It has been a while since I spent time in developing countries; you know, the countries where I am the only person of European descent around, which makes me stick out like a lighthouse at sea. My tallness only accentuates that. I travelled through India first, delivering training and having some business meetings. India is a country of extremes where people are sleeping on one side of a totally overcrowded street while the other side of the street might have people living in luxury rivaling that of upper middle class Europeans. Bangladesh is like that, but the luxury is more rare.
My partners at ITpreneurs secured a contract to deliver cloud computing and virtualization training to the Bangladesh Computer Council (BCC), a 500 person agency dedicated to improving the state of the art of IT in the country. The program was financed by JICA, the Japanese development agency, who currently have two volunteers stationed permanently at BCC.
I went in without any notion of what to expect, other than clichés. It was therefore very interesting to see what the ambitions and attitudes of these people were. Getting in on the first morning, we were led into the executive director’s office to have tea with him, while our 25-odd attendants were starting to take their place. I had seen the attendants list in advance, which featured relatively junior people as well as high ranking officers from the Prime Minister’s Office. Surprisingly, these senior people including the executive director actually spend most of their time in the training, actively participating in all activities including the practical exercises. They clearly saw the need to get up to speed on these modern developments, and use those as a way to leapfrog into the next generation of IT.
For a trainer, it was an interesting challenge to get such a diverse and big group of people going. They have very different technology backgrounds, their English language command varies, and the social structure needed decoding. However, I think I touched them by being open to their willingness to learn, which they started reciprocating after a few hours. I needed to improvise on the program quite a bit, which they accepted in a constructive way. Some were also not afraid to give me direct feedback. As a result I sometimes made drastic and on the fly changes in delivery.
It took some searching to find out what makes these people tick, but once we got tuned to that, they put a lot of energy into the training and the practical work. Hopefully a number of them will be able to become cloud computing trainers themselves.
Development in these countries goes at a different speed than what people in the west have been used to. The average income is just a few dollars per day, if at all. Yet, more than 50% of the population has a mobile phone, and geographical coverage is near 100%. Remote areas get internet through this network, and the BCC goes through great pains to set up IT labs in as many schools as they can. They also have initiatives for e-commerce and digital government services that rival those of more developed countries.
All in all, it was a very interesting experience. The Bangladeshi, even the high ranking ones, treated me with great respect and took very good care of me (think private drivers and food). It would have been fun to stay longer. Maybe next time, in-shallah, as they too say.
The trip back was fairly smooth, though at the last moment people started to get worried about me getting to the airport in time. Hillary Clinton paid a brief visit to the country, just as I was supposed to go to the same airport, so people assumed some roads might be seriously closed. In all, the trip to the airport was stretched from an optimal 20 minutes to a mere 80 minutes. Another chance to experience the legendary Dhaka traffic jams… Then, just as the plane was about to be pushed back, the entire airport was closed for half an hour by the authorities. Most likely this was related to Hillary and other high visits.
Oh, yes, and on the way back the plane did a fly-by of the Annapurna.