The side of Bangladesh that doesn't make the news

23 November 2013


As I've been telling people I'm heading to Bangladesh for the next couple of months, the reactions have been somewhat telling about public - or rather, European - perceptions of the country. From the ruthlessly blunt “Er, why would you want to go there?”; to “Will there be electricity?”;, the unenlightened “Where is that in India?”; and “Aren't there always floods there?”; to take just a few. 

Yes, the country has many, many problems. Extreme poverty, overpopulation, climate change risks, corruption and political instability, to name a few - but that is not everything there is to know about Bangladesh. Media coverage, at least in Europe and the US, seems exclusively to focus on these issues in an overwhelmingly negative and sometimes, (in my opinion) unhelpful, fashion, and I can't help but feel it's doing a disservice to an incredibly rich culture and people. 

So - what else is there, then? Here, I've begun compiling a list of perhaps the less-known things Bangladesh and Bengali people have achieved. 

Aid and empowerment

Take, for example, the world's largest development NGO, which began life as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, BRAC. The idea of south-south cooperation might be masquerading as 'new' in many circles, but BRAC has been going since 1972, founded in Bangladesh soon after Bangladeshi independence, and is now active in a number of other low-income countries. Even better is their attitude towards women's empowerment; they currently employ over 100,000 people, of which approximately 70% are women.


They're mainly funded through a variety of commercial enterprises, the most exciting of which is a chain of handicraft stores, Aarong, which began doing “fairtrade”; 20 years before Fairtrade the official label came along. They've received international recognition for the great work they've done, and are seemingly going from strength to strength across a number of areas. 


In the UK at least, curry has been claimed as part of national heritage, and it seems that Bangladeshi culture played a bigger role than you might expect in bringing it over. According to this handbook, "Until the early 1970s more than three-quarters of Indian restaurants in Britain were identified as being owned and run by people of Bengali origin." And even in 2002, the Guardian cited "eight out of 10 Indian restaurants in the UK" as being owned by Bangladeshis. Something to think about when getting your next 'Indian' takeaway. 


The first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 was also of Bengali origins; Rabindranath Tagore. A prolific and esteemed composer, poet, author, playwright and painter (yes, all of them) - he is also the only person to have composed the national anthems of two nations, India's Jana Gana Mara and Bangladesh's Amar Shonar Bangla

Flora and fauna

One of the world's largest mangrove forests is found in Bangladesh; the Sunderbans, shared between Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. An area of 2585 km² (=700,000 acres), they are the only mangrove forests in the world where Bengal Tigers can be found


Another little-known fact about the country's landscape; Bangladesh is home to the world's longest uninterrupted natural beach, Cox's Bazaar, which in total is 125km of unbroken beach, and one of the biggest tourist attractions. song of the great water-Bangladesh

International cooperation

A surprising one next; as this other map of 'What each country leads the world in' taught me, Bangladesh is the largest contributor of police personnel to UN Peacekeeping


And last but definitely not least, comes perhaps the most internationally-renowned Bangladeshi initiative, the microfinance and community development organisation the Grameen Bank, which brought its founder Mohammed Yunus a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. 97% of their lenders are women, who are also collectively key shareholders in the bank, and it began by targeting those living in extreme poverty. (Disclaimer; I'm a massive fan)

And there's more, too, but perhaps that has provided just a taster of why someone might want to go to Bangladesh, despite the oft-reported problems. If you want some more reasons, check out this post by Jenny Gustafsson, of an A to Z of what to love about Bangladesh. I hope to find more myself in person next week! 

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The Conservatives' (attempted) deletion of history

15 November 2013

Earlier this week, the UK Conservative party deleted press releases and speeches from their website from the years 2000-2010, ie. until just before they were elected into government. 


Alex Hern sums up their actions brilliantly in this article; suffice to say, the Internet is not amused. As a key player in UK political history, it is their responsibility to archive the role they have played, the promises they made, and their supposed intentions for when they got elected.  They've also tried to delete their Youtube videos, including an up close and personal web series with Cameron, imaginatively named 'Webcameron'. 

