Professor Haroon Ur Rashid, the veteran academic and architect has been consulting in development sector with focus on water and sanitation programs for more than three decades. He has worked for agencies like World Bank, UNDP, UNCHS and others of such type in different parts of the world. A passionate academic, Professor Rashid presented in many national/international seminars and taught in different architecture schools for several years. Context team got the opportunity to talk with him about his early life, works in different arenas, vision for our development sector, thoughts on architecture education/practice and so on.
1. You started as an academic in BUET but moved to development sector and for almost 25 years worked for water and sanitation programs. Please draw some light on the early days when you initiated the move; might be of interest of young professionals.
My career started at BUET in 1974. Very soon I became passionate about teaching and would probably have continued teaching in BUET till my retirement had things gone well. Circumstances forced me to resign after I went to the US for graduate studies. On return I was requested to join BUET again, but BUET and I could not agree on the terms. I started teaching part time in BUET for a while, but as my duties in the World Bank became more demanding I had to leave BUET for good.
My coming to the development field was incidental. On completing my graduate studies, I returned home in 1981 and joined a private consultancy firm managed by a few friends. Before joining this firm I had designed a few run-off-the-mill residences for dubious clients who had no idea of what architecture really meant. I was not at all happy with the many ways in which the clients changed and distorted my designs without even my knowledge. On joining this firm I got the opportunity to do my first ever professional work. It was a small training facility for blind children. I worked hard and in close consultation with the client designed the facility. Those were the days before the advent of the computers. I prepared fifty sheets of working drawings manually, the tender documents and the cost estimate. The draftsmen prepared an additional 20 sheets of structural, plumbing and electrical drawings – a total of about 70 sheets of drawings for a small project costing only Tk 4, 500,000 in 1981-82.
Construction bids were invited, but there was only one submission at a high rate of 32% above the estimated cost. Unfortunately the client was inclined to select this one person without any prior experience in civil construction. His only past experience was constructing a boundary wall. We as the consultant insisted on re-tender. Fresh bids were invited with a better response. There were four or five submissions with the lowest being 5% above the estimated cost. The highest bid was that of the contractor from the first round of bidding at 28% above estimated cost. Despite the fact that there was a lower bid the Client was favoring this highest bidder. The Consultant is expected to protect the interest of the Client. The client wanted us to support their decisions which we could not with a clear conscience. The bidder in question tried influence, enticement and even money. I stood my grounds. We were not at all surprised when a few days later we received a notice from the Client terminating our contract for “unsatisfactory” performance.
In another instance the director planning of an organization offered to give me an assignment costing about Tk 300 million at six percent fees on the condition that I return to him three percent. A contractor even approached me to hike the estimate of a certain building I designed by Tk 20 million, in return for Tk6 million in cash. An official of influence even offered me two kathas of land for certain other favors. I did not give in to the many enticements. I preferred not working to being entangled in shady and dubious deals and be condemned before my own conscience. These incidents may have dampened my enthusiasm but not my spirit. I have no regrets as I was determined to live an honest and clean life. Being “honest” because of a contorted logic that “honesty is the best policy” is in essence, being “dishonest”. I believe in the virtue of “honesty” and I would continue believing in it even if it were not the best policy.
I was not certain as to what I should do for the future. The thought of going abroad again did occur. When such as my predicament, the UNDP/UNCHS advertised for a consultant to work as a planner in the National Physical Planning Project for six months. During my graduate studies in Urban Design I was exposed to many planning courses and I had concurrently done a Certificate Course in Urban and Regional Planning. I applied, was selected and joined the project for six months which was ultimately extended to two and half years till the termination of the project. This was my first exposure to the development sector and I was excited and full of expectation. The initial euphoria that my work may help change the urban growth and environment slowly gave way to despondency. On termination of the assignment the World Bank advertised the position of a consultant for only three months in its Low Cost Sanitation Projects for Municipalities. My interest in this project was because on my belief that low cost sanitation was an important component of low cost housing. I joined the World Bank for three months but continued working for its Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) for15 years.
