a sort of (unconscious) exclusion accompanying this isolation. Although I keep striving for inclusion, I am not considered part of the organisation. For example, there was a two-day International workshop on local governance held in the NILG in December last which I would love to have attended. (I found out about it by accident, when I asked about all the new plants on the corridor outside the Director General’s office.)
The best laid plans………
I could write a book on the months that followed my introductory presentation. Although the devil is in the detail, it would be inappropriate to commit the complete story to a public forum. Therefore I am not sure if the complexities and challenges of the reality of my placement will be clear to readers. For a start, I am trying to find answers to the question, ‘why?’ (in order to address the question ‘how?’). Why are my efforts not effective? Why are people not engaging in action with me? Why am I finding it so difficult to get information? Why isn’t anybody interested in working with me? (And more than a few times, ‘why am I here?’!) It’s not that people are openly hostile towards me. In fact the opposite is the case: many are sympathetic and even apologetic for the lack of support I am receiving. There are those too of course who remain politely distant. In order to try to make sense of my situation and create solutions, I need to try to uncover the underlying causes for the lack of engagement and participation. It has been (and still is) a fascinating (though frustrating) journey of discovery. Interestingly, I am finding that many of the challenges I am facing are symptomatic of challenges for governance in Bangladesh, and, ultimately therefore, also for development.
Before I begin, I need to explain how I arrived at my tentative ‘understanding’. The first source was my colleagues. It took me months to unravel differing narrative strands and gain even a little understanding of my working environment. As I got to know people better, they began to share some of their frustrations with me, albeit hesitantly. They told me that they wanted me to understand that the lack of support was nothing to do with me personally. My second route towards understanding was through my stakeholder analysis. Some of the people on my list provided me with invaluable external insights. Finally, a lot of the macro-level problems in relation to governance and public administration in Bangladesh are well-researched and documented. It is not my intention to go into too much detail in that regard, but rather to write a little about my personal experiences of negotiating the challenges that presented.
Explanation 1: Politics, power, conflict and structural limitations to change
The many problems I faced in my workplace were systemic and endemic in nature and had a lot to do with politics and power and the structure of the organisation. Of course ‘politics’ are part and parcel of organisations everywhere, but trying to understand the context in another culture, one that is politically volatile, is new to me. The many layers and complexity of the politics in my current workplace are mind-boggling. With each discovery though, I began to understand some of the reasons behind the apathy and lack of engagement that I encountered daily.
I should begin at the macro level i.e. the civil service in Bangladesh, of which the NILG is a part. This article in the Daily Star provides a summary of some of the main challenges facing the civil service today. (See also post 51, which provides some insights into political culture in Bangladesh.) The longer-serving members of staff in my organisation were part of the halcyon days referred to in the aforementioned article and bemoan the fall from grace. The political parties play an insidious role in the functioning (or otherwise) of the civil service. The NILG has not escaped in this regard. I listened to some very interesting (and disturbing) stories that, for obvious reasons, I cannot recount here. In more general terms, it can be said that from early independence in Bangladesh, institutional development in the civil service has been impeded by politics. Of the analyses I scanned, all commented on the internal divisions, corruption and politicisation of the system. Recruitment has been maligned by an unfair system, with many claiming that partisan political interests are being served, rather than the greater good. Promotion, lucrative postings, and other benefits are often based on political party affiliation rather than merit.
There are related internal politics and problems in my organisation. One example is the split that exists between those longer-serving members of staff, and those more recently appointed to positions of power from outside. Key officials are appointed from other areas of the civil service, either on transfer or deputation (including the Director General). This means that there is a limited path for development and upward mobility within the organisation. The longer-serving members of NILG staff are resentful of those who are appointed, as indeed are those within the lower ranks. Autonomy is seen as being constantly and aggressively eroded.
The entire top floor in my organisation (i.e. the Programmes and Evaluation division) is on secondment from other government areas. They work on a project basis (currently, for example, the LGI capacity-building project referred to above and the LGSP (Local Government Support Programme, funded by the UNDP, the World Bank and others) and so could be here from two to five years. A key informant during my stakeholder analysis (a highly respected, retired government official) was very enlightening – and sympathetic towards the ‘old NILG’ – in this regard. He described the Institute as being ‘colonised’ and ‘strangled’ by organisations like the World Bank and the UNDP. (I couldn’t help but reflect on the symbolism of their position on the ‘top floor’ in this regard.) This informant told me that NILG staff are ‘not well-treated’ on the whole by the ‘imposed layer’ of people. Incidentally, the capacity building programme that I referred to above (in paragraph three) emanated from this floor, which might explain why I never heard about it. However, I have met many committed, dedicated people on the top floor: they say that they find it impossible to do their work within the NILG, because they are unable to garner cooperation or support for change.
The informant that I mentioned above summed up by saying that the NILG was being used as a ‘dumping ground for administrators’. This is further evidenced by a category of civil servant called ‘Officers on Special Duty’ (OSDs). These are civil servants who have been promoted to higher grades but for whom there are no openings. Therefore they are in limbo. I failed to establish their numbers in the NILG but there were always a few around. One that I spoke to admitted that many OSDs are here to bide their time towards retirement. Others are here to further their personal situation and have no sense of loyalty to the NILG. Some are dedicated and want to work, but despite their best efforts can get no cooperation from NILG staff. Most, therefore, end up doing nothing: they are designated office space that often remains empty.
