Rod Noble is a local who has visited Bangladesh on several occasions and witnessed firsthand both the extreme poverty the Bangladeshi people live with every day, but also their resilience in the face of adversity.
Rod will chair a special breakfast meeting at Rydges this month, to help promote the Symbiosis organisation and the vital work it does in Bangladesh. Local businesses can also learn valuable strategies for business growth and engaging people …
What is Symbiosis?
Symbiosis is a non Government Organisation (NGO) that was set up to help the marginalised and poor in Bangladesh, a third world Muslim country, and is supported by both individual donors, organisations such as Australian Baptist World Aid, TEAR, Global Interaction and the Australian Government through Australian Aid Abroad. It aims to do this by empowering the people themselves, allowing them to take control of their situation so that if and when western money and support eventually dries up, it will still be possible for the structures that have been set up to be run by the local people.
A large proportion of Bangladesh is agricultural, and the villages are basically little outcrops of bamboo in the middle of the rice fields. The criteria for Symbiosis to work with the people in these villages is that they have no land of their own and their income must be below a certain level. A meeting is held with the leaders of each village, and Symbiosis has to be invited in before they begin work in the village.
Among the first things Symbiosis teaches are literacy and numeracy − mostly to the women in each village, as the men are out working. Through written material presented to the women, they begin to understand that they have rights and can gain advocacy through Symbiosis or through the government.
Once the numeracy and literacy programs are completed, the women are invited to start their own savings program. The women form a group, and those with the best numeracy and literacy skills become the bookkeeper and accountant. The women save money, which may only be equivalent to a few cents per month and once there is enough money pooled, the money can be loaned to one of the women in the group to start a business, e.g. buy a duck, or a goat or a sewing machine. The produce or money earned is used to pay back the loan.
Over a period of the past 10 years, some of these savings groups have become quite large, and they’re able to make major purchases − such as a bus.
When did you first visit Bangladesh?
I first went over in 2005, to have a look at what Symbiosis does. Bangladesh was an unknown country to me then, and it was a bit scary. It would still be difficult for me to travel around over there without support on the ground, and it can be quite a hostile environment.
I went back in 2009 with a group of doctors and physiotherapists. It is a great place to visit and bring back ideas. When you think about our immunisation program here … visiting Bangladesh shows you what problems Rubella, Diphtheria, Polio and Tuberculosis can inflict on an unvaccinated population. There is now a program set up for Australian doctors to go and visit Bangladesh and spend some time in hospitals there, to witness what it is like to treat these diseases.
I went back in January this year, to be present at the opening of a training centre at Mymensingh. The training centre has been built with money from donors in Australia, Canada and the USA.
What is the function of this training centre?
The training centre has accommodation for visitors, office space for Symbiosis and two levels of training for trades such as hairdressing and mechanics. Australian volunteers go over to train people in these professions and introduce them to Australian TAFE accredited courses.
There is a fish farming project that has been set up and sponsored by the Australian Government. At the farm, a small fish called Tilapia, introduced from Africa, is bred. These fish thrive in poor quality water, and they are bred then sold to local farmers, who use them to stock their own dams. They’re a very important source of protein for the local people. The fish are also exported to places such as Hong Kong.
Another positive benefit of the fish farming project is the health benefits for local children. The local fish is a type of carp and has very fine bones, and there is a high mortality rate for young children choking on the bones. Introduction of the new fish species has helped to reduce this mortality rate as well.
Seven people in Bangladesh are now TAFE accredited and run this fish farm themselves.
What are some of the memories of visiting Bangladesh that stick in your mind the most?
The greatest achievement is the empowering of really poor people. Most Australians would have no concept of the extreme poverty … when we first arrived in January, we were expecting it to be hot, but it was the dry season and quite cold.
One of the first impressions was when we met families in the afternoon, and some of the young children weren’t very well. We visited them in their huts. We heard the next day that a few of the children had died of exposure to the cold. It wasn’t really that cold for those of us with blankets in a building. The lasting impact was how precarious some people’s lives are.
Another impression, though, was how resilient the Bangladeshi people are. If they’re given an opportunity, they really work hard and want to better themselves and their families. It’s amazing to see families who, in one generation, go from people who can’t read or write, to having children studying to become doctors.
Each time I come back to Australia, I bring back ideas. I try to implement these ideas in our local area. When I came back last time, I had the opportunity to apply for a grant for a community garden in the grounds of the Port Macquarie Baptist Church. I see that garden as a direct response to what I witnessed in Bangladesh; it’s an opportunity to help the people in Port Macquarie to help themselves − and empower them to want to do so.
Please tell us about the special breakfast happening on 27 April …
There will be a guest speaker – Dr Morris Lee – an Australian who has been working in Bangladesh since 1977. He spent 10 years working as a Baptist missionary, and for the first few years he felt as if he wasn’t making any progress following a Western driven program. He teamed up with a local man, Abdul Mottalib- Akand; the two of them brought together the idea of Symbiosis. Over the past 9 years, Symbiosis has developed from a group with 40 Bangladesh staff workers in 2006, to over 200 today.
Anyone working in Port Macquarie in the areas of business, medical field, health issues, disabilities, or working with the poor will learn a lot from Morris’ talk. The topic is entitled, Helping the Poor – is Money Enough. Those who are frustrated with throwing money at problems that never seem to be solved and needing a fresh way of looking at a situation will also benefit from this talk.
The breakfast will be held at Rydges on 27 April; 6.45am for a 7am start. Thank you also to Rydges for their support and providing the breakfast venue.
Interview by Jo Atkins.
This story was published in issue ?? of Port Macquarie Focus