2. What, from your experience is the biggest challenge in our water and sanitation sector?
I think the main challenge is inequity in people’s access to the benefits of development. Under the prevalent arrangement people do not have a space to participate in decisions that influence their lives. Why should people in Dhaka decide what happens in Rajshahi or Jhalakati or for that matter anywhere else? Why cannot planning, implementation and management of services take place at the lowest appropriate level? This leads to the question of decentralization of authority and responsibility. The political economy inhibits logical decision making. People who have the least at stake are the most powerful while people who stand to lose much have virtually no power in making decision. Decisions are taken on the basis of group or even individual interests rather than in consideration of the common weal. The prevailing system aggravates rather than reduces the inequity.The “experts-know-all” attitude among most professionals and officials further compounds the matter. This phenomenon is pervasive in our administration and to a large extent among professionals as well. For example in a sanitation project there was a Socio- economic study to assess people’s attitude towards sanitation, health and hygiene. A meeting that a member, Planning Commission chaired failed to appreciate the importance of such a study in promotion of sanitation and health. Such are the challenges development workers and practitioners face.
It is not mere awareness but behavioral change in health and hygiene practices that is important. The water from the tube well may be safe but if the container in which the water is carried home is dirty, pure water from the tube well is of little use. Sanitary toilets would not contribute to improvement in health if the users do not wash their hands with soap or ash after using the toilet. A general level of awareness on the linkage between good health and hygiene habits exist but transforming the awareness into practice has not been easy. Achievement in behavioral change has lagged behind the physical provisions of services.
Notwithstanding the many hurdles, Bangladesh has come a long way. The water supply coverage has increased both in the urban and the rural areas. About 87% of the rural population has access to arsenic free water. On an average more than 87% of the urban population has access to water supply. The gains in sanitation over the last 10-12 years have been dramatic. From only 34% in 1990 access to improved sanitation has risen to 61% in 2015. Bangladesh is now considered an Open Defecation Free (ODF) country with about one per cent currently practicing open defecation. The average urban sanitation coverage is 58% with larger towns registering higher coverage. Despite improvement in coverage, water and sanitation services still evade the poor and the disadvantaged in both the rural and urban communities.
3. You were talking about our attitude towards planning. In this respect what do you think could be a key parameter for change?
I am firmly committed to the concept of participatory approach to development. People must be given a role in decisions that affect their lives. People need information and choice to make informed decisions. Administrators and professionals are mere facilitators giving people information. The ultimate decision makers must be the people. In the last few decade countries round the globe are increasingly adopting participatory approach to development planning, implementation and management. It is participatory decision making and decentralization that would rid the system of a development administration that serves different interest groups and not the people.
4. Therefore, do you see a real change in near future?
I have been working in the development sector for a long time. There have been some positive changes. About 20-30 years ago the concept of involving citizens in development planning was strange and alien to many people. A Division Commissioner inaugurating a local level policy planning workshop openly doubted the ability of the “misinformed and uneducated” as he called the elected municipal chairmen, to contribute to policy issues. His remark was met with indignant reactions from the participants. In the past people accepted decisions handed down from the top without question, but today things have changed. People’s ability to assert their rights and aspiration has been on the increase. This is cause for hope. Thanks to the efforts of civil societies and a few donor-assisted initiatives. I am confident that the day is not long when not paying heed to local people’s needs and aspirations would be a political suicide.
Effective decentralization is essential for the development of the people and the country. It has been much talked of by every government that came to power, but no government did anything substantial to bring about real decentralization. A multi-donor funded project disburses development funds directly to the Union Parishads (UP). This initiative has been bringing about some positive changes at the local level. UPs now have fiduciary responsibility and authority, they now plan and implement local development activities; and prepare annual budgets in a participatory process. Projects like these can make a positive contribution in involving people, bringing about equity and improving local governance. The flip side of this is the local Parliament Members interfering in local administration and inhibiting citizens’ participation in development process. Whether the government would institutionalize these project-based positive changes after the project ends is an open question. Political economy of promoting political expediency, influence and group interest over general welfare has done more harm than good. Bangladesh has made substantial progress in almost all fields. The credit goes to its people – they have prospered in spite of the government but the distribution of the benefits has not been equitable.