The more I discovered, the more I began to understand the reasons behind the institutional incapacity and the uncoordinated approaches that I was witnessing internally, not to mention the general apathy. How could there be a sense of cohesion and identity when the fundamental structure of the organisation was so fragmented? (The irony of my own position was not lost on me either: more on that later.)
The implications for my work
You might say: ‘Well, ok, but what has this to do with your work?’ In hindsight, most of my efforts in the Institute were affected by internal divergences. You will remember that my principal areas of work lay within the functions of research and training, which to my mind should be inter-related, the purpose of research being to inform the delivery of training. During my first weeks in the NILG, the two directors with whom I was ‘assigned’ to liaise advised me against working with the training division (or more specifically, the training director). Instead, they wanted me to focus on their areas: i.e. administration (a technical library cataloguing issue in which I had no expertise) and ‘research’ in general, though it was impossible to pin them down with regard to specific objectives – see post 25. It transpired – you’ve guessed it – that they (research director & admin director vs. training director) were on either side of the split described above.
Based on my remit and my ‘agreed’ work-plan, I had to liaise with the training division in order to meet my objectives (see post 25). Furthermore, VSO insisted that they were already involved in a multi-stakeholder, technical working-group to review the national basic training programme, run by the NILG (for local and elected representatives and agencies in local government). They wanted me to be part of this group. Moreover, one of the objectives of my placement was to ensure that the needs of marginalised and vulnerable groups, especially those of women and indigenous groups, were being addressed in the NILG’s training programmes. It was proving very difficult to ascertain anything about the training programmes in the NILG, since the director of training was not willing to meet with me, let alone work with me. He eventually met me and stated that he wanted no ‘input’ from VSO in this regard. (He – like the majority in the NILG – had not been party to the decision to employ a VSO volunteer in the first place.) So I found myself between the proverbial rock and hard place – between the research division, the training division and VSO. I had to try to figure out how I could be effective, without taking sides or engaging in the divisive behaviour I was encountering daily.
Based on my experience and knowledge in the training field, I would love to have had a chance to contribute to the review process. I had a lot of ideas that may have proved useful. It was widely acknowledged that the NILG’s training programmes needed development. For example Aminuzzaman (2008) states, with reference to local government capacity building:
‘Independent studies recognized that “most of the training programs of the NILG are mere academic, routine, repetitive and devoid of changing reality” (UNDP, 2006, Aminuzzaman, 2007)’ [sic]
To cut a very long story short, despite numerous representations to the Director of Training, the Director General and VSO, I never got to participate in any of the meetings of the technical working group. To be fair, the Director of Training told me, on one occasion, that all their training materials were in Bangla and that most of their meetings were also conducted through Bangla. While this would certainly have limited my input, I felt that I could have contributed in terms of training approaches, methodology, assessment, evaluation, review, collaboration with other training institutions, etc. It eventually became apparent to me that the light at the end of the training tunnel was now well and truly extinguished. It would have been exciting to have been involved in the multi-stakeholder review group: as well as contributing, I could have made connections with the other stakeholders. Of course I understand that I am certainly not indispensable (given the calibre of the stakeholder group), but I am left wondering more and more why I am here.
When it came to research, the situation was equally complex, though perhaps more positive in the end. I discovered early on, from a perusal of articles given to me for ‘correcting’ (editing), together with a review of the NILG’s in-house journal, that the quality of both research and written English was extremely poor. This was acknowledged by both the Director General and the Director of Research. Many of the papers I reviewed had no relevance to the remit of the Institute. Furthermore, plagiarism was rife. Indeed I had already noticed this in web content and in newspapers – see post 19. (Incidentally, I recently read an interesting article that draws parallels between plagiarism, intellectual property rights and the culture of community in China. For me it shed some light on the problem, particularly as experienced by Asian students in Western universities.) In summary then, I identified a lack of research capacity amongst staff, through no fault of their own. Most had been hired from bureaucratic and administrative backgrounds and had little or no research qualifications or experience. Furthermore, they did not seem to understand the relationship between training and research. (The Director of Research sadly told me that there was a time, in the early days of the NILG, when the story was very different: then, the NILG had a ‘very good’ reputation for research.) The problems today are further compounded by a lack of research resources e.g. up-to-date library and Internet resources. (We are a million miles here from the academia.edu platform.) The Director General seemed very happy when I suggested focusing on the basics (i.e. academic writing and introductory research skills) through workshops, and promised to support me. He even suggested the provision of an interpreter, which was exciting. However, despite Trojan efforts, the workshops never materialised. Instead, at one subsequent meeting with the Director General, he told me that workshops were already underway on research methodology. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! It transpired that these were being run as part of the internal capacity building programme (as referred to above), of which I knew nothing at the time. I have to admit that I expressed my disappointment to the Director General at that meeting on not being involved in those workshops (or even informed about them), and he was sincerely apologetic: he was of the opinion that the Director of Research should have informed me. (Of course the latter was disengaged because the programme had emanated from the ‘top floor’.) I subsequently found out that the workshops took the form of one-hour sessions on topics such as ‘sampling’. Given the level at which most staff were starting from, I’m not sure how effective such workshops could have been.
