Recommendations for GivingNovember 27, 2018
Explaining ChristmasDecember 24, 2018
At its core, poverty is a social construct. It comes from systems developed by humans. Ending extreme poverty, then, requires changing the systems that create it. Changing systems often requires getting those who benefit from the current system to become willing to make a change.
BRAC in Bangladesh seeks to change systems by creating Village Poverty Reduction Committees. The committee, made up of business, educational, political and religious leaders from a village meets once a month with women participating in the Ultra Poor Graduation Program. They help protect the assets provided to participants, provide tutoring for the children of participants, and help integrate them into the economic and social life of the village.
In this way BRAC gives those who lead the village systems responsibility for ending extreme poverty in their village.
Dharani Kansa Barman runs his family’s farming enterprises and serves as the General Secretary of one of the village committees. This is what he told me about his experience serving on the committee.
I didn't think my family was wealthy when I was growing up. I was proud of my dad and my uncles, for all they had done to build the family assets. They told me stories about how much land they had when they came to the village, and how it grew, and how they added houses for their expanding families and storehouses for all the crops they grew.
I went to private schools that cost money, so only people from wealthy families could afford to go. It didn't seem like we were rich. I just thought that most everybody lived this way. Of course I knew that there were people who had much less money. They would come around before the festivals, asking my father for a donation. And he always did his religious duty, paying zakat by providing animals and grain so that they could celebrate Eid. And I did the same when I took over the family businesses.
I was happy when they asked me to serve on the Village Poverty Reduction Committee. It showed to me that I had followed my father’s example and was helpful to those who needed help. I also knew the other people on the committee, all people with reputations for being willing to share what they have with others. I didn't really expect much from our work on this committee. Maybe we could coordinate our zakat donations with the Imam, who was also on the committee. Maybe we could pool our gifts to deal with particularly hard cases. I always thought that some people were born to be poor and some were born to be wealthy, and there was not much that any of us could do to change that.
One thing that surprised me about serving on this committee -- it was the first time I ever served on a committee with women. I learned that we can work well together, that we all bring different experiences and insights, and that our plans and decisions are better when we have women working with us as equals.
We meet every month with the participants of the program to learn how the women and their families are doing. One of our first jobs on the committee was to help the women register the assets they received from the program, the cows and chickens and goats. It was important to show our community that we were supporting these women, and that we would follow up with anyone that tried to take away the assets. Sometimes male relatives of the participants, long lost brothers or uncles, start coming around suggesting that they could do a better job of managing the animals. We let them know that the animals are registered in the women's names, and the women are receiving training on how to manage them, and anyone who tries to take them away will have to deal with us. I guess it works, because no one has tried to take away any of the animals from the women in our group.
Another thing we have done is arrange an after-school tutoring class for all the children of the participants. Many of these children are behind in school, so these tutoring classes help them keep up. We found a local woman who had come from a poor background and had just finished university to come back to run the tutoring program. We pay her a stipend to run the school five days a week. Whenever I'm feeling upset about something in my work or my home, I go to visit this class. The children are so excited to be learning, and the teacher treats each one of them like one of her own, seeing herself in the situations that these children face. I can see how the lives of these children, with all the support they are receiving, will be much different from the lives of their mothers.
We also help some of the participants who face special needs. There is a woman named Monifa who has a child who is blind. We arranged for him to get into school, and supply money for his studies and books.
I think what has changed the most, for me, is my relationships with these women. Before there was a great distance between us. They might come to ask for help from time to time, but they would be very shy and accept whatever I chose to give. Now we meet regularly, and they know me. They have no trouble greeting me in the street, or coming up and talking to me. They also let me know their opinions and what they think we should be doing as a committee. Now there seems like no distance between us.
Like I said, I used to think that poor people and rich people were born that way, and there was nothing any of us can do to change that. Now I see I was wrong. Inside every poor person lies the potential to live a much better life. It is not their fault they are poor, and with a little help and a few assets, they can provide for themselves at a much higher level. They can give their children a different future. I have come to realize that we as a village are all poorer if we do not work together to develop the skills and abilities that reside in all of us. I feel like we are much more a community now, and we all have something to contribute. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to serve on this committee.
"I have come to realize that we as a village are all poorer if we do not work together to develop the skills and abilities that reside in all of us."
Larry, Thanks for this. It underscores the importance of involving community leaders in dealing with the issues of extreme poverty.
What a great testimony, Larry! I think it is a wonderful illustration of the importance of the Village Committee, which many programs do not include. Thanks so much for interviewing him to get it, transcribing it and translating it. I’m sure it was not easy work!
Thanks, Anne. I agree with you on the importance of the Village Committee. It helps the elites of a village come face to face with the poverty in their own village. I think extreme poverty worldwide would end if we all had personal relationships with people living in poverty.