On The Plane To Bangladesh

By Jeffrey Aresty

November 27, 2018

With stops in Chicago, Hong Kong, and a date with the immigration officers at the airport in Dhaka, it’s 30 hours of traveling to get to a place where I can bring together all the pieces of 13 years of running a non-profit.  I had my first vision of “harmonizing law” for a connected world long before I became a lawyer when my dad’s business partner, Tom Riley, handed me a letter of credit to analyze in 1977. After going to school at his elbow as he explained that you needed one payment method that banks anywhere in the world would accept when you did business around the globe as he and dad did.  It worked! How this brand new lawyer knew about global commerce back then.

Here I am almost four decades later following in their footsteps in a 21st-century internet enabled way.   And, through letters of credit are still around, and, technology has given all of us hundreds of ways to pay for goods and services everywhere, our connected world remains disconnected for most.  More than half the world lacks access to any of these technology-enabled payment systems. And yet most of this disenfranchised crowd have access to the technology which could connect them to virtual money. With  a mobile phone, you are almost there. You also need law to support the reasons for making payments. Letters of credit supported the payment needs that Tom and Dad encountered while building factories, creating inventory, paying workers, and buying shoes from distant shores.  It should be easier to do this today.

No different than Tom and Dad showing a young lawyer how you could bring the benefits of a global shoe business to places in China that knew how to make a work boot, but not a women’s fashion shoe, I would like to see the benefit of their vision available to migrants everywhere in the world.

And so, after a year of creating digital assets in our PeaceTones “World United in Song”, working closely with Sovrin.org’s “Identity for All” council, studying the migrant crisis which has given rise to so much vitriol in the news, working with generous blockchain technology companies like ODEM.IO who are building an education credential marketplace for all, our team at Internetbar.org Institute came up with a plan to make law work for disenfranchised populations.  

It starts in Bangladesh, where I’m meeting Manny Nijjar of www.truu.id, a gifted MD, who has built a framework for credentialing medical skills from one culture to another.  We are going to Kailakuri, a health care project introduced to me by one of my wonderful past interns, Michelle Mount. We hope to build a best practices framework for medical credentials which are portable from one country to another.  Eventually, this idea can go far past medical credentials and utilize the types of systems that Sovrin.org and Odem.io are building for the future. There needs to be an underlying legal framework to support “identity for all”. But unlike the legal framework which banks created to support crossborder payments almost 100 years ago, nations take front stage battling for supremacy in law in a much more interconnected world than when I started law practice in 1977.

And so, like Dad and Tom, I’m off to faraway places, where the opportunity to make a difference beckons.  For this to work, it’s going to require many generations, many cultures, and many people working across the spectrum of life, to come together and enable the renaissance which a global society can share.  Law is a powerful enabler when it reflects the values of the society. And, in a world where we all can see each other and interact with each other anywhere, and, at any time, law has to work across borders.  

The blockchain technology and hype is real, but its impact is not here yet.  Unseen by most lawmakers, it will put the ability of private people to make law out of sight of governments. And yet,  this does not have to be a threat to governments who are claiming a near monopoly on making laws. Private groups have historically made all types of laws from community to industry and beyond which have been accepted by government.

So we are starting on the ‘identity for all’ front, with a disenfranchised population that deserves better – and, we’ll plant the first seed there.

I’ll keep you posted on the journey.   

December 2, 2018

After leaving Houston, Texas at 5.25 AM on Tuesday morning, I arrived in Bangladesh at 11.55 pm on Wednesday evening, which turned into Thursday morning by the time I got to the hotel in Dhaka. Bangladesh is 12 hours ahead of Texas, so this trip took just under 30 hours and 3 airplanes. Since then, I spent Thursday in Dhaka (the capitol of Bangladesh) and then Friday through Sunday in Kailakuri, a little rural village about a 5 hour drive from Dhaka.   It’s now Sunday morning as I conclude this note which I started writing yesterday morning, Saturday, December 1.

My first day in Bangladesh.

It was a long trip-30 hours all together. I changed planes in Chicago (from Houston), had a few hour layover, then flew to Hong Kong (12 hour flight). And one more flight to Dhaka (about 3 hours). Immigration into Bangladesh wasn’t too difficult, but unlike every other trip I’ve made overseas, this was to be the first where I would get a “visa on arrival”.  Seemed a little risky to me.

This trip came together just a couple of weeks ago, so there was no time to apply for a visa ahead of time.  After a few calls, and texts, I was given two different views on the prospects of attaining a visa on arrival – the first was to complete an online visa form on the Bangladesh Embassy website (which I did as best I could – suffice it to say that the technology interfaces kept failing me…), and, required passport-like photos (special size, and, requirements) – which I dutifully arranged (35mmx45mm – whatever happened to inches?) .  So I was ready to hand over an entire packet of papers to immigration. The second point of view, which turned out to be the more accurate one was – don’t worry, just show up and make sure you have cash to pay for the visa in dollars (the website said $160, and, it turned out to be $51), so I was ready.

