Disclaimer: personal glory on publication

I know this is a bit “dorky” but google search of ‘Bangladesh’ today shows my article that was published in The Diplomat today! Specifically, under “news.” Also know as, google Bangladesh today in Google News!

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Anyways, to read the article titled “Authorities Make Arrests in Bangladesh Garments Factory Fire,” click here. 

Published in The Diplomat: ‘Authorities Make Arrests in Bangladesh Garments Factory Fire’

My article on the recent arrest of the owners of the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh has been published in The Diplomat. This is in response to the factory fire that killed more than 1,000 people in April 2012. I focus on the police force and the lack of justice served in Bangladesh, and what this much-talked about disaster could mean for the system. To read, click here.

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Authorities Make Arrests in Bangladesh Garments Factory Fire

Their track record is not promising, but will the authorities finally deliver justice?

By Olinda Hassan

On February 8, the owners of the garments factory in Bangladesh that burned and killed more than a hundred people in April 2012 finally surrendered to the police. Delwar Hossain and his wife, Mahmuda Akter, along with eleven associates are charged with homicide for the fire, which prompted an international debate on corporate responsibility in developing countries.

The charges are significant because it is the first time that Bangladesh has sought accountability from leading players in the lucrative garments industry, a powerful political and economic player. It is a test of Bangladesh’s police force and the legal system, at a time when they are coming under increasing public scrutiny for what is perceived as their laissez-faire attitude towards the rich and powerful.

At around $20 billion, the garments industry in Bangladesh accounts for a significant portion of the country’s export industry, with shipments mainly going to the U.S. and Europe. A poster child for development economic research and nonprofit work, the industry has been hailed by academics for increasing the role of the private sector in what is a late bloomer emerging market. With women accounting for the majority of workers, researchers and international development bodies alike have credited garments manufacturing for increasing employment opportunities for women and helping to bridge the rural-urban divide in Bangladesh, praising the industry for its indirect facilitation of gender advancement in Bangladesh socially and economically.

Following the fire in April 2012, along with several other deadly fires in the following months, this praise has been overtaken by stories of harsh working conditions and poor pay, attracting attention from human rights organizations, mainly from the West. While authorities and global clothing companies have vowed to improve safety standards, it is often forgotten that the issue goes beyond the rights of workers, to the very nature of the country’s police enforcement and legal system. The arrests of Hossain, Akter and their associates has shone a light onto an uncomfortable arena: the power of the police, one of the most mistrusted agencies in Bangladesh.

The power and fragmented nature of Bangladesh’s police force is an uncomfortable discussion. Following the fire in the Tazreen Fashions factory, local police cited insufficient evidence to bring a case against the owners. However, further investigation found that some managers had in fact closed the gates that would have allowed workers to escape the fire, and even told workers that it was a regular drill. The building had no emergency exits or a proper monitoring system. Even getting this far in the investigation was a power struggle; everyone knows that there is something profoundly wrong with the way that these factories are run, but no one does anything about it because of their lack of faith in the police.

In incidents involving garment factory fires, factory owners are rarely charged or held responsible. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a quasi-governmental body that is supposed to regulate export relationships, rarely faces charges, such is the influence of its leaders. Look no further than its glittering headquarters in Dhaka, which the Bangladesh High Court ruled sits on illegally obtained land. Despite a court order for it to be demolished more than two years ago, no action has been taken.

Yet the Tazreen fire was the deadliest factory fire in the history of garments manufacturing worldwide. The EU and the U.S. have placed and continuing to threaten Bangladesh with trade sanctions. In the meantime, stories were heard of protests abroad, from people far removed from the Bangladesh experience, against companies like Wal-Mart.

Whether this sustained international pressure was what finally motivated the police to file charges against the owners of the Tazreen factory a full year and a half after the fire will remain a point of contention. The police in Bangladesh are seen as both powerful and indifferent to the public they serve. It will be interesting to see if in this tragic case authorities can successfully separate justice from political power.

An email from Dhaka

I cannot help but ask the question, which has been hanging in the air or the spaces, which I have traveled in these past few years. When does a place really belong to you? If the idea of a home is so fluid, then why do we constantly seek it out and need to build a space for it. Time away from the familiar always gives opportunities for thought, and perhaps lot of chances for thinking things over.

 

Prabhat Gautam,

 

This is an excerpt from an email he sent from Nepal, where he is visiting his family after spending the summer in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Published: Dinner not Going to be Cheap Anytime Soon

My latest publication on food security worldwide and how agriculture is “in” again. A lot of my information has been taken from my interest in IFPRI’s latest publication on the issue, released just a few months ago. The following was published in the Forum magazine, click here to read. 

Dinner not Going to be Cheap Anytime Soon

OLINDA HASSAN finds out the looming food crisis both at national and international levels.

Today’s global food crisis is no longer just about the very poor. It is affecting the cracks and corners of the chain of wealth and access, primarily because so much of our economies are interlinked, thanks to globalisation. Agriculture has strong ties to water, nutrition, land, energy, and climate change, all of which center economic development in countries like Bangladesh. Once upon a time, development specialists thought agriculture is something that needs to be limited so as to make industrialisation a top priority. Agriculture was a thing of the past. This thought is still common for many researchers in Bangladesh.

The interesting news is that according to International Food Policy Research Institute’s latest Global Food Policy Report, agriculture is back on the development agenda. Agricultural development is important — the World Bank and USAID agree, as they expand their agriculture — related projects throughout the world, especially in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The World Bank just increased their funds dedicated to food and agricultural sectors to reach around $6 billion. Statistics are telling: food security matters and agriculture-dependent countries like Bangladesh need to and will do better.

No longer are we seeing prices from our grandmother or our parents’ time, let alone this generation’s childhood.

Food has taken center stage in many political issues worldwide — if not centered on food, food has definitely triggered some revolutions and protests. And food is a rich people problem too. The spikes in food prices also undermine development gains especially for the urban poor. The Economist declared the “end of cheap food” in 2007 after oil-rich nations like Venenzuela and Russia put control on food prices. In Bangladesh, where more than two thirds of its consumer-price index is accounted by food, higher food prices have a greater than imagined impact.

