Educational opportunity to displace poverty
Holding her beautiful one year-old baby, the village woman told me: "Take my son to America with you; get him an education, give him a better life." I stood there helplessly, feeling her words rob me of mine. That sentence embodied the dire set of problems people in the developing world must engage, exposing the contrast with the world I come from.
I grew up sheltered in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. Many of my teenage peers had never given their situation a second thought. Too often, they complained about life and their petty "misfortunes" -- as did I. Never knowing true poverty and struggle, we thought our problems were paramount; not being able to buy the cool brands of clothing or the new cool pair of shoes that the cool kids wear.
Through reflection, I came to hate my way of life and all that I adored -- the heaps of new clothes, expensive haircuts and the ceaseless desire to continue buying the next coolest thing. I thought of the people who could barely have enough to eat, and I cried many times thinking of how disgusted I was with all that surrounded me. I lost interest in brands, fads, or looking cool. I began becoming interested in what was going on throughout the world. And I leapt at the opportunity to visit Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries on the planet.
I arrived in Dhaka as an intern for the world-renowned Grameen Bank founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus who developed microfinance to promote enterprise by women of low income so that they will no longer be poor. With very small loans offered to promote basic business needs, Grameen has found it possible to transform the lives of 8 million borrowers and their families.
Grameen took me to visit rural villages and talk with women about their past and their dreams. I listened to them describe their work and express their hopes for a better life for their children -- education, a chance to succeed, and to live a long, healthy life.
The joy that the village children possessed really knocked me out. They seemed unhindered by the grim circumstances of poverty in which so many of them are put to grinding work rather than going to school; they played, laughed, and greeted me warmly in ways I will never forget. I could never have imagined how pure children in such poverty stricken areas could be, and how playful and how endearingly contagious their sense of humour!
All my life I have seen children complain and cry if they cannot have the latest fad toy they spotted in the store. But in Bangladesh, I saw powerful children, and their endlessly compassionate and hardworking mothers. My heart melted, my eyes watered when I took it all in, when I thought of all the other millions of Bangladeshi mothers who struggle each day to survive and strive to provide a better future for their wonderful children.
I reflected and realised that I, too, am the product of a strong-willed woman. My grandmother raised her seven children by herself in a poor province in the Philippines. She bought and sold furniture, and earned just enough to be able to cook simple meals for her family and to bring her children to school.
My mother and my uncle made the sacrifice to drop out of college to help my grandmother continue to provide for the family. Finally, a product of these generations of strong-willed love, I have become the first family member to attend college. But I am only able to do so because of the extensive educational resources available in the rich United States. California may be in a deep financial crisis, but its institutions of learning are nonetheless extraordinary compared to what is available in most of the rest of the world.
In Bangladesh, it is so much harder. The conditions are worse than even my grandmother faced in the Philippines. Education for the masses of the population is undeveloped, and the pressures of survival make income generation a top priority, meaning that children are too often pushed into work at the earliest opportunity.
The universities that do serve the very brightest and most privileged did nonetheless impress me. I met many students from Dhaka University and North-south University and was taken aback at how loyal they were to their country and how visionary in their desire to improve it.
Then I thought of the proud women in the villages and their joyous children and wondered how more productive, how creative, eager, and ultimately able to bring about change those children could become if given a chance. Educating such a vibrant, life-loving rural population will raise a generation of young adults who have seen extreme poverty and will stop at nothing until they have done their part in its eradication.
The Bangladesh government needs to show the world it can move beyond the mismanagement that has plagued almost every area of its work. While the country has many pressing needs, perhaps education is the most important area where government can show leadership in bringing about change -- and the key to promoting education is that the change produced can then trickle down throughout other areas of the economy.
Education, also, is an area where the international community can get involved, and more partnerships are needed with the Bangladesh government to send over some of the best of our teachers and administrators to show how practices can be changed and results achieved. Links can also be made between encouraging female enterprise and promoting education for the children of poor entrepreneurs and this is an area where the foundations put in place by Grameen can be developed further.
There is a startling variety of untapped talent in Bangladesh as well as an extraordinary love of their country by young people living under the most difficult of conditions. The enthusiasm for improving the nation and patriotism unmatched in few other places puts an onus on both Bangladesh and the developed world to turn around the education sector and use it to transform one of the world's poorest countries into a place where opportunity can displace poverty.