U is for Utvecklingsland
The English translation of utvecklingsland, or U-land, is developing country (also referred to as a less-developed country), and is defined by Wikipedia as “a nation with a lower living standard, underdeveloped industrial base, and low Human Development Index relative to other countries”. The term has been criticised for its implied inferiority and assumption that every country should develop according to Western economic development patterns.
In this Alphabet blog post the focus is on Bangladesh, regarded by many as an ‘utvecklingsland’ and certainly one of the world’s poorest countries. My concern here is not with the country’s economic development, but with how an NGO (non-governmental organisation) is working to improve the conditions for the ultra-poor, and especially women, adolescents and the disabled, in the north-eastern part of Bangladesh. Here, Quaker Service Sweden (Kväkarhjälpen) supports Sabalamby Unnayan Samity (SUS) in its work to deconstruct patriarchal ideas and traditions and help people claim their human rights.
Quaker Service Sweden has been supporting the various activities of Sabalamby Unnayan Samity (Self-reliance Development Group) since 1994. SUS was founded in 1985 by a local teacher, Begun Rokeya, who, together with ten other like-minded people, was determined to create a better future for the country’s women and children. SUS is based in north-east Bangladesh, in the Netrakona district, a rural area with some 2.4 million inhabitants. To date SUS been able to establish self-help projects in about half its working area.
One of Quaker Service Sweden’s first initiatives was to help SUS establish a Model Farm to provide local training in organic fruit and vegetable cultivation, compost-making etc. A heritage seed bank has also been created for the collection of hardy rice varieties and other crops for demonstration and distribution purposes. The project has now been expanded to include training in aquaculture (a combination of rice and fish farming). Quaker Service Sweden has also supported the expansion of SUS work in the different villages around Netrakona. This work takes the form of an integrated approach that includes the provision of basic education, micro-finance and micro-enterprise opportunities, training courses designed to prevent violence against women and to create better relations between the sexes, health-related education such as pre-natal and post-natal care, informing about diseases like HIV/AIDS etc., and human rights groups. SUS has also built a hospital so that poor people have better access to health care. At present we are supporting SUS development work in the slum areas of the largest city in the area, Mymensingh, and a rural programme in the villages of Kendua. SUS is also active in helping local people to form Stop Violence Against Women groups. Domestic violence is common in Bangladesh, and acid-throwing extremely prevalent.
Apart from donations from individuals, Quaker Service Sweden also receives development aid funding from the Swedish Government (via Sida) for the projects in Bangladesh, which is an enormous help for the people involved – Bangladeshi people at grassroots level who are trying to improve their living and working conditions and live meaningful lives.
Members of the Quaker Service Committee take it in turns to visit SUS and see the projects on the ground. As a recipient of government aid funds, QSS is obliged to do this, and receives a special administrative grant from Sida for this very purpose. I have been to Netrakona twice and am booked to go again later this year. This time, two members of the umbrella organisation that processes our finding application will also be accompanying us to conduct a Learning Review on Gender Equality and Religion with SUS staff.
You can read more about SUS and its work at http://sabalamby.org/
An interview with Begum Rokeya, the founder, can be accessed on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIAiOynmt9A