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Caring, Cocktails And Cartoons


new internationalist
issue 262 - December 1994

Heart of the matter. Poor women in Dhaka are the target of UN health and education schemes - and of fundamentalist concern.
Caring, cocktails and cartoons
The capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, might also be called the capital
of UN development aid. But what do local people think of the UN’s work?
Meghna Guhathakurta sounds them out.

The children huddled together gleefully under the tin roof, their eyes glued to the video screen – this was a rare treat in the village school. Across the screen capered Mina, a bright-eyed cartoon girl. They all recognized her immediately – and knew what she represented.

A shy and soft-spoken girl of eight confessed: ‘I want to get educated like Mina. And then... I want to be a doctor.’ A cheery-faced seven-year-old boy with sharp eyes shared his understanding of the cartoon campaign: ‘Mina wants to go to school, but they (parents, elders) won’t let her.’

Mina is an invention of UNICEF, which has been using her as the cornerstone of a campaign throughout South Asia to demonstrate the value of female education to poverty-ridden parents and a prejudiced society. In a sense Mina is also the most popular face of the United Nations in Bangladesh. At any rate UNICEF, with its much-publicized image as a crusader for maternal and child care, has won many people’s hearts and earned respect as a development partner in the truest sense. Almost everyone would recognize another of UNICEF’s public-education efforts, the slogan Baccha Bachaan! Tika Din! (Save your child! Vaccinate her/him!).

But other clear impressions of the UN are hard to come by. Indeed few people remember that the country owes a permanent debt of gratitude to one of the UN’s great unsung success stories – the UNROD relief operation during the first few years of independence in 1971. The new nation had just been through a bitter war. Famine loomed. Yet the Government was not even recognized by many potential donors. The UN proved the ideal conduit for the emergency aid required. About ten million refugees and millions of displaced Bengalis were absorbed back into the country quickly and quietly, law and order was by and large preserved and the threatened mass slaughter of minorities (Urdu-speaking Biharis) was avoided. Above all people were fed.

More than two decades have passed since then. It is a pity that such a glorious feat has been forgotten as much at home as abroad. It is forgotten here largely due to the political amnesia systematically cultivated by military regimes which denigrated anything achieved by democratically elected civilian governments. This has played into the hands of Bangladesh’s international image as a basket-case where nothing positive ever happens.

Bangladesh certainly relies on foreign aid. On average, foreign assistance accounts for about two-thirds of total investment, 90 per cent of public investments and 55-60 per cent of total imports. Out of the total aid disbursed in 1991, the UN system – including the IMF and the World Bank – accounted for 36.5 per cent.

What worries many local activists is the dependence syndrome which aid creates and which permeates every level of Bangladeshi society. To many, aid has come to mean the easy way out. Rather than mobilizing local people to construct a dirt road, rural officials will wait for access to Food for Work grain. Instead of getting the young to clean up the neighbourhood, people will complain about the lack of municipal services.

Even the best kind of UN aid could be seen as having a negative effect. A young activist from one of the ethnic groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts puts it this way: ‘It’s true that the UN is doing some good work here, but it is sometimes against the interests of groups like us. We are fighting a war against a military bureaucratic establishment. They are repressing our rights. The Government takes counter-insurgency measures in the name of development... like building roads to make our rugged countryside more accessible for army tanks, or developing rubber plantations so there is less wild forest. So even an apparently welfare-oriented project such as raising the living standards of rubber-plantation workers can work against our cause.’

A more typical response would be to welcome UN aid in general but to wish the Government were more choosy about the quality of the aid pouring into the country. As it is, the Administration gives a red-carpet welcome to almost any project proposed by donors. Often the only bone of contention between donor and recipient seems to be what kind of luxury car will provide the most appropriate form of transport.

But the very idea of development is increasingly coming under fire from a very different quarter. Development in Bangladesh has always been the ideology of the establishment, whether military or civilian, and it was anchored firmly in the secular modernizing trends of the West. Recently, however, fundamentalist forces have started to gain ground.

Fundamentalism has been on the rise in Bangladesh ever since the state veered away from the post-independence ideology of socialism and secularism and underwent an Islamicization process. Fundamentalists’ attack on development activities in Bangladesh has been two-pronged. Their accusations are that development has largely been funded by ‘Christian money’ and that development is antithetical to Islamic culture as it draws women out of purdah (seclusion). Up to now the physical assaults have been directed at grassroots organizations – burning down schools, preventing access to medicare and the like. But the wider development activities which depend on UN funding are also affected, especially those which relate to women.

All of this highlights UN agencies’ confusion over their role. Their job used to be simpler: they concentrated on technical assistance and big infrastructure projects. They still tend to do a lot of that. But lately the incorporation of human development (emphasizing health and education) into their agenda seems to have turned UN agencies into actors in search of a role. It has brought them face to face with problems which they are institutionally not equipped to handle, and has required them to be sensitive to the particular culture and politics of the country.

Aid donors have not hitherto been known for such sensitivity – they have recently been tying aid packages to structural-adjustment reforms, for instance. Donors closely co-ordinate their policies both internationally at an annual forum in Paris and nationally in a group chaired by the World Bank’s Chief of Mission. No doubt the donors prefer this arrangement, but what does it really have to say about that buzz phrase ‘partnership in development’? The real partnership is no longer between donors and the host country, but between the donors themselves.

Aid workers in Bangladesh – and UN agency staff not least among them – are often in the enviable position of being the trendsetters in a developing world. They occupy the most exclusive bungalows in uptown Dhaka. They ride impeccable white sedans with chrome yellow licence-plates which flash in the sun and proclaim to the world their difference from ordinary citizens.

What is more, UN jobs lure Bangladeshis as honey lures bees. The rewards are many: the fat pay, the bonuses, the glamour, not to mention the power which comes from holding the purse-strings. Or else they seek seminars abroad or study trips which can give them a taste and feel for the good life. They start pursuing the model of development they see around them – not the hot and clammy project offices in the countryside but the cool, trendy cocktail circuits of uptown Dhaka. When confronted about their lifestyle, aid donors have a ready answer: ‘What about the even more lavish lifestyle of the local élite – not to mention the oppressive, almost feudal social system!’

One wonders if it would be more fruitful if they asked instead why, despite two decades of development assistance, Bangladesh has failed to graduate to self-reliance. Or why Bangladesh has been persistently portrayed in the world media as the classic case of hopelessness and despair. Or indeed why the torch of UNROD’s success has been passed to an exclusive club of donors with a very peculiar idea of partnership.

Meghna Guhathakurta is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka.


Working for the UN I hate this country – but that’s why I’m here. The main reason that people accept a job in a place like this is so they can stash away money – and I’m stashing away a small fortune. Because it’s classified as a hardship post, I’m automatically on 25 per cent above the basic salary for my grade. In addition it’s a Muslim country, which means we work on Sundays – and that gets me another 25 per cent. My housing’s paid, food is cheap and there’s really nothing else to spend money on, so I’m building up a nest-egg.

(UN aid worker quoted in Lords of Poverty by Graham Hancock)


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