Friday, August 12, 2011

Where is the "New Hope," again?

Sorry, I haven't gotten my pictures back yet — you'll have to use the picturemill in your mind. :)
On the road to Comilla, in the Chittagong District of Bangladesh, thin power lines stretch between clusters of houses and shops.
The bigger, steel utility poles, visible for miles, shepherd clusters of wires toward industrial concerns. "New Hope" is one such, a giant blue factory on N1, the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway, biggest structure for miles, with a Bangladeshi flag for its logo and Chinese characters in its name. It produces fish and poultry feed, and seems to have employed locals to carry sand in baskets to create a sand flat.
There is something difficult in seeing an small older woman in an ochre sari carrying a basket of sand on her head, dumping it, and slowly moving back toward the mammoth sandpile. I'm not sure why. It's honest work. Isn't she carving out the landscape like Bostonians did, building a future city's foundation by moving earth, creating a peninsula where it hadn't existed before?
That earthmoving work, done by the nameless thousands, undergirds Boston's present-day public transportation system, our school days, our nights on the town. People moved earth with their hands, with baskets, and in carts, because those were the tools available — it was a job, presumably for a poorer colonist.
But Boston wasn't contending with quite this level of powerful private industry when its landscape was forming. Maybe that's why this scene still feels ominous to me. The giant factory is so large, and her body so small. She will tire. She will shiver in the rain. She is susceptible to worms and bacteria and hunger. She will come and go. The giant blue feed factory, "New Hope," will live forever, susceptible only to rust, dependent only upon utilities and some organizing human brain — but not hers. (Who decided fish and poultry needed a factory so they could eat? Was that the best choice for this community?)
Is it somehow more ominous because her body is so vulnerable compared to earth-movers and backhoes? Does it feel problematic because the people in the countryside break their backs in the rain to do work that could be done by machine?
Yes. Because the people who hire them know this. Her worth is perhaps 1/100th of a machine. If she says "no," or "how about this way," there will be other bodies to carry sand, if those bodies begin to ask for benefits or education or a neighborhood school, the company might just decide it's cheaper to bring in a machine after all — I can just see that memo, the middle manager looking at his margins, saying, "Pay the damn freight! This has gone too far."
At least the worker who maneuvers the machine is the master of something. Skilled. More than just her arms, her legs, her basket.
That consistent chant of developers, "it'll bring jobs, bring jobs, bring jobs" — what does that mean, exactly, in this kind of landscape? Is any job a gift? What would it take for these jobs, and the local people who hold them, to carry weight and bargaining power? It's not enough to pay for a week's food, while leaving the powerlessness of poverty intact. What would jobs look like that did more?
I should add that New Hope does offer jobs besides carrying sand. Here's an ad for a control center operator for the Gazipur factory. New Hope also has charitable impulses. It has publicly distributed blankets to local residents during the Bangladeshi winter.
But, as developed nations working in developing nations, our responsibility, in service to the larger goal of development, is to offer more than handouts or two or three good jobs in a district. We shouldn't just get families through the week or through the winter, even if they are poor and uneducated. They are not dispensable.
What would a real investment look like? Doesn't she, in her sari in the rain, deserve to be supported in her vision for a better future? Climbing the hill with her basket, does she earn a place at the table, making decisions about the company's future in her community? Does she earn the time to spend with a manager, a decision-maker in the company, talking and thinking about what would support her family's livelihood in the long term?
When she does, that faceless blue factory will start to earn its name.

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