In my circle of acquaintances, I know a handful of “fellow travellers”, Americans who have an affection and concern for the people of Bangladesh. Each has his/her own tale to relate as to how this affection was inspired and nurtured. At a lecture at the university where I teach, or attempt to teach, or pontificate, or whatever it is they pay me to do, I met a gathering of the local fellow travellers, who had come to hear a lecture.
As we settled into the cramped, institutional seating, I wondered.
The first thing I wondered was with 2,618 universities in the US alone, 21.6 million students attend 188 million classes, why has no one invented a more comfortable way of sitting? Why isn’t there a grant or a foundation for that? People refer to paying for a faculty position as “endowing a chair”. Why can’t someone endow a chair to look into the problem…
…ah, never mind.
In fact, as I sat there in my uncomfortable seat waiting for the lecture to begin, I suspected the venue’s discomfort fit the speaker. We were going to hear from a Marxist/Leninist after all, and what could be more uncomfortable than Communism?
So, I scanned the room for someone in a great coat, with an unkempt beard, round spectacles and sandals. Clearly, the Commie hadn’t shown up yet.
I was wrong. The speaker, Dr. Anu Muhammad was a perfectly normal looking, dignified man, well-dressed, in fact. As he stood to address the group. I complained to the audience member next to me:
“He’s not even wearing a beret,”. “Some Commie.”
My disappointment shifted as I began to listen to Dr Muhammad. This man was brilliant in a way that I could imagine my own brilliance might be if brilliance wasn’t always just outside my grasp. This man had boundless energy, great organisational skills. He spoke to one point with such precision and clarity that I felt as if I could trust what he was saying…
…Even if he was a Communist.
He wore white pants, a button-down shirt and a jacket. His spectacles lent him the prerequisite intellectual air, and he wore his moustache in a way which seems to be de rigueur for the subcontinent. The greying of that moustache lent an air of intellectual gravitas to the overall picture.
OK, so to the talk…
Bangladesh has huge resources, he said. It can feed its own people. It can sustain two thousand people per square mile. He explained to his American audience that if we took the whole American population and put it all in Texas, the population density would be nearly equivalent to what it is in Bangladesh.
Why is it that demographers always want to put us all in Texas?
Dr. Muhammad kept reminding us that things were “not unconnected”, the usage of the double negative was a clever rhetorical device. Population is NOT a major problem in Bangladesh. The nation has three rotations of crops, huge water resources, oil and gas in the Bay of Bengal.
There is, he concluded, no “natural” reason for Bangladesh to be as poor as it is today. By UN standards, he went on, 120 million people live in poverty. He also noted that many people have become wealthy studying poverty, but few have become wealthy by studying wealth. I just assumed he hadn’t watched much American TV. Isn’t that what shows like “The Apprentice” and “Jim Cramer’s Mad Money” are all about? Still, his point was that Bangladesh’s home-grown poverty is sustainable.
What an interesting concept. Poverty is sustainable.
So, if poverty is sustainable, what happens when a nation like Bangladesh gets foreign aid? Muhammad seemed to postulate that foreign aid is targeted at destroying the self-sustaining internal economy in favour of an export-driven economy, focused on jute, textiles, steel and sugar.
From what I understood of his speech, and it seemed very clear and well thought out to me, even the unions which start to emerge in Bangladesh do so because management realises that without unions there is no one available to negotiate, no palm to grease with a bribe. Leaderless, the workers would riot from time to time.
Next the talk shifted to fair trade, and uncomfortable seat or no, I started to perk up. With an emphatic, but scholarly tone, he explained that for every dollar Bangladesh takes in, it enriches the donor country by four dollars. “Therefore,” he said, “Foreign aid is bribery to support corporate interest in a foreign nation. It’s not good for either nation, since it makes unelected people decide who works.” I thought to myself, “you had me until that last statement, buddy. Of course unelected people should decide who works.”
But I realised that it was actually more pernicious than that. Corporate interest in a foreign nation not only makes unelected people decide who works, but on the other end of the supply chain it makes unelected people decide who DOESN’T work, and under what conditions those who do work are forced to toil. It also allows abuses that can poison a nation and destroy the safety valve of “sustainable poverty” by compromising the environment.
A case in point was the way that BP was punished for the Gulf spill and how Chevron was treated after the explosion in Magurchhara. The gas wasted from the former explosion could have kept Bangladesh powered for 18 months. The compensation from that blowout? Not even an apology. At a minimum, Chevron should have paid five billion dollars compensation, Bangladesh should have thrown the company out, but we see what happens to nations that attempt to do that — governments get overthrown. Meanwhile, evil alliances between a system of corrupt leaders that have little interest in “sustainable poverty” and the Powers that Be allow the land to be stripped wholesale.
After the discussion, one woman raised her hand. “What can Americans do?” She asked eagerly. We expected the easy answer: Give money.
He said, “Question what is going on. Raise awareness. Ask questions, talk to your Congressmen. Use your ability to bring pressure to allow for change!”
The central point of all this is “Who gets heard in this world, and who is silenced? We speak about individual responsibility, we want people to take care of themselves, but we don’t study the factors which make them self-sustaining.
Somewhere in Bangladesh there is a version of Ma and Pa Ingalls (From Little House on the Prarie), but without the Homestead Act. Somewhere there is a failed farm, a lien against crops and an expression of faith. We think money talks. Here, it does. The big fish attempt throughout the world to silence the little fish. Our US Congress is desperate to control communication on the Internet. In Bangladesh, the government requests data on twelve users and it makes the front page. In the US, the government makes 21,000 requests in the same time period and no one reports. In both nations, third parties have no cache. People aren’t listening.
Ultimately, Bangladesh wants what I want. It wants to be seen, to be heard and to be recognised so that it can share its triumphs with the world, so the world can recoil at the injustices done to it. It wants to be recognised so the American people (and Wal-Mart) can apply the same standards to Bangladeshi workers as they do to their own.
This commie was actually making sense.
The young women who were Muhammad’s hostesses were all social activists, and at dinner, they spoke dreamily about running to Cuba. They’d taken the speaker to a Vegan, free trade, Cruelty-free venue, where the menu choices confused him. It seemed to me he’d have been happy with a burger and fries. “For Christ’s sake, he’s not a Hindu!” I felt like screaming. “Let him eat meat!” The food was actually great, the portions generous. I had the Sweet Potato soup, a recipe I might pilfer and pollute with chicken.
As we dined, we spoke about the American propensity to generalise, to wish to encapsulate, classify and move on: Liberal or Conservative, left-wing or right. Anything which did not fit into our prefab notions are invalid. We wear our opinions off the rack. We don’t tailor them to fit us more precisely.
“In fact,” he commented, “I once attended a conference where I overheard an American comment that I’d spoken too pragmatically to be a Marxist!”
“Yeah,” I laughed. “And he probably wondered why you hadn’t worn your beret or round glasses.”
Boy. Some people.
Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called “You Think What You Think And I’ll Think What I Know.” He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, “Learning Little Hawk’s Way of Storytelling”, teaches the native art of oral tradition storytelling.