Delivered at the 2013 Commencement of Central European University
13 June, 2013
Palace of the Arts, Budapest, Hungary
I’d like to begin by thanking the Central European University for bestowing upon me the Open Society Prize. What a great honour, and a wonderful opportunity to deliver a commencement address at this great university.
I have recently been re-reading The Open Society and its Enemies, the book after which the Open Society Prize is named, whose author, Karl Popper, was the prize’s first recipient. I first read this book 50 years ago, when I was much closer in age to those in this graduating class.
It was a different time and place. My country, Bangladesh, had not yet achieved independence, and the world’s great powers were locked in a struggle between freedom and totalitarianism. But what strikes me today is how relevant many of Popper’s prescriptions still are – particularly for my own field, which is the alleviation of poverty.
To those about to graduate, it is likely that most of you, at some point in your lives, will question whether the path you have taken was the correct one. For me, this moment came following the cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1970, an event that is still considered one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.
I was working at the time for a large multinational corporation, a valuable experience in its own right. I remember visiting coastal villages struck by the cyclone, seeing hundreds of dead bodies strewn on the ground. It seemed to me the life I was leading was completely irrelevant.
After my country’s independence, I began working to try to help the poor in Bangladesh. My early colleagues and I initially thought that BRAC would be a short-term effort. But the realities of entrenched poverty soon changed our minds. We began working in a host of areas – agriculture, healthcare, human rights, microfinance, education – wherever the poor faced obstacles.
We found that poverty was so entrenched that only a long-term effort of social and economic transformation would uproot it. And this task became my life’s work.
I have learned much along the way. Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that when you create the right conditions, poor people will do the hard work of defeating poverty themselves.
I learned the importance of having lamps to illuminate your path, even when the precise course is unclear. For me, one of these lamps was Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, who wrote a book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which had a profound effect on me. Freire's idea of conscientisation, or raising critical consciousness, informed us in our belief that poor people, especially women, can be organised for power, and that with right set of organisational tools, they can become actors in history.
This, to me, is the meaning of an open society – a society where everyone has the freedom to realise their full potential and human rights.
I’ve also learned the importance testing assumptions, of making sure your ideals correspond to the reality around you.
BRAC was founded with very high ideals, in part to fulfil the promises of our country’s liberation movement – the promise of freedom from exploitation. But if these ideals inspired us, we’ve always tried to focus on what works, rather than our theories about what should work.
This pragmatism has allowed us to translate compassion into action on a massive scale. Today, BRAC reaches almost 130 million people in 11 countries.
We’ve seen that without scepticism, scientific inquiry, and the constant questioning of one’s assumptions, the highest ideals will falter when tested against reality. In the words of Karl Popper, among the enemies of open society is the notion of “prophetic wisdom,” the type of knowledge that leaves little room for doubt. In contrast to utopian goals, Popper embraced “piecemeal social engineering” – solutions that are effective, even if they are not the most elegant.
There is an element of that in BRAC – in its willingness to adapt, in its constant innovation, and in its willingness to learn from its own mistakes. After more than 40 years, we are still a learning organisation.
The vision of BRAC is a world free from all forms of exploitation and discrimination. I am sometimes asked if such a world is really possible – whether I believe that poverty can be truly eradicated. The truth is, I believe it can be.
Ladies and gentlemen, we can see today that poverty is on the retreat. Recent statistics from the World Bank show that in every region of the world, the number of people living in extreme poverty is dropping for the first time in recent memory.
But to borrow Popper’s phrase, there is no prophetic wisdom in this fact. The eradication of human poverty remains an ongoing and arduous task rather than historical certainty, and much work remains. And I invite you to bring your own creativity and potential to this task.
Therefore, is it with both optimism and humility that I accept the Open Society Prize, and I wish the graduating class my sincere congratulations. May you all find a meaningful path, illuminated by high ideals, guided by constant learning.