Postcards from the Edge

of Bangladesh

Archive for Work

All out

I’m all talked out. And listened out. And worked out (we worked a full 12 hour day yesterday. In Bangladesh. That’s just plain wrong).

And now I have a cold. And we’re running a full day workshop today.

Perhaps this working thing isn’t for me after all.


Practice for the real world

I so not used to company anymore.

There is another volunteer here with me in Rangamati at the moment, doing a Short Term Intervention (and yes, VSO do abbreviate that to STI…) on funding. Which is great as it’s much needed here. And it’s fun for me having a buddy to show around, laugh about things with and to watch fail as spectacularly as I did at trying to learn everyone’s names.

But man, I not used to so much company. I not used to talking so much on any given day, and certainly not used to trying to string so many grammatically correct English sentences together. I’m used to pidgin English, in small bursts, and then sitting back and relaxing inbetween with a bit of internet action. The pace here is pretty slow, and Moanoghar doesn’t purely exist for me to facilitate sessions and build capacity with… they do have like an organisation to like run and stuff. So inbetween the work I do I kick back, drink tea and take photos. But now with Tony here, I’m working for longer stretches and with less breaks. It’s hard. I’m not used to it. I go for about 10 minutes, feel my brain swelling and want a break.

It’s bad.

Not to mention how totally used to my own company and routine I have grown in the last 10 months here. I’m having to consider another person now. That’s even harder. Having someone break into my little bubble of an existence here like this.

But it’s good practice for my re-integration back into the real world. Where there are LOTS of people to have conversations of more than 2 sentences with, and who have to be considered and consulted and might even have opinions to take into account.


You should still do it

Despite all the issues with the VSO programme office here in Bangladesh, if anyone out there is thinking of doing VSO, still DO IT.

I woke up in the middle of the night last night with the realisation that a batch of new volunteers are heading to Bangladesh in a few days time. And blogs are easy to find with just a  few Google searches, and I’m a bit worried about the impact my rant might have on these new volunteers who might stumble across it.

I considered deleting the posts, but my comments still stand, it’s appalling treatment of volunteers who give up so much to come to here, and I want this blog to be as true to what was going through my head at any given time. BUT the positives of doing VSO do still far outweigh the negatives. Really. Doing VSO is a life changing experience, and VSO is potentially still one of the better volunteer agencies out there. Dealing with volunteers is not easy, and VSO can’t please all of the people all of the time. So it’s inevitable there will always be some pissed off volunteers out there. And there are things that VSO does that do make volunteer life easier, like sorting out visas and providing very good health insurance. And if you can ignore/deal with the issues at the programme office, the work you can do directly with NGO’s and communities in desperate need of help makes it all worthwhile. Really.

You should still do it.

VSO rage

Christ. VSO Bangladesh has REALLY outdone themselves this time.

I don’t usually moan about VSO so publicly, but this is truly special. They (VSO Bangladesh) have suspended all volunteer extensions for 2010, while they review their country strategy, inline with the VSO worldwide corporate strategy. So I get the point of reviewing strategy and reviewing suitability of partners (the organisations to which VSO sends volunteers to) but you could FIRST decide on your strategy and THEN make decisions and take action. No, not in Bangladesh. Let’s rather stop the good work current volunteers are doing (or planning to do), while we um and ah, scratch our arses and come up with something illogical, useless and meaningless that we’ll pretend is a ‘strategy’.

So what this means is some volunteers who had been planning to extend their stay here in Bangladesh (and had been assured of their extensions as recently as last week) are now being told they have to leave the country when their original placements are up. For one volunteer, that is in 4 days. Four days. AND the first some volunteers heard about this was in an email VSO sent to partners, an email to which the volunteers were just copied into. No direct communication, just an email addressed to someone else from which you must guess the impact that it’ll have on you. THAT is how utterly shit VSOB is at communication and just how little they value their volunteers. And not even a ‘We’re sorry for how this may affect you’, it’s just ‘Ok bye. Please leave the country. Now’.

This has affected the volunteer who I had lined up to replace me here in Moanoghar (having continuity in volunteers is so important to the continued development of an organisation). He has actually decided to just sack the whole VSO thing, and still volunteer here in Moanoghar independently. Which I am very happy about. But this will be at some financial cost to him. Not to mention the extra stress this is all causing him. He made the decision to spend another year in Bangladesh (which is NOT an easy decision) and VSO have shown absolutely no concern or care for how much they are messing with his future by making such a half cocked and knee jerk decision. It’s bullshit.

Deep breaths.

If this had directly affected me, I’d be breathing fire right now. VSO can count themselves lucky on that front. But I really do think it’s time to put in a formal complaint to VSO UK about just how badly things are run here. Honestly, it has got to that point.

As if Bangladesh isn’t hard enough as it is, we have VSOB making our lives even more difficult.

VSO Annual Review

I had my annual review with VSO yesterday. Or Moanoghar had their annual review with VSO yesterday. I couldn’t quite tell who was being judged and marked. I guess it was both of us.

It went pretty well actually. It appears I have actually made some progress here, and I have actually achieved some things. This came as quite the surprise to me. It often feels like I’m talking to the walls here. I’m never entirely sure what sinks in, what goes straight through or what makes people laugh inside. It’s very hard to tell. But judging from Moanoghar’s feedback session, quite a lot has sunk in. And a few things that I haven’t, in any way, been responsible for were also attributed to me. I’m fine with that.

Not that I think VSO really marks too harshly on these reviews. On one level it’s just an exercise in ticking boxes for them, and on another level it’s checking that the DFID funding (i.e. UK taxpayers’ money) is being well spent. Apparently it takes about £12, 000 (don’t quote me on that) to place a VSO volunteer abroad for 2 years, with pre-departure training, in-country training, flights, visas, insurance etc. That’s quite a lot of money, so best check those volunteers are actually doing something of some use.