5. It is not very common for architects in our country to get involved in development sector for so long and being so involved. How do you think your capacity as an architect had a positive impact (if any) in conducting researches and projects in this sector?
My involvement in the development sector especially in the water and sanitation has been personally very rewarding. I have learnt much from the people.I have learnt that given the opportunity people can make and do make significant contribution; that people have experience that is varied and rich and no less important than ours; and that they are the best judge of their priorities, needs and aspirations. I am ever grateful to the people who have helped to change my attitude towards people, development, profession and life itself. I had started working in low cost sanitation program because sanitation is an integral component of low cost housing but I ended up learning much more than I bargained for. My personal satisfaction lies in being able to touch the lives of many people through my work.
(On a separate note) To be honest my contribution to the profession of architecture has been minimal. At best, it has been indirect, as a simple member of the executive committee of the Institute of Architects Bangladesh and as a teacher in different schools of architecture. My professional work as an architect has been very limited and at times I regret not having practiced more. Graduate study has exposed me to many planning courses including different branches of social science. These have helped broadened my perspective on the world around us.
6. You have worked with the very poor in rural areas for long. From your perspective, please tell us about the stand of an architect in terms of Social responsibility.
Architecture that does not respect the context betrays its sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of the society. Architecture has to be contextual or risks being irrelevant to the community of its origin. As Charles Correa had once said in one of his many talks that teaching the rural people to build better houses is like sending a Chinese cook to teach them cooking. The only way an architect can be useful to the poor is through a better understanding of their context, being aware of and taking lessons from their rich experience and building on them. Charles Abrams in his epoch making book, “Man’s Struggle for Shelter in the Urbanising World” puts it very succinctly when he states that the only way to improve housing for the poor is by building on their existing local experience. Improvement cannot be premised on new technology alone or a new housing model. The act of designing is problem solving and the process of design makes the understanding of the problem imperative. A problem taken out of context cannot be understood in totality. How can you address a problem that you do not understand? I am a firm believer in the importance of understanding the problem and its context prior to addressing it. My experience in the field of development has only strengthened my belief.
Architects have a social responsibility which cannot be value free. It cannot be the same across borders, cultures and context. We have to be aware of what others are doing, but must also appreciate the fact that every situation is unique. We may draw lessons from others, but mimicry disparages our culture, our psyche and our very being. Unless we can evolve our own architecture we will always play the second fiddle in the international stage. I believe that an architect who designs contextually, addresses a social responsibility. The contrary is born of intellectual dependence on or guidance of others who are often perceived as “superior”. This is that outcome of the contemporary version of colonialism disguised as “globalization” which is not physical but intellectual, which makes us dependent on others for guidance. This is how financial institutions like the World Bank, UNDP and the ADB define and control development for us. We have to be able to appreciate our own context; evaluate our own needs;decide on what we want or do not want;and not rely on concepts and philosophy of foreign origin. Let us not forget that we were building Taj Mahal when people in New York were living in shacks. Such is our heritage. Let us at least show it some respect!
7. Let us draw some light on other parts of your professional engagements. You have been teaching architecture for a long time and are involved in practice as well. Please comment on architecture ‘then’ and architecture ‘now’ in Bangladesh from your personal viewpoint. (‘Then’ obviously refers to when you started)
This is a very interesting question. In the seminar celebrating 50years of the founding of the Department of Architecture at BUET I presented a paper on the objective of architecture education. In my opinion the responsibility of a school has to be defined in terms of meeting social needs.At the minimum, the intent of a school should be graduating architects who can design and build with competence. Architects must have the basic skills and know the language of architecture.The architects who excel professionally and those who do not, both use this same skills and language. Using an analogy from the literature both Tagore and I use the same Bangla, but Tagore’s composition is valued and appreciated globally, but mine is not worth the paper it is written on. Such is the nature of architecture. Every architecture program must at the minimum offer these skills and language – the grammar and idioms.