With regard to the overall research framework in the organisation, I learned that there was an annual conference at which targets were set for research for the following year. Unfortunately, for me, this conference is conducted through Bangla and the procedures were never fully explained to me in English in a way I could understand. Taking everything I knew into consideration, including the results of my stakeholder analysis, the question that screamed at me was: ‘Why, and to what purpose, are non-academics trying to write academic-style research papers in English?’ I tentatively suggested to the Director General that, based on this question, there should be a review of the Institute’s research model. He was clearly interested and gave me the go-ahead. I mooted that I intended to visit BARD (Bangladesh Academy of Rural Development) and RDA (Rural Development Academy) in this respect to investigate and capitalise on their research experiences. He agreed that this was a good idea.
I was very happy and excited that day. While the organisational situation militated against the kind of work I should be doing as a VSO volunteer, I had found another way that I might effect positive change, which could in fact be more meaningful, albeit in the longer term. There was still light at the end of the research tunnel. If I could make recommendations for a more meaningful research model, that was linked to the training programme, then my time here would not be entirely wasted. From the reading and research I had undertaken, I was convinced that what was needed was a move away from the current journal-focused, academic-style research model towards a more participatory and collaborative action-research model. This is why I wanted to visit BARD and RDA because I had read about the success of their models in this regard. With the development of strategic action research activities and approaches, the quality of training could be continuously improved through the incorporation of research findings. I had also raised this suggestion with a key informant (ex-NILG director) during my stakeholder analysis and he had wholeheartedly agreed with me. And so I followed through with this review and developed recommendations accordingly. Whether or not they will be acted upon remains to be seen: having the endorsement and backing of the Director General is positive, given his position of ‘power’.
Apart from ‘training’ and ‘research’ related activities, I had also suggested a number of initiatives for improving cohesion within the organisation. Most of these were simple ideas that didn’t require huge resources, but that could contribute positively to the culture of the organisation. One was the establishment of a newsletter. As well as improving internal cohesion, a newsletter had the potential to be a useful tool for external communication. I have to admit that I like doing newsletters. However, the objective here was to establish one that would continue after I leave i.e. to get buy-in and interest from colleagues. As I was thinking about ways I might do this, I was invited by one of the team on the top floor (Programmes and Evaluation) to join their Documentation Committee. It was suggested that my newsletter could form part of the output. I was both surprised and pleased. It was the first time I had been ‘invited’ to join anybody. It was all very formal: I had to sign numerous documents, carbon copies, etc. At the first meeting, I was asked if I would edit some documents (in English) that were soon to be sent to print, which I agreed to wholeheartedly. When I raised the topic of the newsletter, it was suggested that we discuss it at the next meeting. I was anxious to leverage commitment from this group to funding the ongoing printing of the newsletter, since they had resource to external funding. To cut a long story short, despite numerous hikes to the top floor, there never was another meeting of this ‘committee’ during my tenure.
When I realised that a further meeting was unlikely, I circulated a memo asking for ideas and suggestions in relation to a newsletter. If I could get a draft to print stage, I may be able to secure funding another way. So, I designed a tentative first draft and took it to the Director General for his comments. He really liked it and was very enthusiastic. He especially liked my ‘Spotlight on…..’ section, where I suggested that a different member of staff could be profiled each quarter. He also liked the ‘Inside……’ section. The latter was intended to include the support staff. So for example, the first could be, ‘Inside the NILG kitchen’, where we could have a photograph of the staff (to include my friends Shamshoemea and Ayupali!) and a short exposé of daily life there. I then circulated the draft, inviting comments and submissions for each of the sections. However, despite numerous visits to staff in each department, I was unable to get more than one submission. In desperation, I even offered to write submissions, if I got a rough idea of what they would like to highlight. I brought a copy of the BARD (Bangladesh Academy of Rural Development) newsletter too to meetings, as an example, to let people see what we were aiming for. I couldn’t even find out how I might start on the ‘Events’ section. Disappointingly, the newsletter hadn’t got to print before I left.
There were many such disappointments. While most of my ideas were very well-received during positive discussions with colleagues, particularly by the Director General, getting them implemented was more difficult. And if he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – do it, nobody could/would. I asked him whether the organisation had a vision/strategy statement but he explained that in the traditional sense they didn’t, though they did hold an annual planning conference (which I have mentioned already). With regard to communication, I talked with him about monthly management meetings (team-building, planning, etc.) and regular staff meetings. I raised numerous other possibilities with him e.g. an organisation chart with photographs for the reception area; an NILG logo that could be used on all documentation; notice boards on all floors; the use of computer technology in the Institute (in view of what I had been reading about Digital Bangladesh); and a website. At one meeting, when I was once again reviewing possibility and progress in relation to all of these ideas, he advised that a World Bank Committee had undertaken to establish a website for the NILG. He asked if I would like to collaborate with this committee. When I said I’d love to he said he would organise this. However (you’ve guessed it) this never happened and as far as I can make out this is now on hold. I progressed plans for all of these projects as far as I could: however, ultimately they were not implemented, at least not during my time. On many occasions, the Director General would explain the red tape involved in getting funding: on many occasions too he would ask if VSO would be prepared to fund these initiatives.
