Published: June 13th 2009June 12th 2009
It is almost impossible in these parts to not take up a number of causes and issues outside of your official realm of obligation. In a beautiful country full of sweet and welcoming people, many of whom live in very challenging circumstances, it is inevitable that we end up investing energy in “side projects.” Ashley, for example, has a relationship with a community in the lake region of Rangamati, where she raised money to sponsor a handful of composting toilets for families who until then had been drinking water from the same shores that they defecated into. Now the families have self-composting EcoSan toilets (see photo), and have not only improved sanitation but been able to build small home gardens using the fertilizer from their compost.
For many of us, these commitments allow us to engage development in Bangladesh on a more personal level. Most of us are employed here doing something that serves the “greater need,” but often times our work is on such a scale and so official that it loses a sense of intimacy. For example, the Kishoree Kontha project that Parendi and I work on will, in the course of its full 2 years, serve almost
45,000 adolescent girls spread across over 400 villages. Given the limitations of two people trying to cover such an area, Parendi and I try to never visit the same village twice; this helps us evenly distribute the effect of our monitoring visits, but also reduces the possibilities for sustained interpersonal interactions with our beneficiaries. So it’s easy to lose sight of the value of working with a smaller community and feeling a personal obligation to the well-being of a handful of individuals. We are fortunate, then, that we’ve had the opportunity to work with the Char Fasson Orphanage—a financially struggling all-boys orphanage in the southern-most region of Bhola District, Barisal.
We came across the orphanage through Barbara, a deputy country director at Save the Children. Her friend from Florida had quite haphazardly landed herself at the isolated orphanage—she had always wanted to volunteer at an orphanage, and while google searching orphanages in Asia she came across the Char Fasson Orphanage (CFO). Lesley showed up in Char Fasson having never lived in a developing country, and found herself staying in the dilapidated and condemned central building of an orphanage for 100 boys in Bangladesh’s vulnerable southern coastal belt. After her
first few weeks she discovered the truly desperate state of the orphanage: a condemned building, boys living in cow sheds, meals lacking sufficient vegetable or protein, an unfulfilled promise from Dartmouth University to build a new building for the orphanage, unpaid dues from the government (which is supposed to pay a certain amount per orphan), insufficient funds to pay staff (and staff flight, as a result)…the list goes on.
Barbara passed on to Parendi and I a report that Lesley had shared with her—written by a Dartmouth student and intended as a needs assessment and a segue into a donor relationship between Dartmouth and the orphanage. It was written in 2006, and since then the promised building has not been built and the related talk of financial support has dropped off. So Barbara and Parendi and I took our first trip to CFO in December 2008 to try and get a first hand sense of how the orphanage was faring and how we could help pressure Dartmouth (or other sources) to give some much needed funding to the institution. Everything we had heard was true—boys living two to a bed in cow sheds that lacked anything more than old
wheat bags for window coverings, basic meals of rice and dal, staff who were leaving by the month, and an ever-nervous accountant, who looked at the books daily and didn’t know how he was going to be able to feed 100 boys from the meager income. But we also found 100 (plus or minus) incredibly warm and friendly boys, aged 5-16—boys who held our hands when we walked with them, who eagerly showed us the farm land where they worked to raise vegetables for the market, who told us about their families (many have mothers, often women who have been widowed and forced to remarry husbands who will not accept her children from the previous marriage) and who had an almost unbelievable innocence and politeness in their curiosity about us. We met Seraj, the director of the orphanage who was once an orphan at CFO himself, and who has taken such major paycuts in order to continue working with CFO that his wife has started to wonder how they will be able to send their own two children to school.
We also met Tiffany, a PHD student and Fulbright Fellow who is living at CFO while conducting research on
Islamic family law. She first came to the orphanage as a DePauw student on a volunteer trip, and she has since been involved with the institution, helping sponsor the higher education of several students and indirectly supporting them by staying with them during her fellowship. After our first trip we, like Tiffany, felt like it would be impossible to leave CFO without making some commitment to helping them regain financial solvency and a hope for the future.
Over the last few months we’ve worked with Tiffany, Lesley, and the representatives of the orphanage to try to come up with a plan to make the orphanage financially independent and self-sustainable. Their immediate needs are basic: more meat protein for the boys, salaries for a cook, a guard and “house mom,” enough money to pay tuition fees for all the boys. But in order to cover these expenses now and in the future (without depending on outside funding, as they did in the past), the orphanage will have to come up with some income generating activities. They already have massive tracts of rice paddy land, several vegetable gardens and ponds for raising fish (all donated by the original founder of the
orphanage, a local wealthy landowner), but they lack the capital to convert these idle assets into productive income-generation mechanisms. With that initial capital, the orphanage could establish an effective dairy and chicken production scheme (for example), using the milk and eggs to improve the boys' nutrition and selling the excess in the local market, providing them with the income they need to cover other costs (such as hiring private tutors, as they had before, or boarding boys until they have passed their higher level examinations).
Unfortunately our first attempt at helping the orphanage do this has failed. We had submitted a grant proposal to a Save the Children fund that would have allowed the orphanage to expand their agricultural activities to the point of reaching self-sufficiency, while also training the boys in professional skills (dairy marketing and basic veterinary practice, for example) and providing them with financial literacy and life skills training (taken from the Kishoree Kontha module for adolescent girls). Our proposal, however, did not represent the kind of “innovation” that the fund was looking for (in their response to us they suggested something like cell phone banking for the orphans, or agricultural insurance for the orphanage’s cows)—a
classic example of specific (and self serving?) donor demands that go beyond the need of the applicants. The fund was looking to identify new and untested strategies for livelihoods, and try as we might have to dress up our proposal as a livelihoods innovation, it was probably all too evident that what we really needed was just money to buy cows, feed boys and pay salaries.
I had the unfortunate job of delivering the bad news in person on my most recent visit, and seeing for myself just how precarious their circumstances have become. The orphanage only has enough rice to feed the boys for 2 weeks, and with a small donation that I delivered on behalf of Parendi they will be able to pay back the loan that they owe to the book store for this year’s school purchases. But despite the let down and yet another unfulfilled promise for assistance, Seraj and Salauddin (the accountant) are still hopeful. Discussions with Dartmouth are stalled, but moving toward the construction of a much needed new building. They also know that we are trying our best to locate other funds for the orphanage. And they know that even with the
boys living in cow sheds and eating only the occasional piece of chicken, most of the boys are happier, better educated and better fed here than they would be at home.
As Cole (a friend visiting Bangladesh for just a week) commented, it’s hard not to fall in love with the Char Fasson orphanage—the ponds lined in palm trees, Seraj’s caring wife (and her amazing food), and dozens upon dozens of boys (with tattered uniforms, broken arms, and just a few possessions in the world) who seem like they couldn’t be happier. It’s the perfect example of an experience that shows you in full color just how much you have—to be grateful for and also to give. And having taken that lesson from CFO, I just hope that we are able to give them the resources they need to get on their feet and continue providing homes and educations for the boys of Char Fasson.
2010 UPDATE: Lesley, Tiffany and I (and a few other recruits) have set up a non-profit in the US (Char Fasson Children's Fund, or CFCF) that raises funds for the orphanage and also supports the orphanage in its efforts to become financially
self-sustainable. Please visit our website and make a tax-deductible donation to support the boys of Char Fasson!
There are more photos below