Bangladesh Power Change Part I

In the late 1970s, Bhaimara (fictitious name) was a very poor village. Most of the people in the village owned little or no land and were completely dependent on seasonal work for landowners. With a daily wage from agriculture, such a family could then only buy 1-2 kilos of rice. But for long periods of the year, there was often little work to be done. During these periods, most families ate only one to two meals a day. Then hunger was a part of everyday life.

  • How has international aid affected Bangladesh?
  • In what areas has it contributed to change?
  • How has aid affected local power relations?
  • Has the way of exercising power changed in Bhaimara?

2: Major changes in recent decades

In 2011, the situation is completely different in Bhaimara (Bangladesh):

  • All the 100 families in the village have received electricity, half of the families have their own television.
  • The formerly narrow gravel roads in the village, which were barely wide enough for a bicycle taxi 30 years ago, have been widened and paved. Now cars and scooter taxis are racing with people on their way to work and schools.
  • Small tractors and cultivators have taken over in the fields where beef buckets and plows used to be dominant. With new technology in agriculture, yields have doubled. There is enough food for everyone to eat their three meals a day. There is no longer anyone starving.
  • 70 percent of the population in Bhaimara today receives their main income outside agriculture – from small industry, transport and trade. Many women work in the textile industry, and about a third of the village’s young men work or have worked abroad for many years, mainly in the Middle East. They have sent a lot of money back to their families in the village.
  • Over the last 30 years, the village has got a great public school. Many of the students, especially the girls, receive scholarships for schooling. (Norway has for many years provided significant support to the education sector in Bangladesh and to scholarships for girls.) On the health front, there is also a lot of progress. All children are vaccinated. The women also give birth to fewer children in Bhaimara. In the late 1970s, women in Bangladesh gave birth to an average of 5−6 children – today the birth rate per woman has been reduced to 2.16.

BETTER LIVING CONDITIONS: Developments in Bhaimara are not unlike what has happened in many of the approx. 86,000 villages in Bangladesh, a country located in Asia according to New technology, business development and job opportunities have contributed to raising the standard of living many notches . In addition, development assistance, which has been channeled through the authorities and large local development organizations, has also contributed to the positive development.

From various sources it is confirmed that everyone in the village has benefited from the assistance that has been given. However, it is wrong to say that development assistance is evenly and fairly distributed. Some have used part of the money – especially those that have gone through government channels – for the benefit of themselves and theirs.

3: The strong man and the servants

When the author of the article did fieldwork in Bhaimara in the late 1970s, he rented a room in the house of the village’s most powerful man, Shamsul Huq (fictitious name). In March 2010 and February 2011 he was back in the village and rented a room in the same house. The friendly and hospitable Shamsul Huq has now become an old man and pensioner, living permanently in the village.

We (Huq and Jansen) often sit together on the terrace in front of his house in the evenings and talk about the development in the village over the last 30 years. Through him I get a good understanding of what has happened to the aid that came to the village and the role he himself has played in this context.

– The first time I met Shamsul Huq in 1976, he held an important position in the Road Directorate in the capital Dhaka. It was also where he lived as usual. Nevertheless, the state bureaucrat had a strong presence in the village which is only a couple of hours drive from Dhaka. He often visited on weekends, and through relatives and allies, he played a dominant role in most of what was going on in the village.

BUSY LIFE: – My heart is in Bhaimara – this is where I want to realize all my dreams, he said to me on several occasions at the time. Every time he visited the village, his home was like a busy train station: people came and went almost around the clock. Everyone should talk to him, get advice or support whether it was about planning and placement of projects, election of representatives to administrative bodies at the local level, disputes over land ownership and family disputes in the local court. His status and position were exalted, feared and indisputable .

SERVANTS : Shamsul Huq also had several poor families in permanent service. They lived in small cabins next to his own house. One of these was Kashem Ali and his family. Kashem Ali was in charge of the day-to-day running of Shamsul Huq’s properties and did much of the practical work. Kashem Ali’s father had previously been in lifelong service for the road bureaucrat and his family.

When Shamsul Huq was in Dhaka , it was Kashem Ali and his family and extended family that I hung out with the most since they lived right next to me. They gave me a different picture than Shamsul Huq, a picture of what the village world looked like from below . Poverty and insecurity characterized their lives. A key consideration for them and other poor people was to connect with rich and powerful people . In a society where the public safety net is largely absent, there are people with power and resources who can be guarantors for them in difficult times.

Bangladesh Power Change 1

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