Bread, rice, tortilla, pasta & democracy

Food has taken centre and backstage in many of the world’s revolutions throughout history. Consider the French Revolution, where bread — an essential component of the French diet, especially for the poor — was at the heart of the conflict. France is after all, the home of Marie Antoinette, who reacted to the news that her subjects had no bread to eat with the popular phrase “Let them eat cake.” “Bread was considered a public service necessary to keep the people from rioting,” wrote Linda Civitello, author of Culture: A History of Food and People. As taxes increased and droughts affected agricultural gains, the lack of bread became a reason for the poor to have a rising anger towards the wealthier French citizens. The birth of France led to the opening of some of the first restaurants in the world; it was a bouillon seller named Boulanger who sold clear soup that was considered restorative.

The decrease to the eventual collapse of grain production in the Soviet Union during the 1980s resulted in anger that eventually led to the collapse of the entire Communist system. Fast forward to the 21st Century where food-related issues have left half a million people dead in Darfur, while generating two million environmental refugees. Mexico saw riots over rise in the price of tortillas. Haiti’s government collapsed in 2008 after many violent rice riots. Italy threatened to boycott pasta around the same time.

Forward further to the past year and a half: the Arab Spring has deep links to food. The once upon a time ‘Fertile Crescent’ is high on the list for dependency on imported grain; in 2010, almost half of the top 20 wheat importers were from the Middle East, with Egypt taking first place, Algeria 4th, Yemen 13th, Libya 16th, and Tunisia 17th. Furthermore, youth unemployment in the region made things worse: households had more stomachs to feed with less money and no guarantees. The effect of high price hikes especially affected Tunisia where the poor spend almost 70% of their income on food, notably bread. Demand for democracy and lower food prices began in December 2010, and even though President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali promised to lower food prices, he was gone by January. Following Tunisia’s rapid changes, the Washington Post remarked how the uprising has “economists worried that we may be seeing the beginning of a second wave of global food riots.” North Korea, a country that has been a receiver of food aid for decades, could see potential problems with recent leadership changes. Predictions of revolutions in 2012 persist for Sub-Saharan Africa with their continuous drought problems.

The food-linked revolutions observed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and also in Yemen, Bahrain and currently, Syria calls for more inclusive policy measures to tackle youth unemployment as well as targeted safety nets. It begs development agencies and policy makers to revisit their research and include basic food staples high on their agendas. Food can fuel violence — this has been proven. What has yet to be proven is how far the recognition will take effect on actual governance.

Reaching millennium development goals won’t matter if you don’t have rice in the pantry

Reaching the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been going positively worldwide for participating countries. Bangladesh in particular has seen much progress, especially in areas such as primary education and maternal health, among others. The key goal of reducing poverty by half by 2015 was reached globally in 2010, according to the World Bank’s recent Global Monitoring Report (note: the individual country statistics may be different).

The hike in food prices in 2011 however undermines many of these gains in developing nations. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN’s food price index reached a record high in February, 2011. The food price hike has been attributed to high oil prices, biofuel policies, and natural disasters worldwide. This was bad news for nations like Cambodia and Bangladesh where a large part of the food consumed is imported. Kenya, which continues to experience extreme droughts, saw food inflation at 22% in 2011. In Zambia, the price of bread increased 75% between 2010 and 2011.

The World Bank reports that 3 billion people live in rural areas in developing countries; 2.5 billion of them are involved in farming. 75% of the world’s poorest people are included in that figure. When food prices increase, farmers are expected to increase production to take advantage of the effect, which should, in turn, ease prices. However, agriculture depends on seasons and nature: simply put, it takes time to grow food. And while that happens in the backyard, people must eat. It becomes difficult for farmers in developing nations to budget for everyday food as well as production. Such short term needs must be met, thus disturbing the system (Postmedia News).

2011 also witnessed some of the worst natural disasters ever recorded worldwide. The severe droughts in Kenya, Mali, Sierra Leon, to other agriculture-dependent countries in Africa led to severe economic losses. Floods in Thailand, the Philippines, Brazil, and Pakistan also led to economic losses and sudden poverty for many families. The tsunami and earthquakes in Japan marked the year’s largest natural disaster and biggest economic effect. According to insurance experts, in 2011, natural disasters recorded an economic loss of US$380 billion, double the figure from 2010 (Reuters).

The price hike of basic food necessities combined with poor people’s day to day food survival needs puts family nutrition at a huge risk. Temporary price hikes in turn leave long term effects on a child’s development. Child malnutrition is responsible for more than a third of the under-five years of age mortality. Even if food security issues are short term, they leave long term effects for poor families in developing countries. Moreover, long-term trends in farming are unpredictable, especially with technological innovation that can change courses in an instant. Most forecasters conclude however that prices will stay high since supplies will not match growing demands. MDGs related to education, health, and poverty for many countries well on their way to progress have already been severely threatened.

Food’s price hike is a north-south issue

The price hike on food affects the developed nations as well, many of which also depend on importing food, mainly from developing countries being devastated by price hikes and natural disasters. Moreover, the global economic recovery will be driven by emerging markets like Brazil, India, and China, where agriculture continues to be a staple. In China, food inflation ran over 13% last year. For countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, rapidly increasing food prices represent a huge threat to the economic health of developing, emerging, and developed countries.

However, China and India have also been at the forefront of investing in food policies. They have also increased their efforts in forging South-South relations, according to IFPRI. For example, the Indian Parliament introduced the National Food Security Bill which would provide rice, wheat, and coarse grains at low prices to more than half of the country’s 1.2 billion people — according to IFPRI, it is the world’s largest anti-hunger programme. Furthermore, China’s investment in water to boost agricultural activity will total around US$630 billion in the next decade.

