Iain Guest

Iain founded AP in 2001 after many years of writing about and working with civil society in countries in conflict. He was a Geneva-based correspondent for the London-based Guardian and International Herald Tribune (1976-1987); authored a book on the disappearances in Argentina; fronted several BBC documentaries; served as spokesperson for the UNHCR operation in Cambodia (1992) and the UN humanitarian operation in Haiti (2004); served as a Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace (1996-7); and conducted missions to Rwanda and Bosnia for the UN, USAID and UNHCR. Iain recently stepped down as an adjunct professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where he taught human rights.

Arrival in Bangladesh

31 Jul

Over the next few weeks I will be posting blogs that were written during and after a recent visit to Bangladesh between July 31 and August 4, 2008. My purpose was to spend some time with the Blind Education Rehabilitation Organization (BERDO) in Dhaka, a partner of The Advocacy Project. BERDO has developed an important and innovative model for lending small loans to disabled people, particularly the blind. AP has recruited two Peace Fellows to volunteer with BERDO. This year’s Fellow, Danita Topcagic, is a former Bosnian refugee. The conversion rate used in these blogs is one dollar to 69 taka (the Bangladesh currency).


Dhaka, July 31: I am visiting Bangladesh at the invitation of Saidul Huq, who runs the Blind Education Rehabilitation Organization (BERDO) in Dhaka. BERDO has been a partner of The Advocacy Project (AP) for two years.

BERDO has a head office in Dkaha, the capital, and three sub-offices in the districts of Tongi, Barisal and Banara Pari. It is quite small by Bangladesh standards and one of many NGOs working on disability. But in one respect, BERDO is unique: it is using micro-credit to empower the blind.

Bangladesh is the home of micro-credit, and Mohamed Younus’s work with the Grameen Bank won him this year’s Nobel peace prize. But BERDO is taking the idea a step further by making loans to the disabled. This raises many questions, including most obviously whether disabled people can make good use of a loan and repay on time. Caitlin Burnett, who served with BERDO as an AP Peace Fellow last year, visited some of the beneficiaries last year, and alerted us to the program with her blogs. I’m here this year to follow up, accompanied by this year’s Peace Fellow, Danita Topcagic.

I have an additional interest in visiting. Last December, a typhoon struck the southern region of Bangladesh with devastating force. Many of BERDO’s beneficiaries were affected. The Advocacy Project raised a modest $1,140 for them in a Christmas appeal. I am curious to know how the money was used, and report back to our donors.

I want to hear directly from these families – about what it means to be disabled in one of the world’s poorest countries, and whether microcredit can help. I’m also realistic about what can be achieved in a short visit. The last time I spent any time in Bangladesh, I stayed in a village near Jessore for several weeks and only scratched the surface. It will be hard to get more than a superficial impression in a few days.


Arriving at Dhaka airport, I am met by Saidul Haq, who has borrowed his brother’s car and driver. Saidul is in his early forties and is very slight. Instead of shaking my hand, he takes hold of my arm and explores it for several seconds. He does not carry a cane.

I’m trying to imagine what it must be like to be blind in the world’s most populous nation. Eyesight is our first line of defense, and there seem to be a million hazards awaiting anyone who ventures onto the streets of Dhaka. As the car pulls out, it is engulfed in a tide of buses, taxis, rickshaws, beggars, jaywalkers, and street vendors. The tide moves forward in a mass – stuck in slow gear one moment, faster the next.

There is plenty of danger here, and Saidul explains that he never uses a cane because he is likely to be hit by a rickshaw or fall into an open manhole. His defenses lie in an acute sense of sound, a phenomenal memory, touch – and people. There is always someone at his side to hold his wrist and guide him, and they are invariably gentle.

The best way to describe Saidul’s situation is that he relies on others but is always in control. He bumps into things all the time, but laughs it off. “I am a very happy person!” he exclaims. Still, being blind in Bangladesh cannot be easy. Rising above it and achieving something out of the ordinary? Well, that seems almost insuperable.

At the BERDO office, I meet Danita Topcagic, this year’s AP Fellow. Danita is from Bosnia and lived in Velika Kladusa, in northwest Bosnia, until fighting in 1995 forced the family to flee to Croatia and then the United States. She’s chosen to live full-time at the BERDO office during her fellowship. Her room is hot and dusty.

We leave for Saidul’s apartment and a snack of mangos, jackfruit, and sweet milky tea prepared by Saidul’s wife Maksuda. Saidul’s eldest daughter sees us off, before she herself heads off to work with her tutor. (As driven as her father, she also attends special class after school).

Then it’s out again into the sea of traffic for the port, where we will catch a boat to Barisal in the south.

Posted By Iain Guest

Posted Jul 31st, 2008

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