English language workshops
During my needs analysis discussions with each of my colleagues, a majority stated that they would like to improve their English language skills. So, I thought it would be a good idea to set up an English language discussion group. It was some time since I had used my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) skills and I was looking forward to the opportunity of interacting with my colleagues in this group. So I started making preparations and putting some resources together. I went to each member of staff to try to find out what times would suit them, but only one staff member would commit times that suited him to paper. So then I tried suggesting a number of time slots, but these didn’t suit anybody. I then suggested that maybe we could meet for an hour before or after work, but nobody liked that idea. Finally, I said that I would post times on my door every week when I would be available, should people want to ‘drop-in’ to practice their English. Disappointingly, despite a wide choice of times, only one person availed of this opportunity.
Explanation 2: Social and cultural issues
It is difficult to ascribe a specific underlying cause to each particular problem faced in my day-to-day work. My isolation, the politics and the structural limitations within the organisation, as discussed above, were certainly factors. There were complex social and cultural issues at play too though. Much of the behaviour that I encountered daily at work was very obviously governed by the principles of hierarchy and power-distance (see post 13). At first I was quite taken aback by the unquestioning, sycophantic bowing-and-scraping of my colleagues to those of higher rank, throughout the organisation. I was equally taken aback at the corresponding dismissal, and often disdain, shown towards those of lower rank through curt commands. Many factors determine one’s position in this hierarchical system: social position, status, educational background, seniority and gender. Roles and duties in relation to others are defined by the norms and values of this system. There is obedience and deference and a show of outward respect towards ‘superiors’ (those in authority or in positions of higher rank). Subordinates, or those of lower rank, seek affirmation, direction and guidance before making any decisions. Traditionally, those who are seen as loyal to their superiors can expect favour (even if it is unwarranted in terms of performance). The ‘power-distance’ inherent in this master-servant type relationship prohibits any meaningful cooperation across power levels. It inhibits collaboration and participation in decision-making and does not encourage holding those in power accountable for their actions. From discussions with other volunteers (and from my own experience of VSO Bangladesh), the dynamics of power-distance were less apparent in the NGO sector than in the government sector.
I knew that such powerlessness must inevitably lead to acts of resistance wherever possible. I began to notice the manifestation of this resistance in resentment and dragging of feet and silent acts of noncooperation. Furthermore, there is a palpable lack of openness and trust. Sometimes it is quite obvious (to me at any rate) that the extreme show of ingratiating, sugarcoated ‘respect’ towards superiors is blatantly insincere.
It was difficult to negotiate a path within this social and cultural milieu. First of all it took people a long time, if ever, to try to ‘place’ me: an outsider, a foreigner, a woman, a volunteer, a PhD, unmarried – in short, an enigma. I immediately became ‘Dr. Ann’: people were visibly uncomfortable when I introduced myself as ‘Ann’. Education is highly respected in Bangladesh. However, my status as a ‘volunteer’ was more ambiguous. People would tell me that I was ‘very kind’ trying to ‘help’ Bangladesh, that I had a ‘good heart’, etc. (I could see of course that some were being cynical with regard to volunteering and the ‘do-gooder’ image.) Puzzled, most of my colleagues asked me over and over again: But why are you volunteering, you have a PhD and many years of experience? Despite extensive explanations on my part, it remained very difficult for them to equate unpaid volunteerism with professionalism. I explained that my commitment was as much about learning and understanding from their work, knowledge and ambitions as it was about sharing my skills and experience. Despite many conversations, they continued to associate volunteerism with amateurism, as an option for a young person with little experience on a ‘year out’. They could not understand why I would choose to do this and why I was so focused. I never felt that people didn’t respect me personally, but I felt that they regarded me as a curiosity. If I had arrived as a highly-paid consultant working for the UN, the Asian Development Bank or a large respected international NGO, I would certainly have had more ‘status’, and therefore possibly more ‘influencing power’ too.
In time, I began to recognise and understand the very different culture of working that I was now a part of. For example, I understood that the lack of transparency, decision-making, planning and reasoned argument (all of which were central to my culture of working), were embedded and entwined with deeper cultural issues (see post 25 too). (Even understanding the meaning of the ‘Insh’Allah’, discussed at the outset of this post, provided additional insights.) I had expected cultural difference and I knew that understanding it, while working effectively within it, would be challenging. What I hadn’t expected, however, were the very particular complex political and structural problems in my organisation, and the attendant lack of motivation and engagement.
In hindsight, I don’t think that staff in the NILG knew how to react to me knocking on their doors, seeking opinions and suggestions, asking questions, throwing out ideas, inviting participation and collaboration, etc. Because I wasn’t assigned to work closely with any one person in the organisation, my presence and my persistence must have seemed puzzling. Finally, of course, it was inevitable that the language barrier would further compound confusion and prohibit a lot of meaningful engagement, at times too leading to misunderstandings.
The volunteering process
During pre-departure training, we were told that VSO volunteers work for their employers and not for VSO. As such, the relationship can seem ambiguous at times and it is not always clear who should be responsible for what between the employer, the volunteer and VSO. Theoretically, VSO acts as a support structure, providing pre-departure training, a basic allowance, cheap accommodation, medical cover and a point of contact in emergencies. VSO also facilitates an in-country annual volunteer conference. Ultimately, VSO develops partnerships with local organisations and works, through its volunteers, to achieve its overall objectives of reducing disadvantage and poverty.
However, the lines are not always so clear. For example, in my case, while the NILG provided office space, they were under the impression that VSO should have provided facilities (phone, stationary, printer, Internet, etc.). They were also of the opinion that funding should have been provided for the implementation of projects, or project elements. The official line is that VSO does not provide funding: yet there were instances where VSO Bangladesh (VSOB) did provide funding. This inconsistency led to confusion.