Of course, India and China have been able to create such promises through its overall increasing and expanding economies. This can be illustrated using food, again. The demand for meat is tied to economic growth , and this is especially true for China where the average consumer now eats more than 50 kilograms of meat in a year, up from 40 kilograms back in 1985 (The Economist). Many developing countries’ demand for meat has also increased in recent years. The production of these animal proteins however requires large quantities of cereals for feeding the livestock. If the demand for cereals increases, it will make edible grains (e.g. wheat, rice, etc.) too expensive for many poor countries.

Those living in poverty have been hit the hardest with food price hikes in Bangladesh, but the middle and upper class are complaining as well. This is also combined with increasing allegations of poisoning our food, whether its exploited fish markets to enhanced bananas and apples, people do not trust their local markets. The bird flu has caused hundreds of poultry farms shutting down throughout Bangladesh, and increased pressure for imported eggs and chickens is taking place. Prices of “rich” food are increasing: the price of butter is up by 40%, chocolate biscuits 50%, coffee 20%, and pasta 29% (The Observer). In 2011, Unilever expected a 14-16% increase, Nestlé 8-10% for their food products due to international price increases on basic staples. Food prices in Britain are rising at nearly double the level in the United States and the euro zone or any other rich country worldwide (The Observer).

Keep an eye on emerging markets – conclusion

The staples of our diet have the power to incite violent riots to revolutions. Food policies will become central among development work worldwide. And as the interdependence among countries continues to increase with globalisation, attention to agricultural activities and in turn, food security will be urgent.

While food price increase will affect the rich and the poor, it is inevitable that it will affect the latter in more devastating ways. Countries like Japan and Saudi Arabia will have to continue importing large quantities of food, but they can afford that. According to IFPRI, the expansion of bio-fuels could decrease calorie intake further by 4-8% in Africa and 2-5% in Asia by the end of this decade.

Population is increasing, rural to urban migration is escalating, and adequate food for all is in serious danger. Hunger will continue to be a problem, and policy makers will have a harder time coping with it. Agriculture will once again return to the table of policy makers: there is no choice. Something is different though: people’s daily meals worldwide will depend largely on the economic activities and policies created by India and China, the big emerging markets. On a positive note, both countries are taking notice with their policies, as discussed previously. India and China will have to continue developing a taste for meat and chocolates along with the basic staples to get markets worldwide going.

Olinda Hasan writes on various social issues and is keen on discussing various musings in her blog at olindahassan. wordpress.com.

my maid’s home burned down.

My maid came to my house after missing one day at around 8 am, crying, and then screaming. She first apologized for not coming to work the day before, and then explained that her home had burned down from a fire. You didn’t know? she asked me. I didn’t. I left for work early and came home at night and in between, fire ablaze the slum area where my maid, Parveen had lived with her children and husband. It was a makeshift home of bamboos like so many others, built above a bed of water with illegal electricity and water running through the hundreds of homes. 150 makeshift homes, gone. Another reports 250. It was on the TV. (click here for the story.) Even my parents saw it from abroad, but I just had no idea.

I hired Parveen just a few days earlier. I have less than two weeks left and needed better help at home and she came in the mornings, around 6:30 am. She cleaned the floors, washed my clothes, cleaned my bathrooms, polished this and that, and occasionally cooked and made my morning tea. She was very, very talkative. I was not annoyed yet. And she was different than other maids I have seen– she accessorized more, wore cleaner clothes. She worked for about four homes in the area and used her money smartly. She even had a bank account. She bought a television, and she managed to purchase a cupboard. She fed her children with her money, one of whom suffered from a disability. Her husband was an occasional rickshaw puller, occasional gambler, and occasional abuser. Like all the other maids’ husbands, my aunt once told me.

She didn’t have shoes and I gave her a pair of flip flops. I gave her 500 taka. I didn’t have anything else to give at the time.I really didn’t. She wouldn’t take food–apparently she doesn’t have the appetite and they are already being fed by an NGO there. But here is the troubling part. I have been talking to some neighbors and people are sympathetic. She just lost everything. But they are also cautious. They told me, be careful, she is going to start asking you for a lot of things and emotionally blackmail you. But she just lost everything, I would respond. She works for four homes and has connections to ten others, she is getting a lot more than other victims who don’t have such connections. So what do I do, just ignore that the poor woman’s house burned down? I mean, she is poor after all, and you can’t deny the fact that house being burned down…I can’t even imagine. At the same time, my neighbors told me, you have to be careful because they are used to wanting more and asking for more and you don’t exactly know for sure how much she has and what she is exactly doing with all of the money and clothes. Cunning, selfish, greedy, and they are used to hustling, they tell me.

The conversations go on and I am left frustrated because I just don’t see how one can ignore that a person is a sufferer and a victim no matter their status in the social ladder of losing everything from a disaster. As someone who has a lot more, am I not obliged to help? If not obliged, shouldn’t I, if I can? How can I check that my charity is actually helping? But how can it not, for Parveen is very, very poor  despite everything.

And how about the rest? my neighbors ask back.

Published in the Daily Star: Kony 2012 and the New Age of Social Media in Political Action

My interest in social media is a recent phenomenon, mostly triggered by the Arab Spring. The recent attention on Kony 2012, both the good and bad has been particularly eye catching because it has attracted the youth, and also attracted attention to issues that have already been a problem for a long time– why now? The power of Facebook- what was one laughable- is actually serious. YouTube? Twitter? These sites do not even ask for spell check on Word anymore. Anyway, I wrote this piece for this month’s Forum magazine in response to the many questions that buzz my head as I think about the way I use and don’t use social networking sites and the media. The article can be found by clicking here, or read below, or by buying this month’s copy of the magazine, available in Bangladesh.

Kony 2012 and the New Age of Social Media in Political Action

OLINDA HASSAN looks at the significance of social media in bringing political change.

Can social media be used to make an effective political change? This question highlights recent reactions by activists, academics, politicians, to journalists in the wake of Kony 2012, the video aimed at bringing public attention to Joseph Kony, the militant leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. The 30 minute video as of March 19 has had 82 million viewers. That is almost triple the population of Uganda.

