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.

The Investors

17 Aug

Barisal, August 17: We’ve decided to offer some of BERDO’s beneficiaries the chance to do a modest video cameo. Several AP Peace Fellows are trying to get video profiles this summer, and we hope to build up a visual portrait for partner organizations like BERDO. I’m not sure how we will deal with editing and translation, but we’re not getting any resistance so far: people here appreciate our interest and the chance to be heard, even if they themselves will never see the end product. I do show them the tape after the interview.

We start with Aslam, the group leader. We visit his house later in the day and find him propped up on a big wooden bed. His mother slowly fans him, as we crowd in.

Aslam’s story is a salutary example of how disability can strike capriciously and without warning (which explains why some villagers think it is a curse). He was making good money – 6,000 taka a month – as a bus supervisor. His family owned 12 cows and land. Then he got the fever, suffered a strike and lost the use of his legs.

It was a catastrophe for this small family. They sold the cows and land to pay for his treatment. Eventually Aslam emerged a crippled. His grandfather found a partially broken wheelchair.

Aslam applied to BERDO for a loan of 8,000 taka, which he used to open a small shop on the side of the path. It brings in about 100 taka a day, after his loan is repaid. This has to feed a family of five. The one big advantage is that he can manage the store from his wheelchair.

Aslam has the confidence that comes from having held down a responsible job before his accident. He also reads and writes. This brings him standing in the village and helped to get him elected as group leader. He says that attitudes towards him have changed since the group was formed. “They used to call me a lame man. Now they call me by my name.”

Aslan’s loan helps to keep him from the brink and from begging – the thought repels him – but he still faces overwhelming difficulties. He cannot grow vegetables because the river is so high. His wheelchair needs repair. Every time he leaves the house it requires immense effort and assistance from his family.


On the road back to Barisal, we stop off to meet several other beneficiaries from the BERDO program, which is clearly beginning to extend deep into the communities. These roadside encounters attract a huge crowd of onlookers, but this does not disturb Shafin Aldar, 35, who has opened a tailoring business. Shafin is working with one of the political parties, and seems to like the attention. This impromptu meeting actually competes with a rally that’s taking place down the road.

Shafin has a deformed foot from childhood, and is one of the BERDO stars. He has received 9 loans, the latest for 9,000 taka. He has used the money to open a tailoring shop on the outskirts of Barisal which allows him to employ two workers and produce 5 pieces of cloth a day. During Ramadan he works around the clock. He also rents out two rickshaws. He estimates that his total daily income is 340 taka, which more than covers his weekly repayment (250 taka). BERDO uses him to promote the program, which is why he has qualified for so many loans.

More enterprising beneficiaries are waiting to meet us at the BERDO office in Barisal – and each one is a testament to hard work and perseverance. Rimon, 18, was bullied at school for using a stick (he is partially crippled). He and his mother borrowed 15,000 taka, and rebuilt their house. They now rent out three rooms at 750 taka a month. Honufa, who is blind, took out a loan of 8,000 taka to buy land where she and her mother produce rice for the family. They pay back the loan by working in a cigarette factory.

All of them attest to the wisdom of micro-credit and its core assumption – that the poor will invest money wisely. Disability, certainly, is no barrier, as long as the beneficiary has support and counsel. In this society, where families are close-knit and depend totally on each other, such support will usually be forthcoming.

Still, the image that stays with me from the day is that of Aslam’s tiny mother straining to carry her son down the steps of their house and into the wheelchair, where she slips and slides in the mud. And this is not yet the rainy season.

Helping the disabled requires effort – particularly in a society where everyone is under pressure.

Filed under: Bangladesh | Tagged: Advocacy Project, Bangladesh, BERDO, blind, micro-credit | Leave a comment »

Posted By Iain Guest

Posted Aug 17th, 2008

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