In my case too, VSOB were engaged in work with the NILG that was separate to the work of the volunteer. So, for example, I might discover, during a discussion with the Director General, that somebody from VSOB had been to see him the previous day, or that very morning. To the surprise of the Director General, I would know nothing about this. Or, a VSO staff member might call to see me while visiting the NILG, but not mention something that could be of potential interest to me. For example, in August last, there was a multi-stakeholder meeting about the Basic National Capacity Building Programme (for strengthening local government) held in the NILG, and attended by a member of VSO staff. That member of staff had visited my office a couple of days prior to this meeting but hadn’t mentioned it. Nobody else in the NILG informed me either and I knew nothing about it until it was over. That sort of unconscious exclusion continued. (At times, I wondered if there was a token volunteer in the NILG, solely to enable VSOB engage in work with an organisation that they considered ‘important’.)
Volunteers reported on their work in organisations to their employers first and foremost, but also to VSO Bangladesh using a standard reporting format. I reported, in the NILG, to the Director General, but in the spirit of inclusiveness, I copied the report to all members of faculty via my system of internal memos (see post 25). Dealings with VSO Bangladesh were frequently complicated. There was a lack of transparency and consequently communication was often difficult. For example, my detailed six-month report elicited no response or comment, despite a number of follow-up attempts on my part. Again, the language barrier was a factor in communication. I apprised VSO Bangladesh of the difficulties I was experiencing at work, though of course I understood that I was working for the NILG and not for VSO. (See also post 50.)
During my time in Bangladesh, there were a lot of unhappy volunteers, as came to light at the annual VSO conference in Cox’s Bazar (see post 50). Yet, longer-serving volunteers pointed to an even more fraught relationship in times past. For me, from my personal experiences, one of the most important questions relates to how VSO forms and develops its partnerships with organisations who host volunteers. I have been unable to get a clear answer to this fundamental question in Bangladesh. I chose to volunteer with VSO because of certain values that matched my own, and particularly their participatory approach to development and their ethos of sharing skills, creativity and learning (see post 2).
In my organisation only three people (reluctantly) expected me. I felt as though I had been imposed on the organisation (by VSO) and that I had no clear mandate from within. There was no evidence whatsoever of the practice of participatory development in the forming of the partnership between VSO and the NILG. The director with whom VSO originally negotiated this ‘agreement’ seemed hostile to the idea by the time I arrived, based on their previous and first VSO volunteer experience. (In fact he told me on more than one occasion that some colleagues were unhappy that a ‘VSO volunteer’ was once again ‘taking up time’ in the organisation.) Neither was there a desire on the part of my organisation to ‘share skills, creativity and learning’. In general, there wasn’t an open attitude towards change and this made it extremely difficult to do anything. This attitude compounded the difficulties I was experiencing in my day-to-day work, as described above, and added an extra layer to the process of trying to find solutions. It is true that I was the only volunteer in the government sector and inevitably, given the well-documented problems in relation to governance in the public sector, such a placement would be difficult. I can understand too why VSO would wish to effect change at government level: without it, the sustained success of development efforts is questionable (see for example, the introduction to my last work post (post 25) and also post 8 and post 30, and others). However, I would vigorously dispute their methods of trying to achieve this, based on my experiences.
In reality, I think that instead of facilitating the exchange, VSO actually made it difficult at times. Before I started my assignment, I was not given any insights into the particular culture of the organisation, except for the constant reminder that mine was an ‘important’ placement in a ‘very important’ organisation. I was told that there had been a previous volunteer, that hers had ‘not been a successful placement’, though reasons were not forthcoming. I was vaguely ‘assigned’ to two directors: as it turned out, I would not be working closely with either. There were instances where my association with VSO caused me real problems, given the internal divisions within the NILG. For example, VSO instigated a ‘collaborative’ research project (without my knowledge) with one of the Programme personnel on the top floor, for which they also provided some funding. (I was later asked by VSO to act as mentor for the researchers tasked with this project.) Because of the internal politics in the organisation, as outlined earlier, the two directors that I had been ‘assigned’ to, at the outset, took grave offence at being bypassed by VSO in this way. To cut a long story short, this caused difficulties for me because of my association with VSO. VSO Bangladesh must have been aware of the internal difficulties, given their ‘local’ knowledge of the culture, and the fact that they had placed a volunteer here previously. It was quite enough to be caught up in internal conflicts within the organisation, without also being implicated in a VSO/NILG struggle.
I would go as far as to say that, based on my experience, the development ethos of VSO Bangladesh is very different, and in fact quite contrary, to that espoused by VSO International. However, of course it is not as black-and-white as that: there are many well-intentioned people working in VSO Bangladesh. By all accounts, some volunteers have had especially positive experiences in placements that work exceedingly well.
Postscript November 2012: In relation to the last sentence, see this very inspirational video on VSO volunteers in Bangladesh. The experiences of these volunteers are so incredibly different to mine! On a personal level, the clip reinforces my sense of sadness and disappointment. On another level, I am happy for these volunteers who have been afforded an opportunity to engage and share in meaningful community experiences. This video clip attests to the kinds of inspirational stories of positive change that had inspired me, and of which I had hoped to be a part.