Joseph Kony led the LRA under the ideology of creating a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments in Uganda. For over a quarter of a century, Kony built a sizable army of child soldiers and ordered the abduction of thousands of girls to become sex slaves. Though in 2005 Kony was indicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court, he has yet to be captured.

Kony 2012 was created by a US-based advocacy group, Invisible Children Inc which has long worked in Uganda to bring access to education and quality livelihood to a post-conflict community that suffers from poverty and the memories of war. The video brings to light these issues, with the hope that it will lead to the capture of the militant leader before the end of the year.

Invisible Children Inc has been long known for having one of the strongest social media bases in the nonprofit world. The video’s viral purpose is clear as it repeats the images of people using social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and of course, YouTube. The video opens with the words “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. ” Kony 2012 does not necessarily make Kony the celebrity but certainly the bad guy, and more interestingly, it personifies the viewer — that it is you watching who can bring change. Furthermore, it uses a simplistic story line — some argue too simple — and thus, misses some key facts and features of the atrocities committed. However, its simplicity was the reason why the video was able to target so many viewers — and from so many intellectual and other backgrounds. In an age of technological communication when so many millions of users utilise social media around the world, this is certainly telling.

The simple story line, as mentioned, has been the root cause of a backlash of the viral video. Critics argue that the simplification of the complex issue has instead caused “slacktivism” rather than actual activism. Slacktivism, derived from slack and activism, points to the effort of no effort — a pejorative term that describes supporting a cause through simple measures, like sharing a link of Facebook, and feeling good about it and not going further. As many have argued over blog posts, advancing awareness and social media alone will not do much to stop the atrocities in Africa, let alone capture Kony. Journalist Anthony Kosner writes, “the radical simplification of the situation in Uganda that makes Kony 2012 such an effective piece of social media is the same thing that undermines it as a piece of political activism.” (Forbes).

Social media and international politics


We have entered a new era where social media can and have shown to matter, even in as complex an area as foreign policy. Facebook and Twitter have fueled the Arab Spring uprising, giving both men and women equal footing and voice on some of the most pressing issues of governance. Videos have been coming out of Syria on a regular basis, giving them a chance to be noticed by the outside world. As author Philip N. Howard noted, “It was social media that spread both the discontent and inspiring stories of success… into the Middle East.” “Occupy Wall Street” in New York has its roots in social media outlets, the same tool used for similar protests around the United States. Young people around the world have especially been hit with the use of social media and also in actually becoming active. It has become an inspiring and a dangerous tool, mainly because so many people have the access, and thus the voice, regardless of gender, age, socioeconomic status to some extent, or language.

Since the rise of the internet in the early 1990s, the world’s networked population has increased from a million or two, to low billions. At the same time, social media became “a fact of life for civil society worldwide” (Clay Shirky, Foreign Affairs). It has involved the average citizens, activists, nongovernmental organisations, students, companies, software providers, and of course, governments. As this new era’s communication processes gets more complex and intertwined, the population of users have increased. People have greater opportunities to interact, access information, and take action. The high level of production and sharing of multimedia content makes it even more difficult to suppress information. It is redefining freedom, especially in countries where such rights are limited. This was especially true for Egypt, for example, where outlets such as Facebook and Twitter carried the message of freedom and democracy to help raise political uprising. Democracy found its footing in social networks.

The new wave of political activism through social media has certainly attracted the attention of politicians, who on average are much older and in general, of a different demographic than the average activist (who tend to be younger and more in tune with technology as evidenced by recent uprisings and activities). When protests erupted in Tehran, Iran, the US State Department asked Twitter executives to suspend their scheduled maintenance of the service so it could still be used as a tool for political organisation during the demonstrations. While the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 may have been the first modern rebellion to be recorded on Twitter, it did not bring down a government. The links between social media and revolutions are still being examined by researchers.

Egypt has almost 10.5 million Facebook users, ranking at 20, ahead of countries such as Japan (25) and Russia (29), and way ahead of other North African countries Algeria (44) and Tunisia (47). Bangladesh is ranked at 55, with a little over 2 million users on Facebook, with users from ages 18-24 making up more than 50% of the users (Source: Socialbaker). Bangladesh is also not new to enforced censorship and social media blocking enforced by the government. It is important to also note that many users of sites like Facebook may originate at one place, but the user may live in a different country, as well as the use of multiple accounts and other glitches.

Social media alone is of course not the main driving force of uprisings — on-the-field activism is. Rather, social media has been taken up to make people aware and inform them of activities taking place that they can participate in. Certainly, awareness is part of the scheme in bringing in changes.

Regulation and censorship (?) 
At first, using the words “censorship” and ” media” will inevitably bring in an abundance of negative reactions, especially in the 21st century and in an era of technology and global communication. In terms of social media, however, the debate goes further than initial reactions.

Censorship of social media sites are often compared to the censorship of books, films, or the press — most people do not support such censorship and social media in some ways fits into the category. But because of the complex nature of social media (where everyone can be an author and everyone can have access), it is hard to directly apply the same principles.

Furthermore, social media sites have been used to both organise mass protests that have fueled success (e.g. Egypt and the Arab Spring) to violence (e.g. instant messaging services facilitated the London riots). False information is notorious for appearing in, and being shared around via social media sites. Twitter users’ panic tweets about gunmen attacking schools in Mexico allegedly led to 26 car accidents. There are also notions of social media sites being used to develop and strengthen underground cults and gangs in urban centres, such as in Los Angeles to London.

With no proper means of addressing and defining social media (after all, is it really “media”?), governments are left to do as pleased given the right purposes. China, for one, has been known historically to censor internet content. But as a recent Carnegie Mellon University study has shown, Chinese web users have also cleverly found many ways to access forbidden sites and micro blogs to serve their political or social purposes. Iran similarly has just posed another ban on social media outlets, making it more difficult for citizens to communicate, repressing Iranians instead of empowering them through what used to be an easy communication tool.

