The journey from poverty to prosperity is both an individual and collective one, the opportunities and challenges often determined by the circumstances of our immediate surroundings, our place of birth, gender, economic status, family patterns etc
Politics, both locally and globally affect the lives of each and every individual on earth and unfortunately millions of people are living with subjugation and poverty as a direct result of the politics of a minority with a vested, greed oriented interest in land and social order.
One of the most powerful pieces of writing that I have ever read on the controversial subject of poverty in aid-reliant countries is by Lynne Twist in her book The Soul of Money
Lynne is the former director of the The World Hunger Project and was involved in facilitating creative, new responses to poverty Bangladesh at a time when it was often referred to as the world’s ” begging bowl” for aid and relief.
The following story is about the changes and transformation that can happen when people are shown how to Dream and create a new vision together.
It is a powerful reminder that poverty is a human-made state generated by minds often dominated by greed and thus can be eradicated by activating the power and capacities of the mind and vision and capacity to create that resides in each and every one of us, regardless of whether we are living in poverty or fortunate to be living a comfortable life, the formula for creating change is in each and every one of us.
I found an the excerpt of the Hunger Project story that I was looking for in the on line edition of Ode magazine:
“Decades of development work has made Bangladesh the world’s begging bowl; a land of desperation and dependence with no future. But even in the face of such misery one person can make a difference; without help from the outside.
A new dream and a new vision are bringing new life to the North of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is an Asian country of more than 130 million people on a landmass the size of Iowa. It once was a land abundant with tropical rain forests, a diversity of plants and animal species, and a bounty of natural resources. In the 1900s the land was denuded of its forests by foreign interest that came and went, and the land was ravaged by war and the results of poor land tenure polices. Absent the trees and vegetation that once had thrived, seasonal floods took an even greater toll on the land and the people.
Listed by the United Nations as the second poorest country in the world in the late 1970s, Bangladesh became the recipient of another kind of flood, a flood of aid, and within a short time had become almost completely dependent on aid from outside sources. Bangladesh began to have a global reputation as needy and helpless, a giant begging bowl of a nation, and within Bangladesh itself, the people came to see themselves that way, too. Bangladeshis had become convinced they were a hopeless, helpless people dependent on others for even minimal survival.
In what had become a common cycle of disintegration of villages and communities, the people in villages near the district of Sylhet were giving up, making plans to leave the region and look for subsistence work elsewhere, or send the men off to larger towns an cities to find work and send money home to support their indigent families.
Sylhet is in the northern hill region of Bangladesh, just high enough to escape the floods that submerge the surrounding lowlands periodically each year. The dry hills had surrendered long ago to an invasive jungle of prickly scrubby brush, a plant whose only fruit is poison berries. The plants all tangled together look like a massive briar patch-inaccessible, dangerous, and thick. An overgrown area had been deemed government land and was off-limits for development by local farmers. But the scrubby, poisonous plant that grew there kept spreading and invading the small plots of land that the villagers would farm, taking over the crops and poisoning the land.
For generations the villagers had scraped a meagre existence from the small plots of land the government had given them, but even that was becoming an impossible task. Young people had turned to begging on the roads and stealing. Crime was at an all-time high. So it came to be that the villagers had given up on their difficult, unproductive land and were ready tot take drastic action. Many were prepared to abandon the village and move their families elsewhere, or abandon hope for an intact family, and instead send the men elsewhere to find jobs.
The conversation among villagers was urgent and pragmatic. Where could they move or send the men that would allow them to grow enough or earn enough to provide for their families? There was also talk of asking for US financial aid to enable them to buy food and other goods without work at all.
They had given up.
They were tired and they were resigned.
They felt the answer must be somewhere else and with someone else.
They felt they just couldn’t make it on their own.
About this time, we launched The Hunger Project in Bangladesh. There were plenty of independent relief agencies in Bangladesh already doing heroic and inspiring work, but what seemed to be making sustainable improvements were the initiatives that came from the Bangladeshis themselves.
The now-famous Grameen Bank, created by Dr. Muhammed Yunus, is a micro-credit program providing small-business loans to hardworking, cash-poor women, and BRAC, a village development initiative created by Bangladeshi leader Faisal Abed, had created significant success where outsiders unfamiliar with the people had failed.
