A tale of two visionaries From the Editor’s Desk

If senior Rotary India leaders’ dream to make India totally literate by 2017, 2018 or whatever it takes is to materialise, the Internet and online access hold the key. In this issue, you will meet Mike Feerick, the founder-CEO of ALISON, a social business venture, who is determined to take away the privilege of education from only the rich. That is, quality education that can get you admission to colleges, jobs, promotions, and above all bestow the gift of self-respect to women who are regarded as worthless. This he is doing by offering free online courses — 750 of them — after successful
completion of which you get a diploma, and your knowledge of the subject can be tested online. As he says in his interview to Rotary News, when he started, people asked him: “who do you think you are, providing free education and with your own certification? His brave reply: When Harvard (from where Feerick has a management degree) started, he did so in a room, with a bunch of books. And yes, he taught well! Naturally people were upset, because education is such a huge money spinner, and not the least in India, where colossal and crippling capitation fee is often charged.

But despite opposition, Feerick is forging ahead with single minded purpose — use of “technology to break down the walls that have been created around knowledge and skills for eternity.” An important insight I got while chatting with him was on how governments across the world, including  India, have some brilliant and well-meaning people, but the cumbersome systems are so well entrenched and averse to change that these people are not able to make a difference. Until a sweeping change totally outside accepted parameters comes. An alternative, “the economics of which are so compelling that those have to be adopted and the old will have to wither and die!”

While ALISON is working on gender empowerment through online learning, Nobel Peace Laureate and the messiah of microcredit, Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, has empowered a few million women in Bangladesh’s villages in myriad ways. I was ­privileged to interview him in Dhaka in 1998, and was amazed by the man’s simplicity and humility. His office on the third floor at the Grameen headquarters had no air conditioning, and like everybody else, he took the stairs as the building had no elevator. When
I commented on this he smiled: “We are custodians of poor people’s money and have to spend it judiciously. This building is designed to let in a lot of air and light, so I don’t need an AC!” Like all Grameen employees he took tea without milk and sugar, and offering it to me, said: “Milk and sugar push up the cost, so we avoid both!”

One man’s vision and integrity have ensured that for the first time in 2014, when Grameen Bank disbursed $1.5 billion in loans, the total deposits of its 8.5 million borrowers exceeded that amount.  “So I tell my friends in the Grameen Bank: ‘Look, it is about time you stop calling them borrowers because the actual borrower is you; you’ve taken more money from them than you have given them.’ So the tables have turned,” he told a global conference of the International Press Institute in Myanmar where I met him. And, in the 1990s, when the Bangladesh government was giving licenses for mobile phone companies, he applied, and just like Feerick, was scorned for wanting to put mobile phones, then a luxury for the very rich, into the hands of poor women. But he had a business plan for them; for the telephone ladies of Bangladesh — today there are 400,000 — it was an instant ticket out of poverty, “as in the villages nobody had a phone and there was such a hunger among people to talk to each other.” Without such passion, vision and commitment, what hope can the poor of this world have to break the shackles of poverty or ignorance?

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Rasheeda Bhagat

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