Kony 2012 and the new age of internet 
Returning to the discussion of Invisible Children Inc, Kony 2012 has become one of the most highly viewed videos of recent times on YouTube. The video has attracted notable celebrities such as Ryan Seacrest, Justin Beiber, Rhianna, Alec Baldwin and Taylor Swift who used their Twitter accounts to spread awareness of the video. Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has reported that the first two days after the video was released online, 77% of Twitter conversation was supportive compared with only 7% that was skeptical. However, since its release, there has also been a massive rise in actually analysing both the video and the content from bloggers and journalists so that since March 7, when the response picked up dramatically, the percentage of tweets reflecting skepticism increased to 17%.

And the criticisms are increasing. Some of the main denigration of Kony 2012 in recent days has been on its depiction of Uganda, and how the events covered in the video was the story of the past, and not the current state of the war-wrecked nation. The image of Africa as depicted in the video was also troubling. “This is another video where I see an outsider trying to be a hero rescuing African children. We have seen these stories a lot in Ethiopia, celebrities coming in Somalia,” said Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan blogger who explained that the video only showcased Africa as hopeless and constantly needing outside help. A lot of phrases like “white man’s burden” have also appeared among blog sites. Social media has both the ability to be used to increase awareness of a topic, and to also increase awareness of the details and critics of the topic itself in a very timely manner, as noted in the case of Kony 2012.

Social media is a very recent, and a very relevant player in today’s politics, as evidenced by increased government attention and also, government regulation and censorships. However, social media is also not the “only thing” and can often be misguided. The rules of checking facts, the sources, and basic common sense still applies to tweets and Facebook updates — just as it does for the press. Perhaps such caution is warranted even more for social media outlets because of its ability to be used by the masses and not just experts. Rather than information sharing, social media has perhaps been more actively purposeful for organising, whether that was in the Arab Spring, or as now with Kony 2012 in leading massive attention to a little known leader in the outside world of Uganda.

Nigerian human rights campaigner Omoyele Sowore states it best like it is: “The Internet has helped revolution; but the Internet is not revolution.”

Olinda Hassan is a graduate of Wellesley College, and continues to discusses various musings in her blog at olindahassan.wordpress.com

Bangladesh’s cricket- the final match of the Asia Cup game.

The final match between Pakistan and Bangladesh for the Asia Cup was certainly an emotional ride for Bangladesh, and the millions of Bangladeshis living abroad who tuned in at odd hours to listen and watch the game from their computers. I was watching  the 8 hour match at Pan Pacific Sonargaon hotel at the restaurant where I found a prime seat at a table in front of the TV. It is the same hotel where the teams from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, and of course Bangladesh stayed for the tournament. There was a program going on that night at the hotel which I skipped to watch the game, taking as much time as I can with my overpriced Chef’s Salad so that I wasn’t kicked out of my table.

An emotional ride was exactly what it was. Bangladesh played incredibly on the field- perhaps too well, as some spectators speculated with rumors of game fixing. At the end, the entire restaurant was filled with staff and people from around the hotel who stood there watching. Managers didn’t scream at the waiters and cleaners who have been taking peeks at players as they go in and out of the hotel rooms for the past two weeks. Well suited men stood next to ground staff. Everyone watched until the last ball- because that was what it came down to.

While Bangladesh lost the game, people have been talking about how well the team played this year in the series. They were not like the old Bangladeshi team, in that they actually played to win and did not give up. Still, fans were skeptical, as we are so used to being after years of supporting a losing team. Even when there were only 4 runs to score to win between Sri Lanka earlier, I was thinking something just might go wrong. You just never know with the tigers.

This time, people cried after the game. We were that close. Articles and comments of fans crying and also, backing the team filled the news, rather than rage over why we didn’t win. We were just not used to ever playing this good for so long.

It is also a game that has taken over an emotional nation. One would think- how can you keep supporting a team that is so unpredictable? The answer lies in the fact that it is a national team that plays against countries with political histories with the young country whose memories are too sharp. The emotional capacity is felt during and after the games (reportedly, the captain of the team pleaded with the fans to be strong after reports of fan suicides).

It is interesting to be in Bangladesh at this time. Cricket is one of the very few things that unite the country together. It is if not the only source of entertainment that doesn’t see a mark on social status and wealth of individuals. It’s a game that anyone can watch, does watch, and understand. I find it fascinating how sports can actually do this to people, communities, cities, and nations.

It is still unpredictable what could happen to this team after the Asia Cup. However, beating Bangladesh at a cricket match can no longer be considered an ‘upset’. They do actually play pretty well. This is the message that has been echoed by the millions living in Dhaka and abroad who try just as hard to better the image of the country from whatever angle possible. Take us seriously- we are here to play.

Published: Women in the Workplace: Gender-specific challenges in the corporate world (Daily Star)

The article can be found in this month’s Forum magazine supplement of the Daily Star or online by clicking here.

Women in the Workplace:Gender-specific challenges in the corporate world

OLINDA HASSAN explores the role of female participation and leadership in the workplace.

The last decade has witnessed an impressive rise of women in the workforce in Bangladesh. The encouraging rate of growth has been reflected in a variety of sectors. Being able to identify some women in high positions in the normally male-driven corporate industry is certainly encouraging. With change comes a social pressure for cultural shifts in perceptions. For example, today, the working women’s future ‘dreams’ are not just obtaining independence, but advancing in their respective careers. Such notions of career advancement closely resemble the historical aspirations of men. However, women’s paths towards such dreams are vastly different from men and the reaction that such women face from their peers and families continue to be problematic. Combined with the general consequences of a patriarchal society, women in Bangladesh’s corporate world are driven by additional determinants — How should I get ahead as a woman? How do I manage my life at home alongside my career? How do I deal with family expectations?

Traditional gender-roles and seeking female leadership in the workplace

A reason why women in South Asia, such as in Bangladesh, opt out of professional careers is to raise their children. Because of continued stigma attached to women and raising children at home, a woman’s continuation of work after birth remains a cultural obstacle. Women in South Asia also continue to have an uneven share of responsibilities when it comes to taking care of their elderly parents and/or parents-in-law. Combined with having to take care of children, many South Asian women find it exceptionally difficult to resume their careers at the level they left since they are unable to remain connected or develop professionally in a linear fashion.