These successes and experiences in other regions had affirmed our conviction that the Bangladeshi people were the key to their own development and that outside aid was systematically and psychologically turning them into beggars instead of the authors of their own future.
As the first step in the process of forging an effective partnership, together we looked deeply into the Bangladeshi culture, their attitudes and beliefs about themselves, their resignation and hopelessness.
It became clear that after so long subsisting on aid, the people had lost touch with any sense of their own competence or any vision of their country as capable of success.
In our meetings together, the Bangladeshi leaders determined that the thing that was missing, which, if provided, would enable these people to become self-reliant and self-sufficient, was a vision of their own strengths and capabilities.
The Hunger Project committed, as a partner, to develop a program designed to enable the Bangladeshis to reconnect with a vision for themselves and their country, with an awareness of their available assets, and strategies to put their ideas into action. Out of that commitment and partnership came the Vision, Commitment and Action Workshop.
It called upon participants to engage in a series of group-discussion and visualisation exercises enabling them to imagine and envision a self-reliant, self-sufficient Bangladesh: the healthy, thriving Bangladesh they had fought for years ago in their struggle for independence.
In Bangladesh, because there are so many people, when you call any kind of a meeting, hundreds, even a thousand people can show up. People often gather in the village parks and squares. In Dhaka, the capital, there is a public park that holds easily a thousand people or more, and that is where we launched some of the early Vision, Commitment and Action Workshops. We publicised the meeting, and at the appointed time the park was packed with people. If you can picture it, this is no beautiful pastoral retreat, but a park with barely a blade of grass, packed with hundreds of these small, brown, beautiful people seated on the ground very close together, lots of babies and small children, people of all ages sitting attentively, tentatively, listening for whatever we could offer them that might be helpful.
The program opened with music, a few introductions and inspired words by community leaders, and some initial interactive exercises to bring the crowd’s energy and focus to the task at hand. Then we began the program, asking everybody to close their eyes and envision what a self-reliant, self-sufficient Bangladesh would look like:
What would it look like if Bangladesh were a country that was exporting its finest-quality goods?
What would it be like if Bangladesh were known for its art and music and poetry?
What if Bangladesh were a contributing member of the global community, instead of the big recipient, the big begging bowl receiving aid? What it would be like if Bangladeshi leadership, including Bangladeshi women, Bangladeshi men, and Bangladeshi young people, were a contribution to society?
What would that look like?
At first, people sat there very still, eyes closed, expressionless, shoulder to shoulder in the park.
A hush settled over the crowd, and the sea of faces remained still, eyes closed, in thought.
After a few minutes I noticed tears streaming down one man’s face and then another and another. People were still sitting with their eyes closed, but they were silently weeping. And then it was not just three or four, or ten or twenty faces with tears streaming down. In this crowd of more than a thousand, it was hundreds of weeping faces.
It was as if they had never in their lifetime even thought they could be self-reliant or self-sufficient or an contributing nation, that they had never imagined they could be a nation that made a difference for other nations, that they could be a nation that stood out, that had qualities that people admired, a unique role to play in the world community. It was a brave new thought.
When we completed this visioning meditation, and people shared with one another the visions they had seen for their village, their family, their school, their home, their business, their children, and their grandchildren, the vision became rich and real, palpable and exhilarating. A new future was born.
In the next section of the workshop the participants were invited to commit to their vision. They were asked not merely to envision, but to commit to being the people who would make that vision real. You could see them drop their anxiety and fear, letting go of their sense of lack and inadequacy, and step up to their own creation and commit to it. In that exercise you could see peoples posture and countenance change. People seemed to visibly strengthen. Their sense of resolve and determination was contagious, and the impossible seemed possible.
They finally broke into small groups to collaborate and design the actions they would take to fulfil their commitment to make their vision real. The actions were practical, local, doable, but in alignment with their new commitments and in service of their vision. People seemed to re-see themselves, their family, their village, and their country as able, resourceful, and potent -self-reliant and self-sufficient.
Soon these workshops were being repeated in gatherings all over, some in cities, others in villages, some just within families, and every Sunday for thousands in the square at Dhaka.
