A few weeks ago, through this column, I wrote an article underlining the need to closely monitor the development sector so as to ensure accountability of their work.
In response came a piece on February 26 attempting to defend the “media shy” policy of the development bodies.
This is not a riposte, but rather, an in-depth look at the development sector’s closely guarded discrepancies that I have had the chance to observe in the last decade.
Having had the privilege to work in almost every remote corner of Bangladesh from the chars in Sirajganj to the brothels in Kandapara to cyclone Sidr ravaged areas of Morrelganj and Shoronkhola to writing extensively way back in 2009 from the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp to covering life in Bhashantek slum and highlighting grassroots women’s education programs -- there are very few development segments which I have not seen.
And, as a journalist with work experience at almost all English media houses in Bangladesh since 1993, one feels that it’s one’s duty to underline the flaws that affect this sector. Otherwise, these grave irregularities will keep on proliferating behind the carefully maintained façade of inclusivity.
Why a media shy approach should not be allowed
First, the argument that being media shy helps a development body, irrespective of size, to safeguard overseas workers, is untenable.
The Holey Artisan incident in Gulshan was not an attack on development workers. If that had been the aim, then the militants could have carried the heinous crime elsewhere with impunity.
The objective was to create a socio-political disruption by portraying Bangladesh as volatile and unsafe. The assailants chose a restaurant frequented by foreigners. The profession of those who gathered at Holey was hardly a deciding factor.
Second, with a safe distance from the media, a large number of development bodies maintain a highly iniquitous work system where certain posts, usually the lead role of a team, are always held by foreigners.
In over a decade working in the communication end of the development sector, I have maybe seen three lead posts led by Bangladeshis. Be it maternal health or private sector development or governance or urban poverty or growth, the Bangladeshis, irrespective of their skills and age, cannot go beyond a certain level.
One should actually say, they are not allowed to go -- there is a strictly enforced glass ceiling.
This is never mentioned or discussed in open forums. In fact, the running joke in the sector is that certain posts are for the “whites” or “overseas staff” only. The unwritten law dictates no local person, no matter how talented he or she may be, will be hired as the main team leader.
In what can be called an abysmal aberration, spouses of foreign diplomats are swiftly hired in highly paid posts, with no questions asked.
Bangladesh is already in her 46th year and has plenty of highly skilled people to lead development projects on their own without any hand holding.
Our development professionals are now capable of steering the projects by themselves. It’s an egregious culture of creating an almost unassailable ceiling that does not allow our talented professionals to be the leaders of progress in their own countries
Again, a media probe is essential because there is astonishing disparity between a local and foreign staff. All major development agencies provide accommodation, rent, school fees for children with special air tickets in case of overseas staff -- whereas these privileges are non-existent for locals. Many of you may not know but Bangladesh is considered a “hardship posting” and therefore, extra monetary and other privileges are provided.
Just like Oxfam’s shoddy attempt at concealing the sex scandal in Haiti, countless transgressions of overseas staff are often overlooked and hushed up. In my previous article, I raised a question asking if Oxfam would have hidden the misdeed if the country head had been a local. Well, from my experiences I have seen that, while a tight leash is maintained on Bangladeshi staff, foreigners are often allowed to flout rules.
Locals are to be polite all the time while the overseas staff can lose their temper, rant in drunken fits, or use profanity at the work place.
The disgraced country head of Oxfam was hired again in Bangladesh though his dark antecedents never came up; in the case of hiring local staff, a stringent, almost fanatical security examination is carried out to ensure that the person’s past is immaculate.
I ask the readers, is this discrimination?
Let the skilled Bangladeshis in
The honourable prime minister recently handed out gold medals to talented students from private and public universities, and in her speech stressed the need for our young to be skilled enough to occupy top posts globally.
Well, Bangladesh has come a long way since the war ravaged, austerity driven country of the 70s and 80s. Today, our skills are no less than those of anyone else, our entrepreneurs are emulated across the globe, our wealthy businessmen and women can turn heads in the most luxurious cities of the world, we do not roll our eyes at expensive cars, watches, or at the notion of high flying lifestyle because the best of everything is enjoyed right here.
In the same breath, our development professionals are now capable of steering the projects by themselves.
Alas, it’s an egregious culture of creating an almost unassailable ceiling that does not allow our talented professionals to be the leaders of progress in their own countries.
So, I am sorry, but I remain unpersuaded. I feel there has to be close media scrutiny of all development bodies, otherwise, an abysmal culture of circumscribing Bangladeshis will continue.
Towheed Feroze is a journalist, teaching at the University of Dhaka.