Closing the circle
So, where do all of my work experiences leave me in relation to my original hopes, aspirations and objectives as outlined at the beginning of my first post on work (25)? I come back full circle to that niggling reservation I had in relation to a placment in the public sector. I think too about the well-documented need for change in governance, sufficient to sustain and extend national development gains. My experiences of working in the government sector have given me a great deal of personal insight into these issues.
In hindsight, my specific objectives were much too ambitious, considering the timeframe and the current cultural/social/political context of my workplace. [I had a conversation last week in the Bagha Club – see post 10 – with two seasoned expats who have spent many years working in the field of international development, in a number of countries around the world. They told me that at first they felt as disappointed as I do now, notwithstanding their clearer and less problematic mandates. Over the years they have learnt to set objectives and then aim, realistically, to achieve 10% of those objectives.] Despite receiving a very good reference from the Director General, there is no doubt that my first year of working in development was disappointing on many levels: opportunities to work at my full potential, by engaging and collaborating in meaningful work, were minimal. Whether any of my recommendations will result in positive change remains to be seen. Those in relation to the research model in the Institute are my most concrete output. Ideas about ‘other’ ways of doing things have circulated and been discussed in the organisation, and some practical recommendations in relation to cohesion (as discussed above) almost reached implementation stage. Institutional capacity building and organisational development will continue apace with time-and-place specific policies of reform, with or without the presence of a VSO volunteer. Such development could be enhanced and accelerated if there was real internal commitment to a phased process of change (at government level, in the first instance). Such commitment could then be supported through solution-focused, country-specific, sector-specific approaches that use toolkits appropriate to the task. An isolated volunteer could not hope to effect such cultural change in one year in an organisation that is not yet committed to such change. Without that kind of change and commitment, it will remain very difficult to build the capacity of research and training. I hope, though, that by sharing knowledge, skills and creativity I have had some small, positive, qualitative influence on the organisational development process, through the interested individuals I worked with. I have left behind a detailed record of my work and learning journey, a foundation upon which any future volunteer will be able to build, without having to reinvent the wheel. And finally, I have made recommendations to VSO in relation to their partnership with the NILG, based on my experiences. Whether the legacy of this learning will be built upon by either VSO Bangladesh or the NILG is questionable.
Thoughts on development after my first experience of working in the sector
Working in the NILG and in Bangladesh has prompted me to (re)consider many aspects of development theory and practice. My placement has forced me to tackle once abstract questions in a practical context every day. Most of the time it didn’t ‘feel’ as though I was working in the ‘development’ sector at all. To counteract this, I tried to bring a development perspective to my work e.g. through the introduction of a small development initiative in the Institute, Celebrating Stories from Communities. (See post 25 for details.)
Part of the inspiration for that idea came from something I read in an interesting interview with Selina Hossain, a leading writer in Bangladesh. (At the time I had been reading – and enjoying – her story, Motijan’s Daughters, as part of a collection of Bangladeshi short stories.) In the interview (in the Daily Star Magazine) she spoke about the need for accountability amongst elected representatives. She said:
The government elected by the people must think about the people and maybe then we will have a change in our society.
It was that idea, amongst others, that had inspired my development initiative, Celebrating Stories from Communities. Maybe it was outrageously optimistic of me to think that I could play some small part in this process. You will have gathered, from its omission above, that the ‘celebration of stories’ never occurred. Not one story reached my desk. As with my other work objectives, I continuously chipped away at this one too: I tried to ignite enthusiasm; I visited offices; elicited commitments; distributed reminders; circulated memoranda; put up posters; developed and distributed templates; extended the time-frame; etc. VSO liked this initiative, and committed to contacting their partner organisations and local government contacts, in an effort to elicit success stories that could be attributed to NILG activities. But like me, they had no success either. I was extremely disappointed that the potential of this exercise was lost, but I couldn’t have tried any harder to make it a success.
There are times when I despair: how can the government (through the NILG) promote good governance, at local government level, when it cannot do so within its own organisation? In many respects, the NILG looks to me like a microcosm of Bangladesh. Take the example of the project of decentralisation and local government. Since independence in 1971, successive governments have tried to use the local government system for their own political interests. The central government appoints chosen civil servants, either on transfer or deputation, to local government bodies, thus weakening their autonomy. Key personnel cannot be hired directly from the marketplace. In addition MPs are authorised to ‘control’ activities. The local elected members, who are accountable to the voters, have practically no power to serve their people and work for local development. The irony is that decentralisation was lauded as a way of combating corruption. I am finding that rhetoric outpaces action in so many spheres of life in Bangladesh. Despite extolling the virtues of decentralisation in public, in practice the government stifles any sincere efforts, aided and abetted by bureaucratic resistance and collusive and docile political leaders.
However, despite resistance, public sector reform is taking place and there are some examples of successes, such as reform in the Local Government Engineering Department towards a more participatory planning approach. However, some studies that I have read have attributed such successes to outside pressure from organisations like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, International NGOs, etc. It is stated too that many of the reforms that have succeeded, are those that do not threaten the elitism or authority of civil servants (e.g. the development of e-Governance). Will such compromised types of reform lead to the real cultural reform that is necessary for continued and sustained development?
