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Susan Davis

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The Transformative Potential of the Poor

Posted: 06/14/2013 9:51 pm

You may have heard of the concept of "inclusive growth," the idea that the increasing economic prosperity should benefit everyone, including the poorest. Thursday in Budapest, some of us were challenged to go beyond that -- to treat the poor, in the words of Amartya Sen, as "active agents of change, rather than passive recipients of dispensed benefits." It requires growth in consciousness, not just economies.

We were challenged Thursday at the graduation ceremony for the impressive Central European University - the most densely international university in the world - where Sir Fazle Hasan Abed received the Open Society Prize, given to "an outstanding individual whose achievements have contributed substantially to the creation of an open society." Previous recipients include Sir Karl Popper, author of The Open Society and its Enemies, after which the prize is named; Vaclav Havel, writer and first president of the Czech Republic; Richard Holbrooke, U.S. diplomat;  Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations; and Aryeh Neier, an architect of the international human rights movement.

Sir Fazle has spent the last 41 years creating opportunities for the poor to serve as agents of positive change for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. Abed bhai, as he is affectionately known to friends and colleagues ("bhai" is a friendly honorific in Bengali meaning "brother"), said Thursday in his commencement speech, "Poor people, especially women, can be organized for power...With right set of organizational tools, they can become actors in history. This, to me, is the meaning of an open society - a society where everyone has the freedom to realize their full human rights and potential."

Abed founded BRAC, formerly the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, along with his friends in Bangladesh in 1972. They started out doing relief work for refugees returning home after Bangladesh's struggle for liberation, but they soon shared the realization that Bangladesh needed long-term development. They also shared the belief that the poor themselves had the transformative potential within them to be agents of change -- to lead, not just join a movement to create a more open society.

While BRAC programs are not without their shortcomings, which BRAC has a long tradition of documenting, it is remarkable how much potential the poor realize they have in themselves as a result of becoming involved with BRAC.When I talk to the people with whom BRAC works, one of the most striking patterns is their tendency to speak from the "I" perspective. "I sent my daughter to school for the first time," or "I sold more milk than I ever have before," or "I helped deliver a healthy child this week." Their sense of agency is palpable. 

To me, revealing such transformative potential inherent in each of us, particularly to the most vulnerable and marginalized among us, is Abed's most important contribution to an open society. He puts into practice Ashoka's vision of an "everyone a changemaker" world articulated by its founder Bill Drayton.

In 2001, Abed opened a new chapter in that revelation when he and BRAC established BRAC University, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Right there, in the crucible of a country and a resilient city experiencing incredible transformation, the next generation of global leaders can learn just how deep and wide-ranging the transformative potential of the poor really is. Many of them will themselves come from the world's poorest places. Hopefully, all will emerge as ethical leaders with deep empathy and the moral courage to seek solutions to our most urgent problems. 

Whether it's Bangladesh or any of the other ten countries BRAC currently works, reaching 126 million people and counting, there is so much progress that needs to happen economically, socially, politically and environmentally. Frankly there's plenty of progress needed everywhere - in Hungary, the United States and other countries, rich and poor alike. Today's Open Society Prize to Abed stands as a beacon to all that progress can be better than "inclusive growth." The poor themselves can be relied upon to help make the world a better place for us all. As Abed bhai said, "we realized that women are the managers of poverty in their households; why not invest in them and make them managers of development."

 
 
 

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