Rahfin in Washington

Rahfin is a junior President’s Scholar and member of the University Honors Program who is majoring in economics, political science and mathematics in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. He was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Internship for summer 2013 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU. He is working for the U.S. State Department at the Bureau of Central and South Asia in Washington, D.C.

Impact matters

In 2011, American individuals, corporations and foundations gave an estimated $298.42 billion to charity. Americans, more than any other population in the world, give to causes around the world. Giving to international causes is especially high for first- and second-generation Americans who still have strong ties – real or sentimental – to their motherlands.

Bangladesh has a thriving civil society. Non-governmental organizations provide critical goods and services to poor populations. From educational support to water wells, NGOs impact millions of lives annually. This is the narrative that those who donate follow.

But, very rarely does anyone follow up on a more important question: What’s the return on my charity?

Some organizations are run more efficiently than others. Some organizations are better at delivering services than others. A small number of organizations lie, cheat and steal. Some break promises. Some do not keep their commitments. As the aphorism goes, one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.

Individuals rarely have resources to investigate where their charity dollar goes. The cost of investigation is simply too high. So, individuals trust organizations. But, even well-intentioned organizations might be doing something inefficient or counterproductive.

Looking at this problem, the U.S. Department of State decided to partner with diaspora-founded NGOs and a partner with experience in philanthropy in order to create a philanthropy portal. The portal, which is now in beta, will serve as a mechanism for donors to know the value of their investment. NGOs will be regularly investigated for efficiency and value. Only NGOs that have gone through an approval process will be allowed into the portal.

By streamlining donations into one portal, donors will feel better about their investment, and NGOs may receive more dollars given that donor confidence.

Measuring is critical to how we give. In a world of limited resources, the value of every dollar has to be optimized.

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Behind the scenes at the State Department

Tragedy struck Bangladesh in April 2013. More than 1,200 garment workers perished in a building collapse in Rana Plaza. Workers, already being paid the world’s lowest wages for their type of work, were told to work in a building with structural safety problems. Without a voice — formally known as a right to organize — workers did not rise up against management who told them to continue working even when it was clear that the building was going down. The building owner, who had ties with the ruling political party, was held accountable. But, in the eyes of many, the international retailers who had commissioned the factory were just as complicit. Calls for reform and boycott followed. Some companies, like Disney, left Bangladesh.

In response, the State Department formulated a three point agenda for reform in Bangladesh — a right to organize, worker safety and structural safety. This agenda became critical as the State Department, along with other government agencies like the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Labor, worked with private companies to ensure that the tragedies of Rana Plaza would never happen again. Almost daily, the desk was working with the likes of lobbyists for large multinationals, European diplomats, academic experts on Bangladesh and government of Bangladesh officials. When multinationals pledged tens of millions of dollars for reform in Bangladesh, headlines were made. The work behind the scenes was not mentioned, as is the case for most State Department activities.

Throughout the summer, I worked on a host of other Bangladesh-related issues: economic integration with the broader region, diaspora engagement, a philanthropy portal intended to improve impact, and consultations for the visiting Ambassador to Bangladesh. What I found most striking about my time was not the issues I worked on but the people I worked with — people truly committed to U.S. foreign policy and the ideals of America. People who worked long hours with less pay than they could’ve made other places. People who always credited someone else and never took credit for themselves. This summer taught me that public servants deserve more recognition than we give them. We should thank them whenever we can.

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What’s in a bowl of soup?

Over the next few weeks, I hope to share projects — projects that I’m allowed to discuss — I’m working on at the State Department with all of you. Anything I discuss is my viewpoint only and does not represent the viewpoints of the Department of State and the United States government.

A common meal in Bangladesh, especially for the poor, is a plate of daal (lentil soup) on top of a bed of bhat (rice) — the country’s most common crop.

Most Bangladeshis don’t regularly eat meat. Many don’t regularly eat vegetables. And, ironically, Bangladesh — a land of waterways and fishermen — doesn’t have much inexpensive fish for the average citizen.

Food inflation for the last three years has hovered around 10 percent. Incomes are not keeping up with the cost of living. And, for a country where about a third of the population falls below the poverty line, food shortages and droughts can be devastating.

The main victims of poverty are women and children, especially in rural areas. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, nearly half of all children in rural areas are malnourished.

When asked for a solution, some argue that the Bangladeshi economy, which has boomed in the last decade, will continue to pull people out of poverty. Some argue for food subsidies while others argue for increased market variety.

However, a growing number have posed a much simpler solution: make the daal thicker.

Daal consists of lentils and water. In Bangladesh, the amount of water in daal is usually greater than the amount of lentils. When daal is watered down, its health benefits dramatically decrease — from its high protein content to its iron.

According to the World Bank, nearly 43 percent of Bangladeshi children are stunted, which means that they are two standard deviations below the median height of similarly aged children.

Better nutrition, especially in Bangladesh’s most common meal, can lead to a host of health benefits.

Watery daal has become a culturally entrenched practice, but its prevalence is largely due to microeconomic choices.

As my grandmother, who has lived in Bangladesh all her life, told me: “We have to make the daal with more water. I have to feed so many people in the house.”

But, the economics of daal are favorable. It’s cheap compared to most other household commodities. And, the marginal benefits of a cup of thick daal outweigh the marginal health benefits from almost any other Bangladeshi food item.

The question is: how can we encourage more and more Bangladeshis to consume thick daal?

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