Barisal, Bangladesh, August 11, 2008: It takes an hour and 30 minutes to reach the port, and the journey is wearing enough just sitting in an air-conditioned car. Goodness knows what it’s like for the beggars, who press their faces to the window when the car lurches to a halt. No one offers them money. Many of the beggars are disabled, and one of BERDO’s goals is to wean its clients away from begging. Some beggars are said to make a small fortune. Right now, it seems like a very tough way to make a living.
People are everywhere as we cross the gangplank onto our boat – a huge passenger ship. The traders are more ferocious even than the beggars and refuse to take no for an answer. Small skiffs bob perilously in the wake of the boat, selling pineapples. I look down and find a shoe-shine boy applying wax to my sandals. Some-one takes him by the ear and gives him a kick, which makes me feel uncomfortable.
The cabins have two bunks, and around ten o’clock we settle down for a companionable dinner of chicken curry, rice and dhal. Saidul Huq tells his own story. As I look over my notes, there seem to be two distinct phases.
Phase one involved coming to terms with the catastrophe of losing his sight. He was six when he fell ill with a fever, and lost his sight. His mother thought he was going to die. He doesn’t remember much from the time when he could see except for the colors – particularly red, green, white, blue, green and yellow.
He came from a well-off family and entered Dhaka University, where he embarked on a career of activism. There were about four visually-impaired students at the time, and Saidul formed them into a group. They sought a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor and urged him to make it easier for blind students by providing a small subsidy of 500 Taka a month and braille books in the library. Today, the number of blind students at the university has risen to over 60 and a small number have gone on to take a PHD. Saidul himself graduated with honors and a masters degree. He then taught for seven years at a teacher’s training college for the visually impaired, and a college for the blind.
The second phase of his career began in July 1991, when he set up BERDO. A businessman friend gave him a loan and an office. (BERDO has since moved twice). Saidul received a huge boost when he was selected as an Ashoka fellow in 1994. (Ashoka is the organization that supports social entrepreneurs). This brought him a stipend of $400 a month for three years, which enabled him to invest in the organization. He remains deeply grateful to Ashoka, and impressed by its model.
He started to travel: to Japan, Belgium, Germany, Holland and the United Kingdom, learning how richer societies support the blind. In 2001 he won a McNamara fellowship from the World Bank worth $7,500. This gave him a chance to reflect on the problems facing the blind in Bangladesh. He wrote a paper for the Bank, and was able to lobby the Bank to include disability when it opened an office in Bangladesh.
Saidul’s first goal as an advocate is to pressure the government to provide more support – for the disabled and for civil society. Bangladesh passed a law on disability in 2001, but it has still to be implemented. Saidul would also like to see donors working directly with NGOs, instead of channeling everything through the government. Every donor should have a disability fund.
As we head south, everything seems to be pointing towards phase three of Saidul’s career, which centers around the villages. There are three million blind people in Bangladesh. Saidul Huq has made it his life’s work to improve their lives.
Posted By Iain Guest
Posted Aug 11th, 2008