It's ironic that some of the deleted speeches outlined their intention to use the internet to be more transparent and to encourage accountability; my favourite quote so far comes from George Osbourne's speech 'Open Source Politics'”;

We need to harness the internet to help us become more accountable, more transparent and more accessible - and so bridge the gap between government and governed.

The democratization of access to eroding traditional power and informational imbalances.

No longer is there an asymmetry of information between the individual and the state, or between the layperson and the expert.

...well, there might not be if you didn't delete it, George. The New Statesman has collected a great selection of such quotes here. 

But surely the Conservatives removing the videos, speeches and press releases from their site can't really mean that they've gone forever? Let's see.

They may have taken the step of stopping the Internet Archive from taking snapshots of their site, and getting rid of the ones it already had, as Computer Weekly (who first reported on this whole story) explain but it appears as though this didn't affect their site being captured by the UK Web Archive.

A former colleague of mine also pointed out that any speeches made in formal fora would likely have been recorded in the minutes of sessions and meetings, and as such, might be available under the UK Freedom of Information Act

So, despite their best attempts to delete their (and our) history, what do we still have? Aside from the grand total list of 19 speeches that are now still listed on the Conservatives website (!) - there are a couple of other ways round it. (hat tip to this Guardian article for pointing these sources out- I just wanted to set the links out more comprehensively) 

Are there any more sources out there? Ping me @zararah!

And other sources of internet humour on this topic; Labour making the most of the Conservatives' mess (screen capture below); BuzzFeed's 6 speeches the Conservatives don't want you to see. 


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Hasenheide in the 1940s

10 November 2013

I'm reading 'A Woman in Berlin' at the moment. It's an autobiographical account of a woman who was living in Berlin during the Russian occupation after World War II.

I just came across this passage, which describes the park just by my flat here in Berlin. 

We clambered past the cemetery in the Hasenheide park - long, uniform rows of graves in the yellow sand from the last big air raid in March. The summer sun was scorching. The park itself was desolate. Our own troops had felled all the trees to have a clear field for shooting. The ground was scored with trenches strewn with rags, bottles, cans, wires, ammunition.

I can't find any photos or illustrations of what it looked like, but I did come across these two images of Hasenheide from around the same time. 


This one, taken from the book “Die 109”; from Motorbuch Verlag, and copied from this site, says it was taken in 1941. 

The passage quoted above is written four years after that in 1945, and then comes this photo, taken in 1947. It's entitled 'Dancing in Hasenheide' ; seemingly, it didn't take long for the park to regain its true purpose within the community. 


I'm finding reading such alien accounts of somewhere that I know well quite haunting, especially as the book is an unedited diary, full of very raw emotion and fairly graphic accounts of the abuse that the author and her peers underwent during the Soviet occupation. 

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Investigating aid flows at the Open Development Camp

08 November 2013

Our challenge: give Open Development a reality check, at Open for Change’s Open Development Camp in Amsterdam.

This challenge was well and truly accepted by participants of the Open Development Camp during this afternoon’s Data Expedition. We started with the very broad theme of looking into bilateral aid flows, following recent articles on how OECD countries were thinking of redefining rules of what counted as ‘aid’ and a report by Development Initiatives which revealed that a fifth of OECD aid never leaves the donor country.

The group, made up of around 20 people, split into four groups.

The first looked into remittances flowing into Somalia, and they found data from the World Bank on remittances, but that the Guardian had the best data set on this, but that the column for Somalia (along with a couple of other countries) was entirely empty. They then found the data hidden deep in a PDF, and used everyone’s favourite PDF extraction tool, Tabula, to extract this data.

The second group chose a trickier topic; taking a dive into project failures. Is the phrase ‘learn from your mistakes’ even possible in the development world? Do we know where projects might have stopped just after the pilot, whether projects benefited from planning research, or could it be that every single project is a success?

