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Borlaug Lecture: "Empowering the Poor in the Fight Against Hunger"

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Sir Fazle Hasan Abed
Borlaug Lecture, Iowa State University
12 October 2015

"President Leath, faculty, student, ladies and gentleman,

Each year the World Food Prize Laureate delivers the Borlaug Lecture here 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. I trust the agricultural community will not be disappointed by this presentation.

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 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. Our independence struggle, aided by India, was short lived. 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 per cent 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.

The land was overcrowded, and population growth was out of control. The average woman bore more than six children. To give you a sense of the population density of Bangladesh, consider that our land area is almost exactly the same as the state of Iowa's; yet our population in 1971 was 70 million, about 22 times that of Iowa, and today we are 50 times the population of Iowa.

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. Their homes and means of livelihood had been completely destroyed, and the vast majority of them lacked the resources to rebuild their lives in any meaningful way.

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 organization 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.

The road here wasn't easy. We worked hard to address the causes, not merely the symptoms, of Bangladesh's widespread and deeply entrenched poverty and hunger. I understood that simple relief work, such as replacing destroyed homes and distributing food and medicine, would do little to solve the underlying problems. So we turned to the long-term development of human potential -- not limiting ourselves to one area, such as health, education, agriculture, or livelihoods, but working in all these sectors, applying a holistic set of solutions and evaluating the results along the way.

We were eager to be as effective as possible and learn from our mistakes. We introduced cooperative agricultural schemes, literacy programs, health care and family planning, credit support for landless farmers, and much more besides. I could see that, just as poverty does not have one simple cause, it could not have one easy solution.

For a country in chaos, the work of Norman Borlaug, M.S. Swaminathan and others making advances in food science, together with the news of what had been accomplished by the farmers in India, were a message of hope.

It gave us confidence that, if we worked hard and brought these technologies and methods to our farmers in Shalla, they would see similar gains. When I wrote our first major funding proposal for Oxfam, I was naive enough to think that we could triple rice yields and completely eliminate adult illiteracy within our intervention area within five years.

In fact, we failed in many of our first efforts. As I look back on our initial optimism, I am struck by how much we have learned.

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 program based on group discussions, employing the teaching methodologies of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire.

Like Norman Borlaug, Freire was a visionary who inspired me greatly. For him, lifting people out of poverty, hunger and oppression was part of the process of "humanisation," as he wrote in his seminal work "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." According to Freire, humanisation is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and violence; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice. This book was first published in English in 1970 so, like the Green Revolution, his ideas were fresh at the time. I believe they are as important today as they were then.

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.

During our literacy classes, the teachers acted as facilitators of discussions which explored the true meanings of words as perceived through the life experiences of the learners themselves. This was a learning process for us as well as the students. We developed 100 lessons, each based on a key word, and discussions focused on these words.

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. Farmers' habits were deeply ingrained and would not change overnight. The vast majority of the crops were rain-fed, and bringing irrigation to the fields through tube-wells would prove to be a tremendous hurdle. It would take a long time, many years, for new methods of agriculture to catch on. In fact, we are still bringing the Green Revolution to parts of Bangladesh and now Africa.

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.

I began to see the difficulty of breaking down the fatalism that held sway in rural areas. If hunger is a cage, and poverty is powerlessness, it was in part because landless people were locked out of these local power structures. They were constantly in debt to moneylenders, earning the lowest of pay for manual labour. Women in particular, often married off at the age of 13 to one of those landless labourers, bore the brunt of oppression.

Although many of our initial efforts fell short, we found our dialogue sessions were successful in building people's self-worth and solidarity. We wanted to empower the poor, to equip them with the tools they needed to break free from these constraints. One of these tools was the confidence and self-esteem to know that their actions really mattered. If we could create the conditions for people to improve their lives through their own agency and action, and they could see meaningful progress, I knew they would do the hard work of ending poverty themselves.

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, fertilizer, 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 fertilizer, and other changes to farming practices. This process continues and we have seen many of these interventions, adapted to local contexts, having profound impacts on hunger and food security in other parts of Asia and in Africa.

