Character: Build It Here
Lynne Twist is an award-winning global activist who has spent the past forty years working to alleviate social problems like poverty, hunger and injustice. She has written a book, “The Soul of Money", which discusses our relationship with money, both personally and socially. Much of her book has stayed with me, but the experience she related of her visit to Bangladesh will remain foremost in my memory.
For decades, Bangladesh has been a nation buried in poverty as a result of regional wars and more than their share of natural disasters. Working with the Hunger Project when they were beginning to expand their mission to Bangladesh, Ms. Twist volunteered to help facilitate a program designed for Bangladeshis to help them reconnect with their cultural identity, build awareness of their intrinsic assets, and create ways to translate their skills into useful and sustainable occupations. The program, “Vision, Commitment and Action Workshop," uncovered native capabilities among the people that had long been in dormancy.
In these workshops, villagers were asked how they felt about being one of the poorest countries in the world. The answer was the same everywhere they went: “We don’t like having to accept charity. We don’t want handouts. We want to support ourselves.”
Next, the participants were asked to close their eyes and envision what self-sufficiency would look like. Tears streamed down many faces as feelings of dignity and self-respect swelled. Then with eyes opened, they spoke their thoughts. Noticeably, each one sat up straighter and heads raised as they talked of the beautiful textiles that Bangladesh had produced for centuries. When they mentioned the great poets that their culture had shared with the world, pride strengthened their posture all the more.
After these initial workshops, seminars were developed to train these villagers in business techniques. Around the same time, the Nobel Prize winner, Muhammed Yunus, was establishing micro-credit programs through the Grameen Bank (Village Bank) for small business ventures in Bangladesh. The Hunger Project's workshop participants were able to obtain small loans.
Today, the despair of hopeless poverty is leaving Bangladesh. Small businesses are flourishing, agriculture is thriving, and the garment industry is exploding. In 2011, the national economy flourished at a record 6.71% GDP growth rate and despite some economic setbacks, GDP remains over 6%.
Interestingly, Bangladesh’s focus on social reforms, e.g., education and healthcare for women, has steadily reduced poverty since 1990. An article in the Economist explains how this has happened. Here’s an excerpt on this part of the story:
[...] birth control was made free and government workers and volunteers fanned out across the country to distribute pills and advice. In 1975, 8% of women of child-bearing age were using contraception (or had partners who were); in 2010 the number was over 60%.
[...] In giving women better health and more autonomy, family planning was one of a number of factors that improved their lot, and by so doing did much to reduce poverty. The spread of primary education was one of the others (the government has been better than many at helping women this way); the proportion of girls who get schooled has increased much more than the proportion of boys. And both the boom in the textile industry and the arrival of microcredit have, over the past 20 years, put money into women’s pockets—from which it is more likely to be spent on health, education and better food.
[...] But Bangladesh’s record is, on balance, a good one. It shows that the benefits of making women central to development are huge. It suggests that migration is not just the result of a failure to provide jobs at home but can be an engine of economic growth. Indian’s rural-development minister, Jairam Ramesh, said recently that “Bangladesh’s experience shows…that we don’t have to wait for…high economic growth to trigger social transformations. Robust grass-roots institutions can achieve much that money can’t buy.”
Poverty thrives when the human spirit suffers neglect. Prosperity arrives when human dignity is restored.