Moreover, women’s participation in Bangladesh’s movements continue to be limited in scope. To this day, whether married or not, young or old, women face a harder time being able to work odd hours, overtime, or over weekends — the types of commitment that are needed in a competitive, corporate world. Women in general face more pressure than their male counterparts to explain and gain approval from their home as to why she would need to work longer hours, or why she would have to take a certain work trip out of town, for example.

The movements of female workers at the workplace are more scrutinised with a magnifying glass than their male counterparts. “As women, we already face advances from our male colleagues. I have even been advised to flirt with them in order to be heard. The definition of what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is definitely much more difficult to navigate for us than it is for our male colleagues. There is just too much cultural pressure,” said one female communications manager for a multinational corporation in Dhaka who asked for anonymity.

At the work place, it is more difficult for women to break into a male-dominated industry, since a woman in leadership or seeking a leadership position must showcase that she is as capable as any other man at work. She must work hard, if not harder, to gain staff respect and understanding.

Thus, women often have to choose between their career and their family life as both components require much attention and physical presence.

However, some of the difficulties listed above may be used as excuses and are self-created. In a recent article in Business Standard, Vinita Bali, the managing director of Britannia Industries was asked about how she felt working in a male-dominated industry and she expressed that sometimes, “we talk about it so much we make it bigger than what it is.” While problems may exist, embedded problems from culture can be changed. Women must thus be more vocal in defending themselves at their home and create a reasonable venue for approval and understanding. After all, more women than ever hold corporate positions in Bangladesh, and this could not have been gained without achieving understanding between families and communities.

“This isn’t a golf-playing, beer-drinking homogeneous culture,” Naina Lal Kidwai, Group Managing Director and Country Head of HSBC in India once said in an interview regarding corporate women in South Asia. “Women could join the workplace on their own terms…You still have to network; you still have to work hard, but that made it easier” (HRM Asia).

Appearances, its judgments, and why it may matter to a woman’s employment

The Bangladeshi corporate woman can instigate all kinds of images. You have the one who wears stylish, trend-setting saris and comes to work with her designer bag and always perfect hair and flawless makeup. On one hand, she embodies professionalism with her clean, clear cut modern image. On the other hand, she is seen as a bit too much — a bit too modern, a bit too smart, a bit too out there. Who does she think she is, better than all of us?– a common Bangladeshi sentiment arises. The leading corporate woman can also wear a simple sari or shalwar kameez, with visible dark circles under her eyes and non-flashy shoes and I-care-more-about-my-files bag. This can generate a nod of approval from those who want to see a hard worker, but she can also be subjected to being too simple, too sloppy, and too intelligent. Either way, no matter how she dresses and presents herself, a negative perception and related typecasting can, and most often does, follow.

With slow economy worldwide and higher competition among job seekers, men and women alike are facing new challenges in the market. Interestingly, in the array of research, articles and advice blogs written to aid women, there has been a particular assertion: looks matter.

“If you want to get a raise or a promotion, you might want to throw on a pair of heels and suck in that belly. Your looks can help (or hinder) your chances of getting a well-deserved promotion, regardless of qualifications, especially in a sour economy when advancements are few and hard to come by,” recently wrote journalist Laura Sinberg for Forbes, one of the leading publications for corporate America. According to the Journal of Labor Economics,attractive people earn about 5% more than their average-looking colleagues.

A 2009 study by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found that 73% of women felt a “youthful appearance” played a role in getting a job, promotion, or getting and keeping clients. Many in the study cited difficult economic times as the reason for such a sentiment; the better-looking are the ones advancing in their careers where competition has become even more rigorous.

Such statements and studies may seem anti-feminist and anti-women’s movement. It certainly can be seen as offensive. But given the recent economy, women are certainly taking the looks-factor into consideration.

In Bangladesh, the number of working-women who are in the rising stage of their careers, between the age of 25-45 are visiting the parlours more than ever, opting for work-appropriate looks ranging from haircuts to subtle manicures. New boutiques and fashion houses are offering more and more “work-appropriate clothing” specifically created to make a woman feel and look more serious. Young women employed in major business and banking industries in the city are increasingly “looking the part.” It is not that one should ever not look work-appropriate; rather, there is a conscious decision made by many women to have to look attractive in the workplace, beyond just being “presentable”.

“The first lesson I learned as a South Asian woman is, I don’t have to compromise my values, but I really need to understand how I articulate them,” said Shahla Aly, a general manager at Microsoft at a conference at Harvard Business School in 2005 in a discussion about South Asian women at work. “My need to dress modestly can be articulated in dress that is more pervasive. At that point [when she first began her corporate job], I had not yet earned the right to be different.”

Countering stereotypes as women increase their visibility in corporate South Asia

South Asian women in business sometimes endure stereotypes exclusive to Asian women; on one hand, they are deemed as very intelligent, sharp, and able to think from varied angles. However, they are also often labelled as passive and submissive, and unassertive. In the corporate business world, these perceived qualities can hamper a woman’s professional growth. Additionally, there is a massive disconnect between an educational system in Bangladesh that now produces a large quantity of female graduates and a business climate that has not yet included this talent pool. Even if a woman is hired for a higher-end position, she will earn less and have lower chances of a promotion than her male counterpart.

A recent survey by Catalyst found that companies with female board directors consistently outperform corporations without women on the board in areas such as return on equity, return on sales, and return on invested capital. Another study posted on the Harvard Business Review cites such trends to qualities such as women invest more on preparation before board meetings and have higher attendance rates. They seek to broaden the scope of discussions and bring in a different set of characteristics that makes any corporate board unique and all-encapsulating. Given the recent economic climate worldwide, such characteristics are needed more than ever for struggling or expanding industries.

