“I love it here. I can see why you decided to stay.”
The email I get from a new volunteer makes me smile. In a place like this, first impressions count: if you can see what Bangladesh has to offer straight away – the engaging work, the welcoming social scene, the buzzing energy and optimism – you’ll find your feet easily.
A new intake of Australian Volunteers has arrived, and the rest of us are moving aside to make way: April has rolled by and my assignment has officially finished. Which means we’ve been here over a year – and despite all the challenges that this crazy place poses, I’m still in Dhaka.
Out of the 13 people I arrived with, two had to go home early and two have now finished up and gone home, but the remaining nine are still here, either extending their assignments or staying for a job. It’s a common story: people linger here, unwilling to give it up. After one-year assignments, people say they just have one more great opportunity they want to see out before they leave – and then they stay for two years, then three, then four. So what is it that makes people stay?
The amazing job opportunities
This is a big one. With a huge development sector funded by various major national and UN aid programs, there are loads of jobs here, where you can be doing interesting, relevant work with some really smart, creative people. Bangladesh’s development sector is known for being at the forefront of new programming approaches and out-of-the-box thinking as much as it is for well-researched and established projects that make steady and positive progress. You can learn a lot here. For entrepreneurs, it’s a playground of opportunities, market gaps and enormous, growing potential. Social enterprise is booming, with small not-for profits and ethical businesses growing out of every over-dinner conversation.
With a relatively small local middle class and no tropical paradise environment to recommend it as a cushy posting for international workers, here you can really access amazing jobs that you would have to wait patiently for for years in other countries. In Bangladesh you don’t dip your toes in the water, you get pushed, head first, into the deep end.
You can do something really useful
The job thing is partly career growth, but a bigger chunk of it is the satisfaction of having something to offer. It’s hard to put a value on being in a place that needs your skills and puts you to work – and in a way that will make a difference to other people’s lives.
The social life
For a city of somewhere between 16 and 26 million people (depending on where you get your data), Dhaka can feel like a friendly little town. The same faces – both local and foreign – pop up wherever you go, and thanks to it being a fairly transitory crowd, people will welcome you with open arms. Bengali culture is incredibly hospitable and foreigners of all stripes are embraced in a frenzy of fried-in-turmeric food offerings and genuinely interested questions about family. You won’t be lost in this town.
Living as far out on the edge as you can without being bombed
Someone recently articulated this for me really well. ‘We love it here because it’s crazy. It’s unexpected and weird and challenging but it’s not really dangerous. Bangladesh is about as far out there as you can go without really going all-out.’ This is so true – it’s not Damascus, or Kabul, or Mogadishu, and not by a long shot. But you’re starting to creep out into the Big Unknown here. It’s not Kansas any more.
So where does that leave us? Ollie and I are probably going to stay for another year. I have a contract with CARE Bangladesh working on their Communications and PR until November, and Ollie’s still working at UNDP, rolling from human rights job to human rights job as they need him. We’re thinking about leaving in March… Unless, of course, there’s just that one last thing around the corner…