I, as a development worker, can go and work with one or two people who might be willing to cooperate and collaborate, but unless the underlying structures of the organisation (e.g. for me, the NILG, or, for development workers in general, the government of Bangladesh) are reformed, any successes I might have will not be institutionalised, and therefore not sustainable in the longer term. It would be easier and more comfortable for me of course (administratively and politically) to ‘work’ with these one or two people, than to tackle the deeper institutional changes needed to improve accountability and transparency in the system.
Can a true participatory development approach work in every culture? Participatory development approaches need participatory management in the first instance. Can a historically and culturally dominant, directive management style evolve into a more beneficial, coaching management style? How long would such a cascading cultural shift take? Developing the attitudes, behaviour and skills required for such a transition would only be the beginning.
Apart from the social, political and environmental problems documented throughout this blog, is the ‘culture’ itself militating against development in Bangladesh? (See for example the post (51) on political culture.) The dynamics of power-distance and hierarchy in Bangladesh seemed to me to impede participation and cooperation within my organisation. Might this also be extended to the realm of public participation in national decision-making processes? Would villagers, for example, be forthright in holding bureaucrats and public representatives accountable for their activities? Does development rhetoric e.g. ‘empowerment’, ‘participation’, ‘rights-based approaches’, ‘equality’, etc. have clear, meaningful, cultural relevance here? Or, is lip service being paid in order to fulfil the requirements of donors?
And finally, and most importantly, do I have the right to challenge mindsets in the first instance? Who gives me that mandate and on whose behalf is it given? How do I enable people to question fundamental structures and ideas that perpetuate inequality without being culturally insensitive? Can I expect people to speak out and/or take action in a climate of corruption, nepotism and possibly fear?
Every day I am forced to reflect on these questions and on the question of aid and development effectiveness. Every day I think about how this ‘effectiveness’ is measured, monitored and evaluated. (See post 34 and post 50 for more on monitoring and evaluation.) A friend told me about Zambian economist Dambiso Moya’s book, ‘Dead Aid’ (2009), published since I arrived in Bangladesh, that tackles what is perceived by many to be a worldwide aid debacle. I haven’t had a chance to read this book yet, but her thesis is that aid has not only been ineffective in African countries, but has in fact been damaging. Countries that have rejected the aid route invariably prosper, while those that accept it become aid-dependent and see an increase in poverty levels. It is interesting that she sees huge scope for innovations in micro-finance, such as that pioneered by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.
Following almost a year of working in development in Bangladesh, I have more questions than answers. A year is probably not long enough, especially in the developing world, on which to base an assessment. Furthermore, I was in a funny position in the development community here: I wasn’t working for an NGO or agency, local or international; I wasn’t a local employee; instead I was a volunteer in the government sector. I still believe in the moral necessity of ‘investing’ in global development in a mutually respectful, reciprocal and participatory way, be that through emergency response activities; peace-keeping initiatives; sustainable development projects; and addressing the broader causes of underdevelopment (e.g. governance issues). I think there needs to be more honesty and transparency in relation to aid initiatives that don’t work, as well as to those that do work. (Have a look at this excellent TED Talks video clip in which David Damberger, from Engineers Without Borders, talks about this need to recognise and articulate development failures, as well as development successes. There are some interesting comments underneath too.) It is now widely acknowledged in development circles that a hand-up is more beneficial than a hand-out. Perhaps it’s time too to acknowledge that other options, apart from aid, may be more appropriate in certain situations. There is the trade versus aid debate. There is the ‘for-profit’ versus the ‘not-for-profit’ debate. There are hybrid models built on the principle of social responsibility. If I am to continue to work in ‘development’, I need to believe that I can make a meaningful difference on whichever of these paths I choose.
While working in Bangladesh, I have had contradictory experiences. On the one hand, working in the government sector has more often than not shattered my belief in any possibility of change. On the other hand, I have met people there who, given the opportunity, have the enthusiasm and the ability to contribute to positive change. I have been lucky enough to witness some great examples of the work of rural, community-based, development organisations throughout Bangladesh too. Of course without being witness to how they work, I cannot comment conclusively. What I can conclude though is that if my experiences at work have left my glass half-empty, my experiences outside work have caused it to overflow. I have witnessed, and personally experienced, many acts of generosity and kindness and, against all odds, I have seen incredible examples of creativity, persistence and fortitude in tackling problems of every-day disadvantage. It is these people that restore my belief in the possibilities for ‘development’. It is these people too who should be determining the direction of development policy.
Final words on my work placement
Apart from daily preoccupations with development and governance issues, from theory to practice and from global to local, almost every day at work has been a challenge in resourcefulness and learning. I come back again to those two motifs of ‘struggle’ (sangram) and ‘waiting’ that seem to characterise so much of life in Bangladesh. Trying to carry out ‘tasks’ at work involved a lot of ‘waiting’: waiting for a meeting to occur, waiting for a decision, waiting for action….. More than once it struck me that I could have been on the set of Waiting for Godot, a play by Irish Nobel laureate, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989): I heard the words of Vladimir and Estragon daily.
Estragon: Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer.
Vladimir: Let’s wait and see what he says.
There were so many days at work that I struggled for energy. I had to eventually admit to myself that there were things that I just couldn’t do here. I’m used to feeling strong and being independent professionally, so this was terribly disappointing. A mentor may have superlative skills and conceptual creativity but unless colleagues are willing to engage professionally at some level, results remain illusory. In the midst of my frustration and disappointment at the lack of engagement and motivation, I learnt patience and persistence as I never knew them before. While my grasp of Bangla was not sufficient to communicate key concepts and ideas, I became a better communicator in English by breaking everything down and using the simplest language. I might draft a memo and then rewrite it two to three times to eliminate any ambiguity. Above all, through daily physical, intellectual and emotional participation, I learnt an incredible amount about the complexity of culture, both my own and that of my co-workers.