The discussion of what inhibits female growth and entrance into professional roles in Bangladesh (in an age when we have become focused on addressing gender gaps) takes place in the light that more women than ever are indeed advancing their careers in South Asia. Let us take India for example: foreign banks (e.g. HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS) and the country’s ICICI Bank and Axis Bank are all run by women. Half of the deputy governors at the Reserve Bank of India are women (HRM Asia). Even though the traditional Indian society is patriarchal like Bangladesh, modern women in the region do not need to act like the stereotypical male banker to advance their careers.

Increasing the representation of women on corporate and governing boards is not singularly a women’s issue — it is a gender issue, for both men and women, and a professional concern. It is often asserted that putting women in leadership positions can broaden a company’s perspective on social welfare issues and “counteract the ’empathy deficit’ on corporate boards” (World Economic Forum). While these studies certainly place attention upon women, it is time women take on more active roles and be seen not just as female leaders, but as leaders. Women, whether they choose to dress for success and maintain traditional norms are certainly able to also juggle a career. Both women and men must make a conscious decision to champion diversity and open the path for other women — it is not impossible unless it is tried, experimented and fought for.

Olinda Hassan is a graduate of Wellesley College, and continues to discuss various musings in her blog atolindahassan. wordpress.com.

You must feed your guests.

The most frequent question that my aunt asks me is: did you eat? This is followed by: what did you eat? As if to check that I was not lying. Since I live by myself in Dhaka, my relatives’ concern is if I eat or not, before they will even ask me how I am, or how work is going. When I meet strangers and they learn that I live by myself, I am always amazed at how many people will serious questions regarding my meals. How do you eat? Who cooks for you? Aunties will ask me this question with a smile that hides real concern. In the West where I suppose living alone is more common, I have never been asked this question. In Bangladesh, a different story. People are really, genuinely concerned about what goes into my stomach and if it is done often enough.

Likewise in Bangladesh, if you go to someone’s home or office, you are most likely offered something to eat, and also insisted upon. There is no refusing, unless you want to offend. This is not a matter of class or wealth. Two weeks ago, I was at a village in Bogra, in Northern Bangladesh doing some field visits for BRAC, and the women we visited at their tin-roofed homes insisted on serving us tea. One woman even forced entire bag of puffed rice to one of the students with us. The puffed rice lasted for days among a dozen people. In another village where I was working as a translator to a group studying microfinance in rural Bangladesh, a woman fed us her homemade sugar-syrup dripped cakes that she sold for 3 taka each in the market (we refused at first but it was too late, her husband was off plating it before she even finished asking/demanding out attention). I was at an urban slum recently in Mirpur conducting house visits with the same group of students and yet again, women were insisting that we enter, sit in their one bedroom homes in the slum, and drink their tea.

All of these women are poor, on the brinks of poverty, if not below poverty, insisting on feeding us drinks and snacks that they save up to purchase. They have barely any money to pay their rent, let alone send all of their children to school.

The same can be said when visiting offices. I cannot think of many offices that I have had to go to in Bangladesh for meetings and interviews where I was not fed at least tea; usually, biscuits and fruits follow. When I visited ASA, a microfinance lender in another remote village, after our meeting, there were plates of apples, oranges, grapes, and bananas set forth by the maids. After visiting a milk chilling center in Bogra, we were directed to another room where plates of hot samosas and again, plates of fruits lined the table, along with tea made from the very milk they packaged for the cities in Bangladesh. At the Yunus Center in Mirpur, I was served Grameen’s Danon yogurt, tea, water, and vegetable crackers in their state-of-the-art conference room.

The hospitality of Bangladesh and the relationship that people have with food is fascinating. A country that faces increasing rises in food prices and with a large number of the population living in or below the poverty line, food is certainly an important commodity. Feeding guests crosses social boundaries. It is not about class, as I have said. It is about respect and showing gratitude for visits, no matter what they were about or how long or short. Furthermore, it is also about pride. And in a society where class and hierarchy defines just about everything, being able to feed (no matter what, black tea or meals) matters more than affordability itself.

Though we in the second generation often make fun of our parents who still hold onto this custom 3,000 miles away from their homeland (I am talking about those of us who are South Asian Americans), I am pretty sure I will be doing the same when I become an “aunty”. Already, when people visit my home in Dhaka, I start panicking, wondering what I have to offer for drinks and food (which is usually, nothing since I spend so much of my time at work or outside and thus, eating out). It is interesting how this thing we do with feeding strangers and friends alike has become ingrained in our culture beyond out great grandparents’ generation.

My tailor in Banani Bazaar, Anwar Bhai

This is my tailor, Anwar bhai. He has a shop in Banani Bazaar in the second floor in a tiny shop where  with his apprentices, they stitch hundreds of dresses for customers a week. I was introduced to Anward bhai by my friend Rifaiyat’s mother when I first came to Bangladesh. Rifaiyat is currently a senior at Wellesley College, and when she had first heard that I was going to Dhaka on a Fulbright, she insisted that I call aunty who ‘loves to be able to help and asked for help’. Aunty has always worn something new every time I saw her. She also has two tailors and has been my go-to person in Dhaka. The natural pick to ask about a tailor recommendation- the very first step to creating a long lasting relationship.

In this country, clothes are made my tailors. They are the people you go to to make the perfect kameez, tunics, pants, and saree blouses for you. The tailor, usually a male, will know your body size probably better than your significant other or your mother who fusses over your clothes.

Also in Bangladesh, you don’t just go walk into any tailors. You usually come with a recommendentation from someone close to you. On the floor of Anwar bhai’s shop, Satata, there are probably at least fifty more tailors, side by side. Thus, word of mouth is how they run their business. Naturally, I asked aunty for the recommendation since you can’t just trust anyone to make clothes to fit your body like a glove. All of the stores are bustling with women, in and out. Banani Bazaar from the outside looks like a very old, dirty, and abandoned building. But on the second floor are some of the best designer stores, tailors, and also customers ranging from political wives, models, to students and expats. It is a magical space in a country that loves exclusivity.

