Monday, January 29, 2007

A Borderless Business World? Not Yet

If you are a friend of mine back in America, perhaps you have been reading my dispatches from Bangladesh and thinking, "Gee, Karl must be a little homesick. Maybe he would appreciate a CARE package with some American treats." You may even be getting ready to send such a package to me as a generous surprise.

If so, I have just two words for you: Please don't!

A few days ago, I received an email from Professor Yunus's publisher in New York, asking whether I thought Yunus would be willing to autograph a bunch of book plates. (They want to stick the plates inside copies of Yunus's first book, Banker to the Poor, to use as a promotional gift at some book industry event.) I said that I thought he would, and I agreed to present the request to Yunus personally next time I see him. And could the publisher go ahead and ship the plates to me at my guest house in Dhaka? Of course.

Well, it turns out that receiving packages isn't quite as simple a matter in Dhaka as it is in New York. I was just called down to the front desk of the guest house, where a brown-shirted UPS man was waiting for me with a five-page document beginning:
Dear Sir/Madam:

Kindly be advised that your Consignment has arrived at the Zia International Airport, Dhaka, through the Express Services of United Parcel Service/Air Alliance Limited. . . . Please be advised that the above Consignment can now either be cleared by your nominated C & F Agency or you may authorize M/S Bengal Airlift Ltd. to clear your consignments at no cost except for the payment of Customs Duties and taxes, VAT, Demurrage and miscellaneous charges incurred if any. If you require our assistance for clearing your consignments, kindly provide the following documents at your earliest convenience: . . .
This is followed by a list of nine documents, none of which I have or can even identify. To be fair, a couple of these are probably inapplicable to me. For example, Item 8 reads:
8. Incase, your company is listed with E.P.Z., Dhaka or Chittagong, then a Duty Bond, Risk Bond (on Tk. 1000 Non judicial Stamp each), Utilization Permission, Back-to-back, L/C, L/C copy.
I doubt that Karl Weber Literary (my company) is so listed, although I guess I really can't be sure, not having seen the list for myself. All I know for sure is that I don't want to see the list.

Luckily the hotel manager didn't just leave me to deal with this on my own. He spoke to UPS by phone and told me that what I actually had to do was to sign one of the other forms the UPS man was holding, and then go back to my room. Some time in the next half hour, another UPS person will come (I have no idea why this has to be done in two separate stages) and collect 1,000 taka from me as an advance payment against all those potential import charges (Customs Duties and so on). If all goes well at the airport, there is a chance that this could result in the package being released to me within the next few days.

I signed the form, and the (first) UPS man was on his way. The hotel manager was apologetic. "Our system very bad," he explained. And he told me about another foreign guest who had asked for someone at home to send a particular book that he thought he would need sometime during his month-long stay in Dhaka. Unfortunately, it was sent by regular mail (not UPS or Fedex), which meant it arrived at the guest house fully three weeks after the man's departure for home.

Some enthusiasts like to talk about how modern technology "abolishes time and space" and makes it equally easy to do business from anywhere in the world. Perhaps we are heading that way, but I don't think we're quite there yet.

A quick update: As promised, the second UPS man arrived within half an hour, took my 1,000 taka, gave me a neatly printed receipt, and headed back to the office to get the next stage in the process rolling. The people carrying out this system all seem perfectly nice and reasonably efficient--it's the system itself that's underdeveloped.

I know that the fact that this is an international package complicates matters a bit, but I get Fedex and UPS packages from England with some regularity, and they arrive on my doorstep with no fanfare, just the same as domestic items. Hopefully one day shipping to Bangladesh and the rest of the developing world will become that frictionless.

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