Each year the World Food Prize Laureate delivers the Borlaug Lecture at Iowa State University, principally on the subject agricultural science and its potential to advance human progress. Not being an agricultural scientist myself, I have worked most of my life not primarily on science but chiefly on the empowerment of human beings to defeat poverty and hunger.
Almost 45 years ago, in December 1970, Norman Borlaug delivered his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Stockholm. The Green Revolution was still in its infancy, yet it had already delivered spectacular increases in cereal crop yields in India, West Pakistan and the Philippines; and, as Borlaug rightly pointed out, for the millions who had long lived with daily hunger and were now fed by its bountiful harvests, the transformation of the Green Revolution must have seemed like a miracle.
At the time, the Green Revolution had still barely touched my native Bangladesh, then called East Pakistan. I was 34 years old in late 1970, living a comfortable life as a senior executive at Shell Oil, and going through a transformation of my own. A terrible cyclone had struck the coast of Bangladesh, killing hundreds of thousands of mainly poor people. The cyclone made me question the value of my comfortable corporate life in the face of such death and devastation.
Within a year, another cataclysm struck - a war for independence in which 10 million people left the country, most of them on foot, fleeing the Pakistan Army's attacks on the civilian population. By the end of 1971, an independent Bangladesh was born.
Tonight, 44 years later, I am able to look back at a life dedicated to eradicating poverty, hunger, illiteracy and exploitation. I would like to share some of the things I have learned on this journey, particularly about the relationship between hunger, poverty and powerlessness.
We knew the process of rebuilding Bangladesh would be immense. It was one of the poorest countries on earth when we achieved our independence: Life expectancy at birth was a mere 46 years, and one in four children died before their fifth birthday. Our main crop was rice, but only 10 percent of cultivated land was irrigated, and we produced less than 11 million metric tonnes per year, against a need of about 14 million to feed our people.
In 1972, I started a relief effort in a remote area in the northeast of the country called Shalla to help returning refugees from the war. My personal transformation was now complete. While I valued the skills I had acquired working in the private sector, after confronting the conditions of poverty found in Shalla, I knew there was no way I could return to a comfortable corporate life. I resolved to commit the rest of my life to helping the poor extricate themselves from poverty. The organisation now known as BRAC was born.
Today, thanks in large part to the empowerment of women, Bangladesh has seen one of the most dramatic declines in fertility rates ever seen, from an average of 6.4 children per woman to just 2.1. Changes in other basic indicators of quality of life, including life expectancy, child mortality and maternal mortality, have been equally dramatic.
After working in Shalla for some time, I began to see a more deep-rooted problem of powerlessness among the poor - a lack of agency, a lack of control over even the smallest aspects of their lives. Eventually, in our efforts to empower them, we entered into a series of dialogues with the villagers. We began an adult education programme based on group discussions.
When we began, I was convinced - as I remain convinced today - that, to achieve real empowerment, people need to be aware of their situation and develop a sense of self-worth in order to change it.
One of the first words in our curriculum was "hunger," or upash in the Bengali language. People in the villages were very familiar with this word and concept, and the discussions became quite animated. Anyone who has ever felt pangs of hunger would have a visceral sense of what hunger is, but those who had suffered from chronic hunger had a deeper perspective. They said that being hungry was like being in prison, locked away in a cage, isolated from others, and unable to communicate with anyone else, except for others who were also hungry and in a similar state of powerlessness.
Breaking free from that cage, we learned, was not as easy as we had initially hoped. One of the problems we encountered was that local power structures in rural areas were exploitative, cruel and corrupt, with moneylenders, landlords and local elites often taking advantage of the landless poor in collusion with the local police and government officials. As a result, although they worked hard to survive, the work of the poorest gained little traction in terms of improving their living conditions.
We began thinking about what we could do to create those conditions. We introduced group-based microcredit without collateral, allowing people to borrow and invest in new seeds, fertiliser, and farming technologies without the high rates charged by moneylenders. We introduced homestead vegetable gardens, financed by micro-loans, to add nutrients to people's diets. Later, we began introducing entirely new crops, such as maize, which was linked to a poultry industry centered on female farmers. We built value chains for other industries, such as dairy, to benefit women who owned milk cows.
Today, I am pleased to say that Bangladesh has achieved self-sufficiency in food production. Though our population has gone up 2.2 times since independence, our food production has gone up 3.1 times. This has happened through widespread irrigation during the dry seasons, the introduction of improved varieties, more effective usage of fertiliser, and other changes to farming practices.
I saw that we would never bring down the fertility rate without bringing down the high mortality of children in our society. The problem was not merely that family planning services were unavailable, although that was part of it. The Government, to its credit, actually began offering free family planning services, but few were accessing them. In our own intervention areas, we succeeded in raising contraceptive usage rates from single digits to about 20 percent in the late 1970s. But we seemed to hit a ceiling there.
At the start of the 1980s, we launched a ten-year effort to teach mothers - 13 million in all - how to administer oral rehydration fluid to children with deadly diarrhoea, one of the biggest killers of children. Many people, including trusted friends and colleagues, were sceptical that a relatively little known NGO, which had not even begun to work at a national level until then, would be able to reach so many people and catalyse such widespread behavioural change. But this programme helped to reduce the rate of child deaths from diarrhoea by 80 percent. Together with the government, we also established a national immunisation programme that took the country from 4 percent immunisation coverage in 1986 to 72 percent in 1990.
I believe that the true promise of the Green Revolution means breaking free from hunger and fatalism, and that it is part of the ongoing process of becoming fully human - making people shapers of their own destiny, able to build their futures instead of holding out their hands in supplication, and to lead lives filled with meaning and purpose, transforming the world around them.
The writer is founder and chairperson of BRAC.
(Exclusive to The Daily Star)