While I don’t think any of us believed that last suggestion, it soon became clear that project failures simply aren’t documented. One participant mentioned a past initiative from the Canadian International Development Agency which invited people to record their project ‘challenges’, but as there were only four even recorded, we didn’t consider that to be of much help. It did, however, lead to many interesting discussions around what success actually is for a development project (who decides? Donor, or recipient?) and how these criteria are set.

The third group looked at the Dutch Foreign Ministry’s open data site, to see where money was going from the Netherlands. While it turned out that Afghanistan is the biggest recipient of aid money, it proved difficult to find the budget data of the Dutch Foreign Ministry (though we were later informed that it is, in fact, on the site somewhere.)

The fourth group took a much more specific route to looking at international aid flows, focusing on the issue of tuberculosis. The challenge; does expenditure on prevention of tuberculosis have any correlation to prevalence of tuberculosis?

The first step proved fairly easy- the World Health Organisation provides detailed data on the prevalence of tuberculosis per 100,000 people, dating back some 20 years. Great! But what about the financing? Unfortunately, it turns out that the World Health Organisation only provides PDFs on the amount of money that was spent on this, per country; and, not just that, but the data is already processed into bar charts, meaning that we couldn’t even scrape the PDF for that data.

We didn’t let that stop us though. We focused on the country PDF profile of Bangladesh, as we wanted a country that hadn’t experienced serious conflict in the last 10 years to avoid extra external factors. Using the Chrome Extension ‘MeasureIt’ to make a crude estimate of how big the bars were in the bar chart on the country profile, we recorded our estimates in a spreadsheet and plotted the line of spending on tuberculosis against the prevalence of tuberculosis in the country.

We discovered that, for some reason, funds available for treating tuberculosis in Bangladesh tripled between 2009-2010. Aside from this making planning incredibly difficult, it actually had no effect whatsoever on the prevalence of tuberculosis, which has been declining fairly steadily in the country for the past 20 years.

So - expedition success! We learned about Tabula, about how to find your way around the IATI data store, how to get data even if someone out there really doesn’t want you to have it (ie. by measuring pixels of a bar chart!) and that there is a gap in measuring success of development projects, to name just a few findings.

Thanks everyone; we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!


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MozFest 2013

30 October 2013

It came, it went, and it left us all exhausted. MozFlu, if you will.

This year's Mozilla Festival was my first, and hopefully not my last. Rather than explain the details of the event itself (check out the event website for more info) – here are a couple of my quick highlights:


  • Engagement: Participants were incredibly engaged, and far beyond the usual level of standing up to introduce yourself when prompted. There was maybe only one session I went to where involved group work wasn't the norm, and it was almost impossible to go to a session as a passive listener. (Yes, this made for being pretty tired by the end of the day, but there was a much appreciated chill out zone provided too!)

  • Cross sector overlap: there was so much that I heard and saw that was designed for certain audiences, but that was/is relevant in other areas of the open world. My favourite example – 'Inclusivity in gaming' by Sarah Schoemann. Confession time; I'm not into gaming, I'm into inclusivity and diversity, and I learned a lot about encouraging diversity in communities, for example, with the Inclusivity Statement created by the community at Different Games, an idea which I'm keen to explore further.

    Other sessions, especially in the journalism track, such as A Journalist's toolbox, or the Psychology of sharing on social media contained lots of information very relevant for community management for example, or for researchers looking to use the open web to make their work easier.

  • Documentation: this was done excellently! Each session had a designated etherpad, there were photos a-plenty, students walking around with video cameras, a radio stream, a live video stream, and probably more. Now, post-event, there's plenty of ways to catch up on the sessions I didn't catch, as well as find links that I didn't quite catch while I was there.

  • Genuinely open: there was lots of collaboration between different organisations and initiatives in this space, which was great to see. Not just in the session we ran on Building collaboration in the open space, but also in terms of organisation. For example, they welcomed my colleague Beatrice Martini, the Events Coordinator of the Open Knowledge Foundation, to help them on the organisational side of things, experiment with participatory formats prepping for our upcoming OKFestival, as well as contribute to the event in a more involved way.