Anward bhai has been working with me for the past one year, creating amazing dresses for my everyday wear to evening kameezes. The thing I love the most about him is his supreme confidence when he measures me and makes designs (often overriding my ideas and forcing his ideas which often turns out to be better anyway). Unlike many tailors I have encountered, I never feel uncomfortable when he measures my waits, arms, thighs and shoulders. He does everything swiftly and needs very little direction. He also rarely smiles or gets angry, even when I have to scold him for giving me something two weeks late or putting a particular lace in the wrong side. I am surprised he even smiled for me in this second photo. He argues with me with the same monotone voice when I think that he charges too much. Despite our few problems, I keep returning to anward bhai because he is simply too good (most times). And he knows that I know that, too.

A powerful look at the business of Brothels and Prostitution in Bangladesh

Allison Joyce‘s photo essay on the Brothels lining the rivers of Bangladesh gives us a powerful look at a thriving and taboo business of prostitution. I was surprised to see the captures, actually, since I rarely find articles let alone photos of the business in Bangladesh. This article for ABC News ( I am “Chowkri”- Inside Bangladesh’s Biggest Brothel) focuses on the Joinal Bari brothel in Faridpur, on the banks of the Padma river. It is an important stop for the trading route, making it an especially intriguing spot for a brothel. It is all economical of course- men make up almost 100% of the business of trading and truck driving, shipments and business dealing in the region. The existence of prostitution is widely known, unspoken of, and witnessed both in the urban towns to river banks and villages. It would be harder to undertake a photo project for Dhaka’s prostitutes let alone brothels where the clientele are far more secretive and sometimes, public figures. I can’t imagine Joyce trying to cover this very important topic outside the Westin and Radisson hotels or in the affluent the narrow streets of Gulshan 2 where young women stand in the corner streets soon after 10 pm. Though the photos that I will share below from her project captures one setting, it serves as an eye opening setting to address this booming informal business sector for many young Bangladeshi women.

This photo is of Kajul, who is embraced by a customer in her bedroom. I am captivated by this photo as I wonder how they let Joyce, a white woman clearly out of place and so obviously a journalist capture this very intimate moment. When I first saw this photo, before I even read the caption, I was sure it was of something happy that came out of a dire setting. Maybe I am still not mistaken; I think we often forget that these young women, whatever their occupation, can still desire love unlike the kind they sell.
This photo is of Kajul, who is embraced by a customer in her bedroom. I am captivated by this photo as I wonder how they let Joyce, a white woman clearly out of place and so obviously a journalist capture this very intimate moment. When I first saw this photo, before I even read the caption, I was sure it was of something happy that came out of a dire setting. Maybe I am still not mistaken; I think we often forget that these young women, whatever their occupation, can still desire love unlike the kind they sell.
“I grew up in Jessore and I have been working in the brothel for 5 years. I was stalked by a local boy in Jessore and when I told my family they blamed me for the harassment so I ran away. When I was on the streets I met a woman who brought me to the brothels here in Faridpur. I miss my father and I talk to him often. I tell him that I’m working in a garment factory in Dhaka and he always asks me to come back home.” ( Ria, 22 years old) … Update: At the time of our visit Ria was excitedly planning to leave the brothels and move back home with her father to become a tailor. When we visited a few weeks later Joshna, her madame, had given her 20,000 taka, gold earrings, and sent her back to her family in Jessore.--Tiffany Hagler-Geard
This photo shows a girl named Piea who is surrounded by customers who walk through the building for their pick. Some of the men are as young as the prostitutes themselves.

To read the entire entry, click here.

A version of the Christmas Tree

Over the weekend, I attended a party hosted by the lovely Monica Chowdhury and Akku Chowdhury at their beautiful home in Old DOHS. The party was in honor of Bangladesh’s 40 years of independence. It was a really nice gathering and as always, their house was warm and lovely, all of their art work and antique collections to be viewed with curiosity. In particular, their Christmas tree was especially, well, cool. Akku Sir has had the tree for years which his son  would decorate when he visited Bangladesh.

Alam the CNG wallah.

Alam

Alam came to Dhaka from Sonargaon almost two years ago to support his family by driving a CNG around the city. We were stuck in an unusual traffic the other day when he started to talk to me as he lit a cigarette. Through the cage-like barrier between Alam and myself the passenger, his first question was, Apa you are not from here, right? Why do you think so? I asked back. You don’t talk like the woman here, and you were just on the phone. You don’t speak Bangla that well, he responded in the ever brutally honest way that people here in Dhaka sometimes do.

After the usual introductions- where he is from, where I am from, he asked me why I was on a CNG. Well, I suppose it’s easier, and I don’t have a car. But you have money, apa, he said. I work, and that doesn’t mean I have money.

Well, not all women are alike. If I were educated like you, I wouldn’t be in a car either. This was his response me taking a CNG home on a path filled with other cars around me with their tinted shades. What do you mean? I asked Alam, as I did not understand the connection between an educated woman and modes of transportation. He finally looked me in his mirror, made a quick eye contact to determine if I was offended, and didn’t respond.

So are you married? He asked, smiling an apologetic smile for the first time as we made a turn into my neighborhood. No, are you? He said no. But my brother married before me, and I work in Dhaka to feed his wife, Alam explained with a laugh. I want to get married but I am the only one who decided to come to Dhaka.

Where did you study apa?

In America, I said.

Wow, America? I want to go abroad too.

Why do you want to go abroad, I asked Alam while directing him to my house.

Everyone wants to go abroad, apa.

It’s not that easy, life abroad, as you think. Not everyone is happy there, and when they come back to their villages, they never tell the real story, I explained to him, recalling my interviews with laborers in Saudi Arabia from Bangladesh.

But you went abroad. And you aren’t the one driving a CNG. I am.

We reached my building and I gave him a final look. I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he did let me take a photo of him. You are a writer too? Sometimes, I said and he thanked me for taking his picture. Alam lives in Jatrabari, near Old Dhaka and earns about 500 taka per day after giving the owner of the CNG a certain percentage. His final words were, apa I hope to see you again, sorry I asked so many questions, really I just wanted to know where you were from.