Honours ‘field’ trip: Two weeks in Bangladesh – Part One

My impromptu trip to Bangladesh was borne out of an afternoon meeting with one of my lecturers who mentioned offhand that he was traveling to Bangladesh on the weekend with my honours thesis supervisor. They were going to undertake some fieldwork for their own research on the sex industry in Bangladesh.  I have also chosen to complete my thesis on this subject, so naturally that night I decided that I absolutely had to join them. The opportunity to visit the brothels that I had been doing empirical research on was too good to pass up, and roughly 72 hours later I was on a plane and on my way.

Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world, excluding very small countries and city-states. 161 million people are crammed into a nation that is slightly more than half the size of New Zealand. The average annual wage is $240 Australian dollars, making it one of the world’s poorest countries. It’s a fascinating country for a budding economist to visit. Everywhere you look provides subject for economic analysis – from the chaotic, incredibly inefficient traffic situation to the effects of Ramadan on business activity, to the inspirational work of the many NGOs who operate within the country. The world’s first microcredit organization, The Grameen Bank, was famously founded in Bangladesh in 1983 by economics professor Muhammad Yunus. The Grameen Bank provides small loans to people in developing countries (usually women) who would otherwise not be able to access a credit market. Ideally borrowers invest this money to create their own business and therefore become self-sufficient and eventually lifted out of poverty. The bank’s model has been replicated successfully in many countries and its’ potential to be improved and more widely implemented remains a major focus of development economists today.

Despite having no real guidebook, no knowledge of any word of the Bengali language, no immunisations and no local currency (the Bangladeshi Taka was impossible to acquire from any bank or money exchange in Melbourne), I felt that I was prepared for the trip. I had studied quite a bit about the economy of the country throughout first semester of thesis work, and I assumed that my previous travels to Syria, Vietnam, Egypt and rural Turkey would have acclimatised me for the confronting poverty and poor living standards I was about to witness. Unfortunately a few hours into the trip I was proven very wrong.

The first roadblock was hit when an email arrived from our local research-aid Kashem that we were unable to go on our first trip to a brothel outside of Dhaka city due to something called ‘hartel’ that was due to take place the following day. This was sent at close to midnight and we were due to leave before 7am in the morning. I spent the best part of the night researching everything I could about what a hartel was and the ensuing effects on the economy. To explain briefly, hartels are politically motivated work strikes called by opposition political parties if they are upset about a political decision that has been made by the ruling government. Imagine a situation whereby Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announces his Papua New Guinea asylum seeker policy and the Greens react by calling a nation-wide work strike the following day. Unfortunately the work strikes are the least of people’s concerns in Bangladesh. Hartels generally involve activists who support the opposition party throwing bombs at buses, cars and occasionally groups of people if they dare to venture outside onto the streets. Between 2001 and 2006 there was an average of 173 days of hartels every year.

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Street before hartel

The Bangladesh International Chamber of Commerce estimate that the country loses about US$200 million every day of hartel, and due to its economic situation this is clearly income that Bangladesh cannot afford to lose. The World Bank and United Nations Development Program predicted in 2005 that without hartels, Bangladesh could have a current gross national income (GNI) of US$2000 per capita, compared with the eventual US$641 it had in that year. For comparison, the world average GNI per capita was US$8,985 in 2010.

Hartels have secondary effects such as unwillingness for private sector and foreign direct investment considering the instability of the environment. In the end, hartels were called not only for that Monday but also on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, which seriously interrupted our planned fieldwork. Finally on Friday (the beginning of the Muslim ‘weekend’ in Bangladesh) hartel was over and we were able to board our minivan and head for Rajbari with our guides from PIACT, an NGO who work at the brothel there, which is the largest in Bangladesh.

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Street during hartel

To give some indication of the volume of traffic that fills the country’s roads, Rajbari was about 100km away from our guest-house in Dhaka, and the trip took us over 4. Luckily the natural landscape between towns is stunningly beautiful, consisting mostly of water-lily filled rivers which are surrounded by lush green vegetation and a plethora of mango and jackfruit trees. Subsistence farming in rural villages is the main means of livelihood for most of the population so we were able to see many Bangladeshi citizens ‘at work’ during our long drives. In one rural town we saw a literal “labour market” – around 100 men standing in a group waiting and hoping to be hired for the day by a landowner to help with agricultural work in exchange for a few dollars worth of Taka. We also saw many potentially serious road accidents and people riding on the roofs of buses. Driving on the wrong side of the road here is apparently acceptable if it means you’ll reach your destination faster and much of our minivan trip was spent in what appeared to me to be a sure head-on collision with a bus or scooter rider.

My next article will be investigating the state of the garment factor industry which the country relies on heavily as their main source of foreign exports. I will also look at Bangladesh’s role as an identified ‘next eleven’ economy. Notably they are the least developed of all the nations who form the ‘next eleven’, although currently they are enjoying a growth in GDP per year of above 6%. High levels of corruption within the country, low female participation in the workforce and a large disparity between male and female earnings may undermine efforts to progress economically however, and improve quality of life for citizens equally.


A brief summary of my honours thesis:

This year I am completing my honours thesis on the state of the sex industry in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is unusual in that it is the only Islamic country within which prostitution is legal. I will be doing an empirical analysis of the workers’ self-reported levels of happiness and investigating the main factors which affect this sense of life-satisfaction, such as ability to access healthcare, wage levels, size of the brothel and current health status as well as health literacy and their understanding of the risks of their profession. The research will be based on data acquired in April 2013 from a survey of over 1400 sex workers in 7 different brothels around Bangladesh.