  • Interesting people! And so many of them. Bringing together such a group of people for 2 days remains for me, chatterbox that I am, one of the biggest highlights.

Big thanks to the team at Mozilla, the lovely people I met, and the most wonderful coffee-providers I've ever seen at an event before! Open invitation to Berlin for all of you. Especially the baristas.


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Women in technology initiatives - all they're cracked up to be?

21 October 2013

Women Only - DAY 6

This article, on Posh white blokes in NGOs, caught my eye a couple of weeks ago. And then this reply, by an employee of an author of the first.

Rather than hashing over the whole discussion again, it's enough to say that I enjoyed a number of things about these pieces; that Ben Phillips was self-aware enough to write the piece, that Guppi Bola was pragmatic enough to, rather than simply talking over the issue, suggest some clear and concrete actions that NGOs and organisations can take.

I also enjoyed the fact that none of these suggestions involved gender stereotypes; no organic juices for the women, no football sessions for the men, but instead genuinely fair and balanced suggestions to help organisations be more diverse and “make change happen for real.”

This is not what I see in many other initiatives also claiming to make change happen; and here, I have specific examples to mention. Women in technology initiatives which, while with the best of intentions, miss the point entirely.

I've talked about women in tech initiatives with a number of friends and colleagues over the past few weeks, and it's been great to get people's feedback on some issues I've been feeling uncomfortable about. Here's why.

For women only

a. I want to be recognised or singled out on a merit-only basis, most definitely not because of my gender. I don't want to be offered special courses or have doors opened to me, purely because I am a woman.

b. The women in tech initiatives that tout the benefits of learning how to code as though its the silver bullet for everyone. An example of an article that does this is “I wasted four years of my life – don't make the same mistake” by Belinda Parmar, founder of Lady Geek. In short: studying anything but a STEM career, was a complete waste of time. Humanities didn't teach her anything.

“The next three or four years of your life may be romantic, inspiring and entertaining, but you are still wasting your time.”

Apparently, being inspired is a “literal” waste of time - slightly ironic then, that the blog was run in the series ‘Inspiring leaders’.

Learning how to code, or having a career in technology, is not for everyone, and this article, “No you don't need to learn to code” explains why, brilliantly.

c. In some ways, all-women initiatives reinforce gender stereotypes entirely. I once came across a list of things required to run a successful women-friendly hackathon, which included having a craft corner, providing organic juices, and running yoga classes.

The depth of gender-related assumptions and stereotypes within those suggestions; the fact that this was coming from someone within an organisation advising others on how to run women-friendly events; the assumption, above all, that all you need to keep women happy in tech is crafts, organic juice and yoga?! Please, give us some credit. Paraphrased from a colleague – what about good wifi and coffee?

But then, there are of course strong arguments to the contrary; women in tech initiatives have, for everything I've said here, done some great things. They've created safe spaces for women who might otherwise have not followed their desire to learn to code, or to start a career in tech, and they are inspiring girls to take up STEM subjects, with strong role models to follow.

It's no mean feat, and I don't mean in any way to undermine these achievements with my comments above; I just can't help but feel a little strange, sitting in a room full of only women, with computers in front of us. But a friend of mine expressed this situation very well recently:

“Perhaps the only way we can bring the balance to the middle is by skewing it really far the other way.”

It's a fair point – maybe, in order to balance out the years of male-dominated technology initiatives, we need to grow and support these all women initiatives, in the hope that one day the two of them balance out.

In the meantime, though, I do wish that all-women technology initiatives would take the time to think about how they are going about what they do, making sure that they're not reinforcing the gender stereotypes they've been working so hard against, and not losing that sense of self-awareness that is all too crucial to discussions about diversity.

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"Don't get me wrong - I'm not a feminist, or anything like that".

14 October 2013

And there you have a sentence that, incredulously, I keep hearing from my peers. At first, I was outraged; mostly, the people saying things like this are women, in their mid-twenties, young professionals working their way up the career ladder, over-achievers, well-educated, independent women.

