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EDUCATION: Bangladeshi Humanitarian Wins Half-Million Prize

Thalif Deen

DOHA, Qatar, Nov 1 2011 (IPS) - A Bangladeshi humanitarian with a British knighthood – and head of one of the world’s largest non-governmental organisations (NGOs) promoting the cause of education – walked way with half a million dollars in prize money and a gold medal at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in the Qatari capital of Doha.

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed Credit: Courtesy of WISE

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed Credit: Courtesy of WISE

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), was selected from over 100 nominations worldwide for the first ever award given by the Qatar Foundation.

The announcement was made during its third annual three-day summit beginning Tuesday which was attended by over 1,300, including government officials, academics, educationists, journalists and representatives of scores of international NGOs..

At a press conference following the award ceremony, he singled out the sweeping advances in digital technology and the widespread access to the information superhighway as significant trends that will help promote the cause of education in the world’s poorer nations.

Predicting that schools and teachers even in remote villages would be linked, over the next 10 to 15 years, to the information superhighway, he said future education will not only be of “high quality” but it will also be “democratised” when it is widely available both to rich and poor countries.

Asked about a proposal calling on the United Nations to declare digital literacy a basic universal human right, Sir Fazle told IPS that most governments have now made education compulsory and citizens have a right to demand the establishment of a school where there is none.

“So, education is now becoming a basic human right,” he said and pointed out that as modern technology advances, everyone will be connected to the internet and there will also be demand for digital literacy as a human right.

“I am guided by an ideal of a world free from all forms of exploitation and discrimination. Education is the answer to this quest,” he declared.

Pointing out the wide reach of his organisation, he said BRAC has a staff of about 56,000 and also 45,000 teachers in over 10 countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Haiti.

With an annual budget of over 700 million dollars, BRAC has been described as one of the world’s largest humanitarian organisations in terms of staff, but lags behind World Vision in funding, which has an annual budget of over two billion dollars.

Asked what he would do with the prize money, he said the money will be used in the public interest. He said his staff would be delighted and energised because of the international recognition bestowed by the award.

In presenting the award Tuesday, WISE chairman Dr Abdulla bin Ali Al- Thani said, “Fazle Hasan Abed’s life and career embody the values of WISE. He recognised that education is a passport to social inclusion and opportunity. He discovered a successful formula and he adapted and expanded it – first in Bangladesh and then in other countries.”

As a direct consequence, he said, millions of people around the world lead healthier, happier and more productive lives.

According to his biographical data, Sir Fazle studied at the University of Glasgow, trained as a management accountant in London and returned to his home country to lead the finance division of Shell Oil Company.

But he returned to London during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence from Pakistan where he raised funds for his country’s struggle. After the conflict, he used his own savings to establish BRAC aimed at improving the lives of the rural poor by educating them.

BRAC is based on the principle of self-help through education, reaching out to a wide range of development sectors, including poverty eradication, health care, agricultural support, human rights, legal services, microfinance and enterprise development.

Over the last 40 years, BRAC has contributed directly to the education of over 10 million students.

A 11-person committee compiled a short list – from among over 100 nominations – to a jury of five distinguished individuals, including Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Dr James Billington, librarian of the U.S. Congress and former director of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, and Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali al-Thani, chairman of WISE and the Qatar Foundation.

Launched in 2009, WISE is an initiative of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development and supported by a network of six partners: Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF), the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), the Institute of International Education (IIE), the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP), RAND Corporation and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

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