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The Eyes of Bangladesh

DID you see her, too - the little Bangladeshi peering bravely but anxiously out at the world as she clutched her brand-new little brother, born at the height of the recent cyclone? The wirephoto is grainy and raises almost as many questions as it answers. The girl hardly looks serene but is evidently in no immediate danger. She sits on dry ground, or a semblance thereof, at an evacuation center in a place called Ghoramora in Bangladesh. It is a place not found in my atlas.

Her brother, described variously in different newspapers' photo captions as ``squirming'' in his sister's arms, or as being ``cuddled'' or simply ``held,'' lacks that pink or brown plumpness that most of us are used to seeing in the babies our friends bring home from the hospital.

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There is something odd in the proportions of this unlikely madonna scene. Is he really that tiny? we wonder. Maybe she is more fully grown than it appears. One wishes there had been a normal-sized adult in the picture for a reality check.

And yet newborns can have a remarkable resilience. Remember the stories of the tiny survivors of the Mexican earthquake?

The little boy's name is Jibon Joladas: Jibon means ``life.'' His sister's name was ``unavailable,'' according to the Washington Post.

This is how we experience the disasters of the third world. By means of wirephoto technology, these two children have become de facto ambassadors of Bangladesh. How long will they serve?

Lincoln Chen, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, writes in the Boston Globe, ``Press coverage of disasters in the third world suffers from imbalances. Constrained by space and time, the reporting is invariably episodic. Tragedy is suddenly thrust upon the reader by intensive and selective coverage. Then the crisis disappears.''

Disasters seem to be hitting simultaneously around the planet - in Bangladesh, and in Kurdistan, in Africa with its famines.

Aid organizations and their donors are said to be suffering compassion fatigue and feeling ``stressed,'' though not nearly so stressed as the people they are being asked to help, presumably.

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The stories out of Bangladesh have been in three waves so far. The first wave has reported the facts of the cyclone, its casualties, the nature of the damage. Next came a wave of reports of food aid not getting through; of bundles of relief supplies bursting on impact when dropped from helicopters; of a fragile democratic government, in power barely two months after the ousting of a dictator, sharply criticized for its handling of the relief effort.

Now has come a third wave of stories. In some, Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries, is implicitly criticized for even existing. A look at the map suggests that part of the country is more or less oozing off toward Burma. The delta that is so tempting to settle upon because it is such fertile land is also extremely vulnerable to storms and floods. Some relief officials privately grumble that the Bangladeshis haven't learned much from their considerable experience with disaster.

And yet this third wave also includes reports of the positive steps being taken in Bangladesh: better education for women, better use of family planning, a doubling of food production in 20 years by adoption of modern farming techniques. The Grameen Bank and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee are renowned around the world as creative, effective grass-roots economic development organizations.

The third-wave stories get beyond the immediate situation to the larger patterns that need to be changed, and that are being changed. The third wave includes an appreciation that the problems are not beyond the reach of planning, of judicious expenditures of aid money, and of appropriate technology.

The inexorable force of a cyclone could be largely defeated by adequate numbers of simple concrete shelters.

Life will go on in Bangladesh; and as we write out our aid checks, we trust that Jibon will get a chance to live up to his name.

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