Doing Business in Bangladesh

I’ve come to Dhaka because we’re trying to obtain a government registration in order to start programs here. Our application keeps getting delayed with no explanation given. At the last minute, it was suggested that since I was in Nepal, I should make a side trip to Bangladesh to meet with government officials to try to persuade them to approve our application.

I’m sitting in a small outer office on the ninth floor of a tired, crumbling, remarkably non-descript cinder block government building. There is a faded, corners-curling yearly calendar taped to the wall from 2004. The desk has a glass top with faded business cards randomly placed beneath it. One grabs my attention: BAPSA – Bangladesh Association for the Prevention of Septic Abortions.

I sit and wait. And wait. And wait. I know that things work differently in this part of the world; I don’t let myself get upset by this delay. The Director walks through the outer office into his inner sanctum without glancing at us. He shuts the door. A few minutes later he buzzes for his assistant, who goes in then returns a few minutes later, ushering me in. The Director of the NGO Affairs Bureau begins talking, but doesn’t look at me. He’s fingering a one sentence letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs. He begins talking and I listen to him, then begin my spiel – we’re not a political organization, we’re not affiliated with any religious organizations, our model is to partner with the government, the need for educational infrastructure in Bangladesh is great…. I’m careful to keep my tone positive, to not show any frustration, to not show any sign that I’m annoyed that our application has been in purgatory for the past 6 months. He agrees with my points then wants to discuss US geography. He asks me if San Francisco is close to Washington DC. He wants to know where Pennsylvania is. He then mentions other states and their capitals. I indulge him. I try to steer the conversation back to our registration, or rather the lack thereof.

He pushes the buzzer on his desk and immediately his assistant appears. He makes an order in Bangla. The assistant quickly leaves and returns shortly, followed by three other men and carrying a pink folder, stuffed with papers, secured with a wide string that looks like a shoe lace. The folder is placed on the Director’s desk. The Director nods at it. The assistant unties the string and opens the folder, placing it in front of the Director. Amongst the Bangla writing, I notice the name of our organization scattered throughout. Our application.

The five men chatter back and forth in Bangla, animatedly. They don’t seem to be talking about the application, but perhaps I’m wrong. I sit there, wondering what is being said. There is hearty laughter. After about 15 minutes, the Director dismisses the assistant and the other men. Our conversation resumes.

“Yes… I think you need to speak to the Ministry of Home Affairs directly. Tell them what you have told me. That will be the best.” He writes down a phone number and I’m escorted out.

The assistant makes several phone calls then triumphantly tells me that I will have lunch with one of the Directors from the Ministry of Home Affairs. He notices the look of surprise on my face. “But my flight is at 1 pm. 1300 hours. I do not think I can have lunch and be at the airport in time for my flight.” He smiles. “Yes. Lunch at one. Airport at three.” I smile again. “No, flight at one. Leave for airport at eleven. Meet with Director now?” He looks concerned. “No, flight at three.” I smile. “No, flight at one.” I show him my ticket. “Oh,” is his only reply.

We sit in silence for a few minutes, each looking at the other expectantly.

He finally speaks. “I try my best. You visit with Director next visit.” I ponder. Do I explain to him there won’t be a next visit – that this was taking advantage of my being in Asia? I don’t. I smile, thank him, and tell the driver to take me to the airport. Goodbye, Bangladesh.

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