Letter from Dhaka

There is nothing that quite prepares you for the ethereal sound of a muezzin singing the call to prayer over the roar of the Dhaka traffic.   I shall explain.   Dhaka is a city of some 25 million people: it has five times the population of Scotland or two and a half times that of London.   This means that there are over a million people on the move at virtually any time you care to mention, and during the peak hours it is far more than that.   The traffic surprisingly is not that chaotic, but it is noisy with thousands of horns blaring every minute of the day and night.   This is why I was surprised that I could actually hear the muezzin, even though he was using a sound system to project his voice.

We were heading through the traffic towards meetings at the National Public Library and the National Library of Bangladesh.   The first holds 200,000 books and the latter has 500,000 books.   This means that the 20,000 books held at the Guru Nanak Library in UttarBangla University College form a significant regional collection for Bangladesh.   Kakina and the towns in the surrounding area do not have a public library, nor is there a mobile library service to the smaller villages.   The majority of the population in the Lalmonirhat district simply do not have access to reading materials.   I presume that this is also the case throughout the whole of rural Bangladesh.

The National Public Library has a card catalogue.   I have not seen card catalogues in use in public libraries in the UK since the 1980s.   The National Library of Bangladesh has only been able to make its catalogue available online in the last few weeks.   It was only two weeks ago that I was able to supply a doctoral student at UttarBangla University College with a list of the books held at the National Library on his research subject of arsenic contamination of the water supply of Bangladesh.   The National Public Library and the National Library of Bangladesh are the cutting edge libraries of the country, and in both cases their directors recognised that there is so much to do to bring them up to date.

A great deal of work is taking place.   The Vice Chancellor of the National University, which is the validating body for the degrees studied at university colleges such as UttarBangla, told us of an investment programme of $130,000,000 supplied by the Bangladesh Government and the World Bank, which will assist with the transformation of higher education in the country.   The Bangladesh Government is contributing $30,000,000 and the World Bank is supplying the rest.

One of the things that I have learned over the last seven weeks is that the transformation of Bangladesh will not be a matter of luck.   There is no magic wand that will solve all the problems of the country.   What Bangladesh has is a group of extraordinary people who are determined, hardworking and committed to the improvement of the lives of ordinary people in their country.   Places like UttarBangla University College are essential.   It is creating the next generation of leadership through the education of its students.

I am very proud that I have been able to play a small role in that process, through starting the cataloguing of a library collection.   When people say that things cannot be improved, that poverty cannot be alleviated, that we should mind our own business, there is only one answer. We must pick up the tools and get on with the job.

I have spent the last seven weeks watching people, too many to mention by name, doing exactly that.   I am so proud of them and grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside them.


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