Now it happened that on a trip to Dhaka, one of the leaders of a village in Sylhet attended a Vision, Commitment and Action Workshop nearly by mistake. His name was Zilu. He was visiting his cousin in the city, and this cousin invited him to come along to the park to see what this workshop was all about. Zilu didn’t want to go. He wanted to talk to his cousin about moving his family from Sylhet in with his cousin, to share their home, so the family could leave their desolate village, hoping that Zilu could get work in the city and give them a chance for a new life. His cousin prevailed, however, and they attended the workshop together.
Zilu was completely captivated by the workshop experience, and his awakening to his own commitment to his village and the surrounding community. He stayed in Dhaka another three days and participated in a training to be a workshop leader himself. He then took the training and the vision back to Sylhet.
Back home, he called his six closest male friends together and delivered the workshop to them. With a shared vision now and unlimited commitment to develop the human and natural resources of their own region, the seven men came up with an idea and created an plan for a new agribusiness venture designed to bring the whole region out of poverty into self-reliance an ultimately into prosperity. They called it the Chowtee Project: A Bold Step for Self-Reliance.
I arrived in Sylhet just four months later, in April of 1994, with 17 travellers who were major donors to The Hunger Project. Zilu had invited us there to show us the progress he and his friends had made in the area to thank us for the contribution we were making to his country and his people.
He and his friends, whom we came to call the Magnificent Seven, told us the story of their region’s transformation and showed us the results. Zilu shared how he had returned from the workshop at Dhaka that December day inspired to look with new eyes at the resources he and his people had before them, and determined to develop a vision, a commitment and a plan of action. Once his six friends joined him in this commitment, their next step was to look at the resources they already had but had previously overlooked.
There, at the edge of town, was the fallow, hardscrabble government land covered with poison berry brambles.
The seven men met with government officials and got permission to clear seventeen acres of the tangled vegetation that had taken over their land. Then they went to the community for the money needed to buy equipment and supplies.
People drew from their meagre savings to support the initiative, and the men were able to collect the needed thousands of taka – then about US$750. Finally, they delivered their own version of the Vision, Commitment and Action Workshop to 600 people in the village of 18,000. Those 600 people got to work, building a road along the edge of the land and starting the clearing effort.
Impressed with their vision, clarity, and commitment, the government gave them a hundred acres more to develop. They trained the young people who had turned to begging and crime to cultivate and farm instead. They trained destitute women, many of them widows, to farm. In clearing the land, they were surprised to discover a previously unknown lake and small stream abundant with fish. The entire area was now under cultivation, providing food, fish, training, and employment for hundreds of people. All 18,000 people in the immediate area had benefited from this activity, and an area that had been wracked with poverty was now becoming self-sufficient and beginning to flourish. The crime rate had dropped by an astounding 70%.
We walked the fields with Zilu and the rest of the Magnificient Seven, and visited the fisheries and the training fields. We were overwhelmed by the people’s vitality, joy, and success.
I realised as I walked with them that they had accomplished this feat with almost no help from the outside. They had had what they needed all along-the land, the water, the intelligence, the muscle, and the capacity to put it all together-but had lost touch with those resources and capabilities in the climate of ‘Third World’ aid and the hopelessness and presumed incompetence that had come with it. Once they were inspired to see themselves differently, to see themselves as strong, creative, and capable, their commitment knew no limits. Success was inevitable.
Looking at the fields, once impenetrable jungle and brush, I thought about our own lives, and that which covers over the soil of our dreams, that which temporarily blocks our inner vision or capacity to see. In their world, it was the jungle and the confusing message of aid telling them that they were incomplete and needy and not able to make it on their own. They had bought into that, and as long as they did, they couldn’t see the resources in front of them. Once they had focused their attention on their own unlimited inner resources, the outer resources materialised, suddenly accessible. They could begin to see that what they needed had been there all along.
I never forgot the Magnificent Seven. When you are crushed by the victim mentality, as they were, your ability to dream and envision is crushed, too. It goes dead. When I find myself groping for what’s beyond my grasp, I hear their words in my head and know that if I can re-look from the inside out and access and appreciate what’s already there, what’s already available, then its power, utility, and grace will grow and prosper in the nourishment of my attention.
Lynne Twist author of The Soul of Money