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A Hunger for Change

A Hunger for Change

In the beginning of 1991, Badiul Alam Majumdar was a full professor of economics and finance at Washington State University. By the end of the following year he resigned his position, gave up tenure, and permanently moved with his family to Bangladesh, the country where he was born and raised, but left 21 years earlier as a student.

He left the comfort of America and his academic position because he saw the opportunity created by the county’s first-ever free election and the opportunity to end hunger and poverty in his homeland—although it wasn’t until he got there that he fully realized how much work needed to be done.

By 1994, he was still settling into his position as country director in Bangladesh for the Hunger Project (THP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the sustainable end of world hunger. Only a few minutes after arriving at a rural hospital for a tour (though much of Bangladesh is rural, the country’s population of 160 million fits inside a landmass the size of Wisconsin), a woman entered cradling an infant.

She told the attending physician she had walked 10 miles in search of treatment for her sick child. The doctor checked the baby and couldn’t find a heartbeat; it had most likely died during the journey. Though the child hadn’t starved, Majumdar recalled, it probably suffered from diarrhea, a condition often brought about by unclean water.

“I was born in Bangladesh. I grew up in Bangladesh. I was born in poverty. I thought I had seen it all. But that really shook me up, happening right before my eyes,” he said. “It also indicated to me that malnutrition is the root cause of death for infants, though it is often attributed to other diseases. Diarrhea is not normally fatal. But it kills hundreds of thousands of children of Bangladesh because their immune systems do not develop fully due to malnutrition. That made my resolve stronger to continue this fight against hunger.”

In 1970, when Majumdar first came to America, Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan, Claremont Graduate University was Claremont Graduate School, and Peter Drucker had just arrived in California to teach at the business school that would eventually bear his name. Majumdar had just graduated from Dhaka University and was awarded the Rotary Foundation Graduate Fellowship for International Understanding to attend the Business Economics program at CGU and attend classes taught by Drucker.

The two foreign-born, Southern California transplants quickly bonded. After listening to him lecture in the classroom, Majumdar would spend hours afterward talking to Drucker, and their conversations soon spilled over into the weekends. The great management thinker developed such a bond for his student from South Asia that he referred to himself as Majumdar’s “godfather” in a letter of recommendation.

Their relationship was undoubtedly strengthened by the tragedy and strife occurring in Majumdar’s home country. That year, a cyclone struck the coastal areas of Bangladesh, killing somewhere between 300,000–500,000 people and destroying approximately 85 percent of homes in the affected areas. The central government’s response seemed inefficient to many East Pakistanis, emboldening the region’s resistance movement, which would lead to the Bangladesh Liberation War in early 1971 and soon after the larger Indo-Pakistani War.

For Majumdar, the mental toll of these wars and natural disasters was compounded by uncertainty. “This was a difficult period in my life. For about five months I was isolated from my family back home, including my wife, who was pregnant with our first child. I had no way to communicate with them,” he said.

Solace came from a man whose business acumen is so often effusively praised that many overlook his compassionate nature.

“He was one of the nicest people I have met in my entire life,” Majumdar said about Drucker. “He took me under his wing, he treated me like a son. We met after class, before class, on the weekends. He was a Renaissance man, interested in everything, so we discussed a lot of things, including East Pakistan and the situation over there. But also, analytical skills, and the idea that you have to go beyond facts. Those are the moments I cherish.”

Beyond cherishing their time together, Majumdar has taken Drucker’s lessons to heart through his work in Bangladesh.

“One of his insights that has stuck with me is, ‘Ideas matter.’ That has been particularly helpful. Ideas do matter. Ideas move things,” he said.

In this case, the idea Majumdar promotes through his work at THP is that hunger is not inevitable. Hunger can end. That idea might sound idealistic, but it is something Majumdar believes in literally. In fact, for him hunger is not even about food—or a lack thereof. There is enough food in the world to feed its inhabitants. Hunger is created through bad policies and corruption, and can be addressed through empowerment, policy change, and accountability.

A 2010 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations backs him up: they found that of the 925 million undernourished people in the world, less than 10 percent were hungry due to famine. But what gives the most credence to Majumdar’s idea is the success he has had realizing it in his home country.

Majumdar’s return to Bangladesh in 1991 was not as auspicious as he would have liked. His first post-academic position was with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a federal agency in charge of administering civilian foreign aid. This would be the first and only job Majumdar would ever be fired from. In fact, he wears his dismissal as a badge of honor; he was let go because of his refusal to participate in under-the-table deals.

During his first year-and-a-half back in Bangladesh, he reacquainted himself with the country by traveling and meeting with as many villagers as he could, receiving an education supplementing what he had learned in American academia: “Those villagers with no formal education, they became my new teachers. They molded me. Peter Drucker molded me intellectually, but these villagers molded my heart, my way of looking at their situation.”

But what they taught Majumdar about their needs conflicted with the guiding principles of his employer.

There are two basic paradigms that dominate foreign aid. The first is charity. It focuses on providing food, blankets, tents, medicine, doctors, etc. According to Majumdar, this approach is appropriate following crises like earthquakes or floods, but in those cases an agency should come in, provide relief, then leave. If you don’t leave, the steady flow of aid—doing things for people rather than people doing things for themselves—creates a culture of dependency, hopelessness and helplessness.

To illustrate this, he recounted a story from his travels: “I was visiting a village and saw a parrot that had been let loose and was wandering around. I asked, ‘Doesn’t it fly away?’ They said, ‘No. It can not fly anymore.’ I asked if they had clipped its wings. They said no. The bird used to be able to fly and survive on its own, but once its ‘owner’ caged it, it was no longer able to care for itself.