But the underlying causes of hunger cannot be addressed through food security alone. Without clean water, basic healthcare, family planning services, and quality education for children, families remain trapped in the cycle of poverty.

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 per cent in the late 1970s. But we seemed to hit a ceiling there.

After listening to rural women’s concerns, I learned why. Many were actively choosing to have more children because they had so little confidence these children would actually live to adulthood. As I mentioned, at the time of independence, one in four Bangladeshi children didn't even make it to their 5th birthday, one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world. The toll in grief and human suffering was incalculable and, moreover, it was keeping generation after generation locked in a cycle of misery.

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 diarrhea, one of the biggest killers of children. Many people, including trusted friends and colleagues, were skeptical 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 behavioral change. But this program helped to reduce the rate of child deaths from diarrhea by 80 per cent. Together with the government, we also established a national immunisation program that took the country from 4 per cent immunisation coverage in 1986 to 72 per cent in 1990.

As a result, people gained confidence that their children would survive and accepted the benefits of having smaller families. Meanwhile, we began training village women to serve as community health workers, providing health products and services (including contraception) to their neighbors. We now have more than 100,000 community health promoters providing these services.

I believe this empowering combination of children's, maternal and reproductive health services, delivered on a local level at a massive scale, helped catalyse one of the steepest declines in fertility rates the world has ever seen.

With the child mortality rate falling dramatically, so many more children would now survive into adulthood. People rightly began to ask: Why are we teaching literacy to adults only? If we are interested in long-term development, wouldn't it be better to start with children? The Government's own schools were out of the reach of many poor families due mainly to cost and distance and, in any case, provided a poor-quality education to the few that could afford it.

Starting in the mid-1980s, we began training housewives, many of whom had only high school level education themselves, to work as schoolteachers in their own villages. In one-room schools, with majority girls in the classroom, we targeted exclusively the children from the poorest families. Many have compared these schools to the prairie schools of the American frontier, and indeed we were, in a sense, on a frontier of our own, working in villages not yet reached by the government school system.

For these village schools and teachers, we applied the same principle of empowerment and scale used in our health and family planning programs, that is, empowering people on a local level to take care of their own needs. An entire generation -- more than 11 million children -- have now come through BRAC schools. Remarkably, perhaps because of the value we place on encouraging critical thinking as opposed to rote learning, multiple studies have shown that these children perform better in standardized tests than children from more privileged backgrounds.

To be sure, none of these things caught on like wildfire. As I mentioned, it took many years, decades in some cases, to see the true impact of our work. But, for individuals, the knowledge of being in charge of their own destiny was like a light being turned on -- the light of hope.

In his Nobel speech, Norman Borlaug spoke of the historical precariousness of man's existence. Throughout most of history, humans have lived an uncertain existence, never secure in the knowledge that we would have enough to eat. He also suggested that perhaps the term "Green Revolution" was still "too premature, too optimistic, or too broad in scope." The temporary success of the Green Revolution had only given humankind a "breathing space" to solve more deep-rooted problems like overpopulation, he said.

I believe we are still within that breathing space created by the Green Revolution, and its true potential has yet to emerge. We have a great set of challenges before us. The problem of hunger still looms, for instance. It has been said that, to feed the world, we will need to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have in the last 10,000. This may sound daunting, but I am confident that, even with the challenge of ongoing climate change added to the equation, we can do it provided a new generation of Norman Borlaugs emerges.

Defeating hunger does not depend only on the science of food production. It requires us to address the problem of powerlessness among the poor -- of putting an end to that feeling, articulated so many decades ago by the villagers in Bangladesh, and still felt by so many millions today, of being locked in a cage.

As Amartya Sen has written, poverty cannot be reduced to a single factor, such as insufficient income or the lack of healthy meals. It is, at heart, a deprivation on one's capacity to be fully human -- to be able to lead a life that one has good reason to find meaningful or valuable.

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.

Thank you."

- Sir Fazle Hasan Abed KCMG

 

Read 1645 times Last modified on Tuesday, 01 December 2015 09:23

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