When I got into the immigration area at Dhaka airport, there were three different lines and no clear indication where to go, so I picked the shortest line.  That was a mistake, as it turned out. But I did learn something when I got to the front. Nothing I had prepared ahead of time was what was needed. The police officer said I needed a different form to fill out and he gave it to me. He said to fill it out and stand in a long line next to where I would have to pay money for the visa, and, then I could come back to his line for the visa interview, and then you get into a different line. And wait. By then it was 2 am. The visa interview consisted of – how long is your stay (needed to be less than 30 days), where are you staying (they wanted me to show booked reservations).  And why are you here (the only correct answer if you are not arriving to work for pay is “tourism”). I was not asked to show my booked airline reservation to return to the US, though I had copies of that. No matter. I got through – Manny had a bit more trouble the next day as they weren’t satisfied at first with the letter we had arranged for him showing his accommodations at Kailakuri – but fortunately, the folks at Kailakuri were paying attention and when they were called by the police to confirm Manny’s letter, he got cleared.

After I got through immigration, things got a little more normal for me as I met Minhaz, who became my trusted adviser for the next several days.  The people at Kailakuri had arranged for Minhaz, one of their most trusted persons, a Bangladeshi who could speak excellent English, to meet me. Minhaz asked after my trip, and then suggested that I do a couple of things that would be easy to do at the airport and not later. What?  At 2.30 AM – sure enough….

I changed some money and got a SIM card. The hotel had a car waiting. And I was at the hotel in 30 minutes. 

Just a note on the Taka to dollar exchange.  Just under 85 takas to one US dollar. My dad (and, I believe Tom as well ) taught me that the easiest way to do convert money was to find the nearest easily divisible number in the conversion so that when you looked at the local currency, you could immediately make the conversion.  This was going to be easy. 85 to 1 is pretty close to 100 to 1. So 100 taka became one dollar. 1000 taka became ten dollars. If I wanted to round it up to be more accurate, I could, but it really wouldn’t matter since the cost of buying things in Bangladesh was ridiculously cheap compared to the US as I found out when I bought some electronics the next day.

My hotel  was the Hotel Dhaka Garden Inn, which was close to the airport. This was Michelle’s recommendation and I was lucky once again to have good lodgings after a long day and a half of travel.

My first full morning (Thursday) I got up and Minhaz was waiting for me and he took me to get a 4g modem (grameen) and a cheap phone (Michelle warned me the country is 3g and the modem is 4g – I spent less than $50 on everything).  Are you kidding me? We had a driver for the day – so I was about to experience the traffic of Dakha for the first time. But the trip to the “mall” – it looked a bit like an upscale flea market, with everything you could imagine, in hundreds of stalls – all inside.  Minhaz knew where to go – and, though I initially did not understand the point of getting a 4g Grameen stick and a cheap Nokia phone which would share the sim card I had bought the day before. Well, Bangladesh is mostly very slow 3G, which means all your computer usage on the internet creeps along.  With a 4 G stick plugged into my computer, I would be back to more normal speed.

Afterwards,  Minhaz took me sightseeing and we went to the Martyrs Memorial for Bangladesh, which gained their independence in 1971 from Pakistan.  After all the roller coaster driving it took to get to the memorial, the peaceful contrast on the grounds – where there are memorial gardens, pools, trees planted by heads of state from around the world (with markers) – made for a calming experience.

Driving here is nuts. It makes Boston and Houston combined look like kindergarten. But you have to treat it like an amusement ride or you’ll get crazy. I’ve been through this before-in India. This used to be part of India years ago. People everywhere – taxis which are the size of mini-coopers.  Animals of all all stripes (lots of oxen – yikes) crossing unmarked roads where anyone can drive and cross anywhere. There is no such thing as a cross walk. This relatively short 1.5 hour ride from Dhaka to the memorial was a harbinger of the next days trip. In the meantime, we returned back to hotel where I planned to catch up on some sleep – I didn’t sleep at all on the plane rides, nor, in the two days preceding the trip with too much to do to get work done and get ready – but when we got back to the hotel, I had a note from an NGO I had contacted before the trip to see if I could stop by.  As it turned out, JAAGO Foundation’s office was a five minute walk from the hotel. 

The doctor from the UK arrived at dinner time (Manreet Nijjar,  www.truu.id) we talked a bit and both of us went to sleep since we’d be getting up early to drive to the healthcare project Kailakuri early Friday morning. That’s what we did- and we got here after a 3 hour absolutely crazy drive through cities and eventually into a very rural area. 

I’ll tell you more about Kailakuri next time, but you can check out their website at www.kailakuri.com. It’s an amazing model for the world. 

Take care. 

One week to go!



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