Anything over and above the minimum may give an architecture program varying degree of emphasis and focus. Such focuses do not evolve by themselves. They need the guidance of iconic figures with strong philosophical vision.For example Harvard and MIT have always benefited from big names in architecture. The architecture profession in Bangladesh has not yet sired visionary architects of such stature. This should not be a cause for concern as advent of a visionary cannot be willed or ordered. The winds of change are in the air, I am optimistic that the future of architecture education in Bangladesh would change for the better.
For the moment architecture programs should offer the basic skills and concepts to graduate architects of merit and competence. Students should be exposed to the essential core courses and non-essential optional and general education courses. For an engineer just knowing engineering is enough, but an architect has to know a little bit of everything. The essential skills and language would comprise the core courses with optional and general education courses providing variety and choice. In academia I would like to see architect-based studios similar to the model of ‘Glenn Murcutt Architecture Studio’. It would be too simplistic to be oblivious of the hurdles architecture schools face. To start with most schools in Bangladesh are in institutional environments that seldom understand and appreciate the nature of architecture. In architecture the whole is not the sum of its parts. To most people in the host institutions this very concept is alien. Changes in such institutions would, at best, be gradual and slow. We have to be steadfast on our commitment, to persevere, to be patient, struggle and move on.
Professionally we have come a long way. When we graduated in 1974 there were few jobs. Today most new graduates do not feel the compulsion to get a job. They prefer being self-employed which implies that people today value the services of an architect. In the past most people did not know what architecture was or its importance in the society. In 1974 I quoted only Tk10000 for the design of a residence in Lalmatia. The client was astonished and told me that he had paid only Tk250 for the design of his first house in Dhamnondi. Don’t you think we have come a long way? Those were the days when the government was the biggest builder. There were hardly any private assignments.It was difficult for any consulting firm to survive on private assignments alone. The situation has changed today. The majority of architects are surviving and doing well on private commissions only.The expansion of the private sector and social change have opened up opportunities for the professionals.
8. You had been an active practitioner for a while, won professional awards for various projects. We don’t see you working much now a day. You, however, lightly participating in some events/competitions as jury member and playing some advisory role. What is the reason for such disappearance?
No one gives me work. Perhaps I do not know how to deal with the clients (laughing….). I did not have a very pleasant experience in dealing with clients. To tell the truth I always had a serious problem in asking for fees from the clients. I even have problem asking for money that I have loaned! Once a synthetic ‘kurta’ for me and a ‘saree’ for my wife were all the compensation I received for my consultancy services. I do not blame the client. The fault is mine for not being able to assert myself. The only person who paid me a proper professional fee is my sister. What an irony!Nonetheless I still have a passion for design and do take it very seriously.
9. Any advice for the students and professionals?
Architecture in Bangladesh presents a paradox. Some works give us hope for the future while others are disconcerting with a profusion of the latter kind. Perhaps historically this was always the case everywhere. Average architecture does not predict a trend. It is always the selected few that light the way. Let us be true to ourselves, our society, or culture and to our environment. It has taken the better part of the last century for man to realize that technology is not the panacea for all human ills. On the contrary it is the “mindless” use of technology that is responsible for all of our environmental problems. We have to respect the context and build sustainably. Let us not forget that human kind have always lived in harmony with nature. Man and environment with everything in it, are in a symbiotic relationship. Nature does not belong to man but man belongs to the nature. It is after the industrial revolution that things began to change and the growth of capital have deified greed into an “omnipotent and omnipresent” entity. Let’s not get carried away with the stream. Let’s be true to our own selves, let’s think rationally and design contextually.
Narrator _Azizul Mohith