I’m feeling very upbeat today. Not because VSO think I’m doing a good job, but because I can see the progress that I’ve made so far. Sure, the progress isn’t visible to the naked eye… but it’s progress nonetheless. I see my progress in the changes of behaviour here. If you have ever attempted to change the behaviour and habits of any organisation (or an individual) you’ll know how difficult it is. And yes, the changes of behaviour have been small, but I can actually now see how the collective mindset has shifted a bit. People are thinking more laterally, being more creative and showing more initiative. Nobody is going to be winning any prizes for innovation anytime soon, but it’s a start. AND they are turning up for work. A stellar performance period if you ask me.

Yes, I do actually do some work sometimes too

Yesterday I hosted a workshop on monitoring and evaluation here at work. Very, very simple monitoring and evaluation that I’m trying to implement here. The original participants numbered about 10, but lines of communication between myself and Chanchu (the Executive Director) were crossed/ignored. So instead of 10 people, 35 people turned up. Which in fact turned out to be a good thing.

Workshops here are great. It’s so unlike giving any training in the UK. Not that I’ve actually trained or facilitated that many workshops in the UK, but I’ve attended plenty. Usually one is in the back of the classroom either a) thoroughly bored or b) doing other, not-related-to-the-training work or c) so hung-over one may as well be asleep. C) is especially true for residential training, and especially for any Accenture training at the Accenture mother-ship in Chicago. Everyone really just goes as you get free flights to the States, spends the whole week in bar getting drunk and heads off for their American holiday even before lunch on the final day.

But here, people get well into it. Especially if you give them some small group work, and make them present their findings/output back to the whole group. It’s hysterical. Yesterday’s group activity was to create a SMART (you know, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) objective from an un-SMART one I had given them. During the brief feedback sessions, people got INVOLVED. So ‘brief’ turned into waaay longer than I had planned for, but I really didn’t want to reign them in. I let them just go with it, and ‘it’ turned into full-on debates with counter-arguments, and sub plots. I just loved it. There was so much energy and enthusiasm. And yes, that equals people actually learning something (yay!). Which is in such sharp contrast to any typical UK training, where no one really gets involved and most can barely summons the energy to even pretend to be interested. Or at least that’s the way Accenture training goes. Except for the Americans… always super keen. Best to get yourself an American in your group, who’ll do all the work while you nurse your hangover.

My ED and I kind of co-facilitated the workshop. I did all the prep, gave him copies all the notes, handouts etc. Which he didn’t read, and then lost. But despite that, he pulled it off brilliantly. He’s such a great personality and so likeable I just can’t get too serious about lack of preparation.

It’s odd facilitating a workshop where the majority of the discussions are in a language (Chakma) you don’t understand. So it goes something like this: I say something, which is then translated by Chanchu, with perhaps a bit of elaboration/explanation. But even from the odd word you pick up, you can tell it’s not really what you said. Or even if it is, there’s a lot of off piste-ing going on. And sometimes it’s OFF off-piste. Like their skis are propped up next to a mountain restaurant, and they’re inside getting pissed on vin rouge, while you’re on the slopes wondering where everyone is. A lot of the time I don’t know WHAT is going on. And then, after a heated 20 minute debate (following my 2 minute piece requiring simple translation…), Chanchu will turn around to me and say ‘Ok, you can continue’. Um… ok, well I didn’t follow all (any) of what you all just discussed but you know, let’s just stumble on and see where that gets us…

It really is so much fun. I sit back and sometimes just marvel at how it all unfolds.

Meetings: Bangladeshi style (part two)

To pick up where Meetings: Bangladeshi Style (part one) left off…A few other meeting observations I’ve made over my time here:

– It’s fine to burp. Out loud, no hand in front of mouth, and not followed by ‘excuuuusse me!’. In fact, burping anywhere is perfectly acceptable. Here, it’s much like hiccuping, as if something over which one has no control. It’s all FINE.

– It’s fine to spit. So throughout any given meeting there are people walking up to windows, doing the prep work of trying to summons all bodily phlegm/mucus using the deep snort/growl technique and then rounding that off with a good, old fashion spit. Gob. Hoik. This can become the main event of any meeting during the change-of-season flu. Everyone gets sick when the seasons change. And the seasons change every two months. So there is generally a lot of phlegm/mucus about. Don’t get me started on the whole ‘blow your nose without a tissue’ practice. But it’s like one sees sports people do on the field. I still maintain there isn’t enough hand washing in Bangladesh…

– It’s fine to have lengthy sub-conversations during a meeting. To actually get up, wonder over to someone else, start a conversation, to which others will soon join. Sometimes the participants even move this this sub-conversation out of the meeting room, with participants re-joining the meeting as and when the sub-conversation ends. During this, the main speaker either doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care. Or is asleep

– It’s fine to speak on mobile phones. Obviously. This IS Bangladesh. Where the mobile is King.

– It’s fine to cut your nails. As expertly demonstrated by Memory during a meeting with the Executive Committee today. Full on got the clippers out, and trimmed her nails.

So yes, I’m growing ever more concerned for my own manners/etiquette, meeting and otherwise. Just how WILL I behave when I return home? Just what will people think? At what point, during my time here in Bangladesh, will I start publicly spitting? Will it be difficult to stop once I start? I must say the public burping has already gained some momentum… Whatever. Don’t judge. Everyone, everywhere burps when they are alone. So here is like burping as if you are alone, because no one around you cares. It doesn’t even hit their radar. For those in Bangladesh (and other suitable countries) try it, it’s fun.