Feminism, VDay 2007 and Me

What do they mean, they're “not feminists” - of course they are! If I asked them who was more intelligent between them and a male colleague, they wouldn't automatically default to the man. They're competitive and ambitious people; there's no crisis of confidence going on there, they know that they're just as capable as the men they work with.

But somehow, they don't consider themselves to be feminists. Perhaps, yes, the word feminism has been hijacked in popular culture to mean something other than 'people who believe in gender equality' – but the thing that shocked me most was that actually, they know that, and when they say they're not feminists, they mean it.

Yes, a woman can be just as intelligent as a man. But of course, believing simply that doesn't make you a feminist. The penny dropped for me while a friend was describing another friend's new boyfriend.

“He really looks after her, and he fixes everything around the house. It's just what she needs in a boyfriend.”

The next clue came soon after.

“My boyfriend would never let me do that!”

And then :

“Of course he doesn't do the cooking, he's the man!”

There were more. She, as an independent and well-educated woman, was and is perpetuating a bucket load of gender stereotypes that feminists all over the world have been focused on quashing. And sadly, she's not the only one. Somehow, these misconceptions have been so wired into some of my peers that they are firmly rooted in their cultural and social values.

Anti-Sexist Stickers

And, strangely enough, it's apparently entirely possible to be against sexism (sometimes), without being a feminist. Selecting between when you're being discriminated against (sexism=bad) and when you, yourself, are perpetuating the gender stereotypes in a non-offensive way, seems like a funny distinction to make. 

Feminism is apparently seen by many as a pipe dream, if that. An unwanted pipe dream might be a better way to describe it. The easy route (as seen by many) : all you've ever wanted is a husband and a house to clean, to have babies, to be looked after and provided for, and yet, for some reason, here these feminists kicking up a fuss when actually, that picture sounds perfect.

The fact that wanting to bow down to these patriarchal structures is seen as 'normal', while wanting to have the same opportunities in life as men is the odd option to choose, baffles me. It baffles me more that women who have truly benefited from the feminists of past generations fighting for that equality now seem so willing to forfeit those rights.

And how do you argue with someone who knows exactly what choices she is making and the consequences of what she is saying? She knows that perhaps more progressive ones amongst her friends will be shocked at her anti-feminist views, but she doesn't care. She's been exposed to all these views, and yet chooses to play the role of housewife. Do we simply accept these views and move on, hoping fervently that those misconceptions that she, as a woman, is 'supposed' to be in the kitchen, is 'supposed' to stay at home and pass up her career, won't get passed on much further?

Somehow, it feels incredibly ungrateful to all the great feminists who have fought for our equality (not to mention the fact that we're not even there yet in terms of equality). Responding to the opportunities that we've been given with resounding denial that we even needed any of them, just doesn't seem right. 

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OKCon - my takeaways from the week

21 September 2013


While the hustle and bustle of this week's OKCon is still fresh in my mind, I wanted to write down a few impressions. I was lucky enough to be working on communications of the event; amplifying it online, making sure that people could take part remotely and getting the week's messages heard in places that it matters, which meant I had the opportunity to hear from a lot of you!

My take-aways from OKCon 2013:

There were all-women panels – and, wonderfully, they weren't just talking about being women. The session from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative mentors brought 4 brilliant women together to talk on their experiences as TAI mentors, for example.

The voice of the younger generation was valued. Really, really valued. Jay Naidoo's incredibly inspiring speech is still ringing in my ears:

“We need the younger generation to stand up and be leaders.”

His presentation was effectively a call to action to the younger generation to bring a sense of morality back into the world. As a respected leader, he wants to use his voice to represent those who can actually do something – he genuinely wants to hear from younger people, and stop simply talking amongst old men (his words, not mine!) about how to change the world.

And it wasn't just for show, as his comments when he met two of my 20-something colleagues highlight:

“I hope everyone here is as young as you two!”

