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Looking poverty in the eye and finding ways to beat it

DNBAN23857 | 4/25/2010 | Author : Malavika Velayanikal | WC :778 | Lifestyle & Leisure

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Brian English, country director of CHF International, a global development and humanitarian
organisation, tells Malavika Velayanikal how India puzzles and engages him


Brian English, country director of CHF International, a global development and humanitarian organisation, tells Malavika Velayanikal how India puzzles and engages himBrian English's day begins early. His 16-month-old son stirs from sleep before dawn and needs a diaper change and some amusement. Then, English gets onto his job — figuring out ways to tackle urban poverty. Apart from being a "full-time father," he is the country director of CHF International, a development and humanitarian organisation.
India's growing population, its soaring GDP and rapid urbanisation, and burgeoning slums fascinate English. An urban planner by profession, he has worked in almost 30 countries and with several humanitarian organisations. What makes cities click, different layers to each city, peeling away these layers to discover new faces, urban issues — these are questions that intrigue this American. He moved to Bangalore nine months ago. What sets him apart from most expatriates in the city is that poverty is up, close and personal to him. "I turn 180 degrees, and look straight at poverty and try to address it," he says.
Based in Washington DC, CHF has worked in over 100 countries. Currently, it's active in more than 25 countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Middle East, Asia and Africa. Their project in India — SCALE-UP (Slum Communities Achieving Livable Environments with Urban Partners) is a million-dollar programme, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It runs in three Indian cities — Pune, Nagpur and Bangalore.
The aim is to tackle poverty at two levels: physical improvement and income generation. English, who heads the operations here, works with local NGOs that target slum issues. In fact, English is the only expatriate at the CHF office in Bangalore. His focus is on informal labour sector, housing projects and solid waste management.
LabourNet, internationally hailed as a groundbreaking mobile programme, is about creating a virtual market place for informal labourers. "It acts as a broker between the workers and employment."
His work takes him away from the neon lights of the city, to its darker underbelly. It isn't just a reality check for him, but he has made it his business to probe and implement solutions that would ease the life at slums.
His field visits often draw curious stares from the slum-dwellers, but that doesn't hamper him. There are indeed a lot of things he likes about this city.
First, of course, is the climate. Then the technological advances here, "given its status as the Silicon Valley of India". He finds Bangalore's culture tremendously warm and friendly. That, he says, is true to almost all of South Asia. He loves the weekly trips with his wife, Jodi, to Russell Market for fresh fruits. He hardly fancies Indian movies though. "I can't say I watch Bollywood movies," he says almost sheepishly. He frequents the malls here, mostly to watch English movies. And among restaurants, his favourite is Sunny's. "I go there for comfort food — bland meats and potatoes, the kind I get back home in the US," he says.
The congestion in the city, pollution and chaos on the roads overwhelm him. Sometimes, he longs to feel safe while strolling down sidewalks, confident that vehicles won't knock him down. As much as he misses the order of the West, India resonates with him to a certain extent. "I find India very hard to comprehend. The seeming chaos, I know, has some kind of an order to it. Being here has gradually given me new a perspective," he says. If he were more rigid like most of his countrymen, he says, he would have found it tough to cope.
India taught him patience and perseverance, he says with a merry gleam in his eyes. He learnt it the hard way that it takes a lot more time in this part of the world to get things done. His Indian friends, who studied with him, told him an anecdote of the 80%-20% Indian principle — that anything Indians do, they complete up to 80% of the work and then leave the rest to God. English says he saw this principle manifest in many ways in India. An 'almost-done' stage. He has many examples to cite: "The road in front of the CHF office was just repaired. But not the sidewalks. Painters do a good job on the walls, but leave behind a mess on the floor!" Such instances used to infuriate him earlier. Now, he laughs it off.
But there are some issues he cannot make peace with, "things I don't ever want to get used to". Corruption, nepotism and the likes. "Often here it's not about what you know, but who you know. I don't ever want to play into those rules," he is clear. v_malavika@dnaindia.net


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