Message from Bangladesh

Jill Lester, President and CEO (April 18, 2008)

Greetings from Bangladesh - the third of my field visits during my first 100 days. I've been tremendously inspired by the creativity and joy of people here who are shedding dependency and achieving lives of self-reliance. I am here with investors from Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden and the USA.

We began our visit very auspiciously on Monday, the Bangladesh New Year. Our investors participated in local festivities and made the local television news.

We met with our country director, Prof. Badiul Alam Majumdar, who briefed us in detail on our strategy that combines bottom-up programs that mobilize people for self-reliance, transform the severe subjugation of women in this society, and improve governance to make the levels of government closest to the people effective and accountable.

We also met with our staff on what would have been their day off, who expressed great commitment and pride in the contributions they are making. They are living examples of my desire that service on the staff of The Hunger Project be the most rewarding experience in a person's career.

We were also treated by the staff (and at every Hunger Project event from villagers to our later VIP gatherings) to joyous singing, on Monday led by our very accomplished musical accountant! Our investors also acquitted themselves well at every gathering: one of our team, Ryan Tennis, is a professional singer, and now has rock-star status in a dozen Bangladeshi villages.

We spent Tuesday and Wednesday visiting remote villages at various stages of their journey to self-reliance. The vast majority of those we met with were women, many of whom are young. A top priority I heard everywhere is prevention of child marriage. The first village we visited - in the Mougachi Union* of Rajshahi district - proudly introduced two girls, 12 and 13, whose marriages they had halted last year. Both girls are now continuing their schooling.

[*Note: "Unions" are clusters of 15-20 villages, and are the lowest-level of governance in Bangladesh. Our strategies are all centered around the lowest-level of elected government, the Union Parishad.]

We met hundreds of our more-than 100,000 trained, volunteer animators, who each proudly introduced themselves from the "batch" number of their animator training. We met women who were highly confident long-time animators from batch 41, who had in turn organized animator trainings in their unions - introducing animators from batch 123, 427, and 1238.

There was not a single instance where we were asked for anything. Instead - at every village, people were eager to share their achievements. We saw villages that had achieved 100% safe sanitation, saw the beautiful weaving and sewing products produced by women's income-generating cooperatives formed by the animators, held the fish raised in the fishing cooperatives, and visited the modest but extremely neat homes built by women who had previously lived in huts.

It was important that we meet other people working in these areas, and so we spent the night at a Catholic Mission in a particularly remote and impoverished tribal area. The mission provides housing and education for more than 500 orphans, who treated us to an extraordinary show of local dances. The next morning was particularly memorable to me personally - I had the opportunity to hear "Happy Birthday" sung to me by school children in Bengali.

The mobilization of more than 100,000 Youth Ending Hunger (YEH) volunteers here is extraordinary, and one YEH group met us at our first rest-stop. Trupti, an 18-year-old student, expressed her passion for using her skills to improve her country, and gave us valuable insights into the limits on girls in this society.

Thursday was devoted to meeting VIPs. We first met the acting foreign minister, who described the pressure on government to retreat from its strong stand for women's equality. He stated that the best hope for limiting the growing religious extremism is the empowerment of women.

We then had lunch with more than 40 of the most distinguished citizens of Bangladesh - including the framer of the Bangladesh constitutions, former MPs, members of the country's first planning commission and pioneering leaders of Bangladesh's women's movement. The warmth and accessibility of these high-ranking individuals was striking, and all of them spoke with great respect and admiration for Badiul. Nearly all of them are members of Shujan - the alliance for good governance initiated by The Hunger Project.

Thursday night we shared these experiences on a global conference call (click here to listen to the recording) and in an impromptu session, raised more than $150,000 from ourselves!

Friday completes this visit with the event that had us come at this time - the national gathering of more than 1,000 women whose Hunger Project training has empowered them to be effective activists for women's rights in their villages and potential elected local leaders.

My field visits to India, Ghana and Bangladesh have transformed me from someone with an intellectual and philosophical appreciation of The Hunger Project into someone deeply convinced that we really do have the right approach.