It wasn't just about open data. That might be where it started- but we've evolved. The range of speakers and topics really highlighted for me how broad the open knowledge movement is, from Jay talking about malnutrition, to John Ellis on particle physics at CERN, to campaigning and storytelling. The open movement really affects everybody, and it's so much bigger than just open data.

The value of face to face meetups. I love the fact that I get to work with a huge virtual community, but being able to sit down with people and talk with them can't be replaced. It's a funny feeling to feel like you already know someone from having had so much virtual contact with them, wanting to hug them like an old friend, but then realising that was the first time you've actually seen them in person. The virtual contact definitely speeds up the 'getting to know you' process, but actually hearing from and seeing people is invaluable. Here's to more face to face meetings, everyone!

Passion within the community – it was overwhelming to see how many people give up so much time to grow the open movement. People who are so passionate about open knowledge that they contribute to the community on weekends, evenings, or even lunchtimes while keeping up a day job in an entirely unrelated topic. Those who took holiday from their jobs to spend the week with us- thank you.

Diversity within the community – for once, I'm not talking about gender diversity or racial diversity, but the breadth of people OKCon brought together. Talking to other participants there I realised just how varied our professional and personal backgrounds were. As you might have guessed, there were plenty of academics, scientists and tech geeks – but also people who had studied topics ranging from philosophy to forestry, modern languages to gender studies, professional harpists (you know who you are!) to literature. This brought, and continues to bring, an incredible richness to the community which I love.

To be honest, I think I probably need at least another week to recover and fully process everything that came up this week. It was inspiring and a true honour to spend the week with you all, and I hope even more people will be joining us next year for OKFestival in Berlin!


NB - we need to get better at making human OKF shapes... thanks to Ewan Klein for the photos! 

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The garment industry in Bangladesh - exploitation, or empowerment?

02 September 2013

Last week, by a massive stroke of luck, I had the chance to meet Professor Mohammed Yunus, together with Transparency International founder Peter Eigen, talk about a new initiative of theirs, the Garment Industries Transparency Initiative. Details of the initiative are still being worked out, but it was Professor Yunus' speech about the effect that the garment industry has had on Bangladesh that left me thinking.

The story we've all heard is one of exploitation. Especially since the recent and tragic factory collapse at Rana Plaza, which left over 1,100 people dead, hundreds still missing, and devastated the lives of thousands more – injured survivors, dependent family members, and those in mourning, there are (justifiably) negative connotations that come with any item 'Made in Bangladesh'.

But as Professor Yunus insisted, the garment industry hasn't been a source of only evil in the country. The hard facts:

It's difficult to comprehend how these awful working conditions could bring anything other than unhappiness to those involved – but actually, for millions, the garment industry has been a source of empowerment and social advancement.

Professor Yunus made the strong argument that actually, the garment industry has been a catalyst for positive social change in the country. It has, in an otherwise traditional culture where women play the role of housewife and mother, and men are the breadwinners, provided a culturally acceptable alternative.

This opportunity for employment has provided millions of women with their one opportunity to leave their village, to earn their own living, and even to send money back to support their family. That is, in effect, the definition of empowerment. The conditions, however, are the epitome of exploitation.

The challenge now is to keep the first, while getting rid of the second. Pressurising companies to leave Bangladesh and stop employing these women is not the solution – this leaves them again with nothing. Professor Yunus' point was that the global community should encourage foreign companies to keep investing in Bangladesh, while improving working conditions for the workers, not simply giving up on them.

So what does that mean for us, the consumers? We could try and hold companies accountable for their actions. We could ask them to be transparent about where they are sourcing their clothes from. Or, if the Garment Industries Transparency Initiative goes ahead as Mohammed Yunus and Peter Eigen suggested, we could pay an extra dollar or two to make sure that the clothes we are buying were not made with slave labour.

I'm in.  

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02 September 2013

<p>My first try using iMovie - a trailer for our upcoming conference, OKCon in Geneva in two weeks time! </p>

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