“Even though the inherent power of a bird is to fly, it could not do so as its muscles did not develop fully due to non-practice. Because of the massive aid to Bangladesh,” Majumdar noted, “we became like that parrot. We have the ability to survive and be self-reliant, but our inherent abilities to stand on our own feet are not developed.”

In addition, as Majumdar noticed early on in his return, aid disbursement is often controlled by government and NGO officials. This, along with the involvement of the “ruling class,” creates an incubator for corruption, regardless of a donor’s intentions.

“The donors provided a lot of aid, a lot of charity, a lot of service. And this brought about corruption, which was largely tolerated. I was made the head of a USAID project in Bangladesh, and I didn’t want to be part of the ‘problem.’ I wanted to be part of the ‘solution.’ So I got fired,” he said. “And that was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

It ended up being good for his country as well. At that time, in the early 1990s, approximately 44 million Bangladeshis were undernourished, or 38 percent of a population of 118 million. By 2008, the FAO estimated that that number had fallen to 41 million, or 26 percent of a population that had increased to nearly 160 million.

In 1993, Majumdar became the country director for THP-Bangladesh, which—in contrast to the USAID—does not distribute food. Instead, the Hunger Project seeks solutions based on self-reliance.

To bring about self-reliance in Bangladesh, Majumdar has been engaging in the second kind of foreign aid: empowerment, with special emphasis on female empowerment.

“In Bangladesh, women face harsh discrimination from birth. It’s unthinkable from an American’s perspective,” he said. “The girl is less cared for than the boy. They eat less and are usually more malnourished. Boys go to school and girls often stay home to help their mothers. Boys are taken to the doctor before girls. Before they are 18, many girls, who are neither physically nor mentally ready, are married off to much older men.”

Though 18 is the minimum age required by law to marry, reports estimate that nearly two-thirds of the marriages is Bangladesh are child marriages. These young women are particularly unprepared for motherhood. They are often malnourished and uneducated, and are more likely to produce malnourished children and be unable to educate them.

“It’s a cycle of malnourishment, perpetuating hunger in generation after generation. No matter how much investment we make, unless the cycle is broken we won’t get very far. We need to empower women. If we are to succeed as a country, we must have the contribution from women—50 percent of the population—who are now marginalized,” Majumdar said.

Women must be educated and healthy, he asserted.  If women are educated and healthy, children are educated and healthy. And so is the nation.

Facing a headwind of gender bias that may have been in place for tens of thousands of years, what Majumdar has been able to achieve in a single generation seems especially remarkable.

Under his leadership, THP–Bangladesh has become the largest volunteer-based organization in the country, with 140,000 animators (THP’s term for volunteer catalysts) covering all 64 of the country’s districts. These individuals have all attended and completed the Hunger Project’s VCA (vision, commitment, and action) Workshops and Animators training. These trainings, generally focused on gender and development issues, empower women and youth leaders to take self-reliant action, and to train others for the same purpose.

In addition to in-person trainings (many of which used to be led by Majumdar), over nine million people have participated in the VCA workshop, which is now so successful it is being adopted in other countries. THP–Bangladesh also has approximately 100,000 student volunteers; young Bangladeshis who, according to Majumdar, “have not become incapacitated like the parrot.”

Most importantly, the quarter-million animators, students and women leaders have been taking action. More than 460 female animators ran for office in municipal elections in 2011, with 169 winning their race (the previous year, only 21 women were elected). THP-Bangladesh staff and animators have held more than 580 Primary School Enrollment meetings (with over 19,000 attendees), where they emphasized the importance of education for children—especially girls.

Developing a cultural respect for girls is a driving initiative for THP-Bangladesh. To that end, Majumdar and the animators successfully lobbied for the establishment of National Girl Child Day. Since it was first recognized in 2000, animators have led local-level celebrations, teach-ins, and marches in small villages and big cities. These events have been so successful that they were instrumental in the United Nations designating October 11 as International Day of the Girl Child.

THP’s 2011 Animator Reunion/Conference in Dhaka was attended by 15,000 volunteers who all paid their own travel costs and nominal registration fees. At the conference, attendees could share updates on the hundreds of local initiatives led by a newly empowered populace, including nutritional awareness campaigns for pregnant mothers, the construction of clean latrines for communities lacking proper sanitation, and advocating for open budget meetings to provide transparency and accountability.

Two other organizations with which Majumdar is prominently involved supplement the work of THP in Bangladesh: he is founder/secretary of SHUJAN (Citizens for Good Governance), an organization that advocates for more open elections and good governance; and president of the National Girl Child Advocacy Forum. What these groups have in common with THP is that they do not provide services, but instead mobilize people to take action for themselves.

“Bangladeshis must take responsibility for Bangladesh’s future. Bangladeshis must be in the trenches to fight hunger and poverty. Bangladeshis must be the ones who do whatever is appropriate for Bangladesh’s development,” he said.

Even Majumdar’s former employer, the USAID, is changing its mindset: In March 2012 they released Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy, a key piece of their strategy to augment service-provision with programs that promote sustainable self-reliance. (They even used an image from a Hunger Project National Girl Child Day poster on the cover of their report.)

“A lot of us who provide aid talk about changing the mindset of dependency and resignation in the people we assist. But we have a mindset, too: donors, the educated, and the policymakers can have the mindset that the poor are problem. The poor need to be looked after. They are a liability. But that isn’t true. The poor themselves are the solution,” Majumdar said. “And as we change that mindset of dependency and resignation, fortunately, the donor mindset seems to be changing, too.”

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