I am thankful to those colleagues who engaged with me in so far as was possible. Almost every week at least one person would apologise for how my life must be in the NILG. These colleagues helped me to comprehend the organisational milieu that militated against meaningful engagement. I learned that by questioning and seeking out qualitative information, I could begin to understand. So instead of sinking into despair and cynicism, I chose instead to examine the structures and power relations that have generated, and continue to generate, current conditions.
I felt quite ‘alone’ for much of my time in the NILG. As described earlier, if I wanted to meet anybody, I had to walk the corridors and knock on doors until I heard the response, ‘Asho!’ (‘Come in’!). There were many days when I met nobody. There were times too when I would love to have been able to share an experience face-to-face with a colleague e.g. the day that I finally got to work through the extraordinary floods in Dhaka (see post 27). I felt exhilarated upon arrival but I couldn’t find anybody to share my story with that day.
People ask me if I would do anything differently if I was starting again. I would definitely put more thought into accepting a particular assignment in the first place. I would explore the genesis and history of the VSO/partner-organisation relationship. I took this for granted, given VSO’s stated participatory development approach. There are so many dynamic organisations doing good work, in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors, and it is deeply disappointing not to have had the opportunity to spend the year making a more meaningful contribution. I would probably do other things differently too. I made mistakes and cultural faux pas along the way, but it was through these ‘mistakes’ that I made some of my biggest discoveries.
While it was undoubtedly difficult to work in the public sector, I am conscious of the opportunity I have been given to gain invaluable insights into the workings of a government organisation, warts and all. Maybe if I had had a perfect placement, I would not be as aware as I am now of the challenges facing the civil service, and what that actually means for those working in the system, and for development. Above all, from my experiences in Bangladesh, I have learnt how important positive thinking is. And so I focus on those glimmers of hope that shine through the complexities of governance systems here. I am reminded of the words of the officer who spoke to us in the Tarash upazila (see post 32). At the end of a day of hearing inspirational examples of local pockets of good practice in governance, he concluded that it was a hopeful time in Bangladesh because young, energetic and committed people are joining local government. Perhaps the same might be said of central government: in the NILG I certainly met some such committed people who are striving to create real and meaningful change.
I was referred to your blog by our mutual friend, JF. It makes for a most interesting read. You have a style of writing that I really enjoy reading. You balance a sense of journalistic integrity with interesting personal insight and you do it very well indeed. The academic voice is there too but doesn’t overpower!
I was most interested in how you dealt with your volunteer-work situation. A couple of years ago, my son (who is an engineer) volunteered in Africa for a year and faced many of the same difficulties that you describe so well. In fact, quite a few in his group had serious concerns. Their experiences affected them quite negatively. I agree with you when you say that development failures need to be acknowledged, in the same way that successes are, so that lessons can be learned. I think that you are almost a little too apologetic in your conclusions Ann. I would be much angrier. I wonder how ‘real’ the ‘inspirational’ volunteer stories you refer to in the VSO video clip actually are? Don’t ever suspend your scepticism entirely! (I worked in Cairo in the 1960s for a couple of years and could tell you a few stories…..but that’s for another day.) I sincerely hope that lessons have been learned from your difficult experiences by the volunteer organisation.
You paint a lovely picture of Bangladesh (as indeed does JF). I like the way you weave your words with art from Bangladesh and with personal photographs. One quibble: while I love the way your photographs are displayed in your posts, is there any way to make them bigger? For us old fogies with fading eyesight! I am looking forward to reading about your travels outside Bangladesh over the coming months. In the meantime, I hope you continue to travel and to write. Perhaps we will get an opportunity to meet one day.
Sincerely, Jay Blackburn
Such lovely comments. Thank you! I wasn’t at all too comfortable ‘publishing’ these posts. I’m afraid there’s much that is cringe-worthy and much more that needs editing. (Commas are a particular bugbear of mine: I can empathise with my fellow countryman, Oscar Wilde, when he said: “I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.”!)
For a long time I had very negative thoughts in relation to my ‘work’ experience. Believe me, I can be quite cynical: I hope I don’t come across as naive, though it is true that I would be naturally more optimistic than pessimistic. However, because I was new to the world of ‘development’, I wasn’t quite sure how to gauge my experiences. Hence, perhaps, the partly self-questioning tone. There were times too when I seriously questioned the merits of ‘development’ as a global project, and found myself in agreement with the many, well-documented, negative critiques that abound. However, on balance, I don’t think that the disillusionment of my very ‘particular’ thirteen months’ work in Dhaka qualifies me to reach conclusions on development just yet.
It is not difficult to paint Bangladesh, and particularly Bangladeshi people, in a positive light. I fell in love with the place, as indeed I think JF did too. Like all places, it has positives and negatives.
If there are any photographs in particular that you would like to see let me know and I can send you the original larger files.I will forward you my e-mail address. (You will see that I deleted your e-mail address from your comment above for your protection.) I would love to hear about your experiences in Cairo too!
Thanks again for taking the time to comment. I appreciate your kind words.