Abed bhai -Fazle Hasan Abed - and I go back to 1986 when the informal-formal education debate had become important in the development world. I was then with Unicef and Bangladesh was getting into the initiative in a big way. However, there was a big debate on the issue and many were opposed to informal education.
This came most from those who sought validation in the official system and anything that was not governmental was considered less.
Although in the 1971 liberation war, it's the informal sector -common people - who played a very significant role, if not the most significant, they are erased from official and academic historical narratives. Our denial of the informal is rooted in the "invader as savior" mentality whereupon we have looked to the raja/sharakar bahadur as the primary source of legitimacy.
Thus the debate between the formal and the informal is often about the political imagination of power. Does it belong to the people or the amlas. This includes the education sector. Within Unicef also, most supported the GOB. I was one of the few who supported the informal space. My experience of 1971 was a major factor I presume.
The China conversation
In 1989, a team went from Bangladesh to China to a major UN conference on education. Cole Dodge of Unicef, Abed bhai of BRAC and several others including myself were there. When Abed bhai made his presentation on informal education, it was met with some skepticism as too ambitious. But to me it was obvious that a bigger battle was on about the role and nature of the state and society.
As we visited the villages of Guangzhou, it became obvious that these villages had much greater freedom than people outside China would think. In fact, the official China seemed quite absent here. This included not only multi-child families which Beijing had officially banned but even ancestral worship. Large urns carrying ashes of the dead were in earthen holes poking out of mountain earth.
Abed bhai asked me on the bus back what I thought of it all.
"They have managed to mobilize people without interfering too much with their lives," was my response.
He smiled and said, "They have not imposed the formal system on the villages. They have kept the doors open. And that has worked."
He was capturing the wisdom learnt from his own experience. As a freedom fighter he had organized the blowing up of the Karachi port using mercenaries in 1971 but at the request of PM Tajuddin Ahmed donated the money to the Mujibnagar government fund as it was more needed. The 1971 Government was itself an excellent example of mixing the formal and the informal.
Abed bhai understood that lesson in the 70s also when the ORS campaign became such a success. Later the informal education programme also worked and was ultimately undertaken by the GOB itself. It shows that it's this alliance between the two socio- cultural spaces that makes things work best.
Abed bhai told me once that as a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain he campaigned for them in an election. The candidate lost but he remembered that they talked a lot but did little work. He had become an admirer of Paolo Friere and his "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" theme but in the end, all ideas dissolved into an understanding of power derived from his own experience of work that marked his transition from an ideologue to a visionary.
To Abed bhai, people were poor because they had no power and they had no power because they were excluded from financial access and transactions. They could not participate in economic activities so micro credit to him was not really an extreme poverty exit programme but a banking access mechanism.
He didn't think that it was going to change society and its economics. It was simply a tool for the middle poor people to take advantage of and press forward. In the 80s and even 90s, he had little idea of how to help the extreme poor.
So microcredit was not for the very poor, as he told me in an interview on the topic. "You can't give credit to a person who is not already in an income mode. How else can they repay from the next month? It was to prevent them from sliding back to poverty and to become better off."
It was therefore a tool for inclusion and the platform to become powerful. And this is where the key to his understanding of power began. Economic inclusion was power.
He was really not into the kind of ideological liberalism that is popular among social workers and NGOs, as well as shushils and academics.
"Conscientization" was another buzzword, very chalu with the same world but he was almost dismissive of them. "How will they deal with economic demand with words? There are wants and needs and unless one has access to economics, nothing works. Have any of these outfits been successful?"
Since they were not and now many are dead and gone, he knew what he was talking about.
One day, he saw me on his office floor and walked towards me smiling. "What do you think about digital payment and financial transactions without going to a bank?"
I had no idea then but he was talking about bKash. He was more excited about it than I had seen him in a long time. "Why should people have to go to the banks and seek services? The poor are afraid of the banks as these banks are so rude. This will mean they won't need banks."
Today bKash has changed Bangladesh.
Essentially it was an inclusion tool and he was a person who saw in financial inclusion the route to freedom. And that meant power to seek and to preserve the achievement. He had very little confidence in slogan mongering empowerment type of work. He wanted the concrete power that economic resources gave to the denied and that's how he saw BRAC.
Having rejoined BRAC in 2012, I left again at the end of 2016. I didn't inform him that I was leaving as he would make noise. So when we met a few months later, he was almost angry. "Have you left BRAC to join a newspaper?" I said, "No." Are you going to remain with BRAC University?. I said, "Yes". He relaxed. By then we were chatting and without him irritated. In a way that was our last proper conversation.
He was very keen about the University and felt that the future would see BRAC University as his greatest legacy and BRAC NGO would die out as its need would end. He had made me read a lot of stuff on universities and his relationship with BRAC U was affectionate and not professional. He asked me why I didn't join full time. I replied, "Because they won't have me."He kept quiet for a while and then said, "Anyway, Never stop teaching the Diversity course."
I no longer teach at the BRAC University and the Diversity course is also no longer taught there but Abed bhai didn't know that and I am glad.
To him Diversity was not a shushil issue as it is mostly in Bangladesh but a very practical one. If any society lacked that, it would fail. He had learnt the hard way that racism and discrimination was unproductive. BRAC International had faced many problems in Africa and he had reports that the relationship between the local African staff and Bangladeshi seniors was poor. He had asked me to do a survey on the problem and suggest changes.
Racism is natural in human society but it needs management to overcome it in today's world. Otherwise it can scald and damage like it's doing in the West. Politics only produces new privilege groups.
Abed bhai wanted everyone in BRAC to be trained in Diversity but he also knew that there was a lot of turf war in BRAC. He wanted it located in the BRAC U because Abed bhai wanted Diversity studies to be part of the education system.
That day, we discussed Africa, a place I knew first hand. He thought the way the African child was held by the mother freeing her hand to work was very efficient. It was essentially all about being functional. Abed bhai had little use for ideas that produced more ideas only. "BRAC has grown because of need. Schools needed books and they couldn't supply books so we set up our publishing and printing unit. Farmers produced vegetables and milk which they couldn't sell immediately so we set up cold storages. New ventures should come out of new demands."
I had drifted out of BRAC and perhaps we both knew our worlds were to be different from then on. With him there was always a time to talk and time to work. As I walked out of the room of the man who saw work as a form of religion and people a matter of belief, it was back to working for the people again.
Stay on Abed bhai.
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