All will agree that, as a Greek philosopher once said, “the foundation of every state is the education of its youth.” Yet, education continues to be an issue. In most countries, governments do not (or cannot) invest in it enough to meet the demand, and problems of quality, capacity, and access limit education’s potential as the foundation of healthy, dynamic, and democratic societies.
In Bangladesh, one of the world’s most populated countries, education is critical in addressing widespread poverty as well as sustaining and fueling the remarkable economic advances the country has been making in recent years. This is the challenge that thirty-eight-year-old Korvi Rakshand has taken up. He led a privileged, socially sheltered life, earned a law degree from the University of London, and seemed destined for a lucrative career in law or business, when he had a life-changing moment. Exploring a country he had not quite seen up close, he came upon a group of children scavenging for scraps in a dump. He spent some time playing with them, shared food out of empathy, and as he was walking away, a little girl approached him and asked him to take her home with him since she had none. This shocked him and left him feeling so helpless and guilty, he soon made up his mind about what he really wanted to do with his life.
He convinced six friends to join him in a project to teach English to poor children so they will have the chance to get jobs in Dhaka’s growing industry. With a rented room in the Rayer Bazar slums of Dhaka, furnished with nothing but a carpet, plus a whiteboard and marker, they taught their first set of seventeen students. Thus began JAAGO Foundation (the Bangla word means “wake up”), a non-profit organization established in 2007 that aimed to address problems of access and quality education for underprivileged children.
From such small beginnings, it has grown into one of the largest, most dynamic non-profit organizations in its field in Bangladesh. With education as its core program, it provides free of cost, government-recognized English-language primary and secondary education to underprivileged children through eleven traditional and online schools in ten districts of Bangladesh. Students are provided free uniforms and school supplies, food, personal hygiene items, health check-ups, and medicines. Located in rural areas, its online schools operate in the same way as traditional schools except that teachers deliver lectures from the JAAGO’s teachers’ center in Dhaka, using video conferencing technology. Students watch on big screens and interact with the teachers. Trained facilitators are present onsite to assist and monitor the students. JAAGO is pioneering in exploiting technology to address problems of access in hard to reach areas and the shortage of qualified teachers. Starting from that one classroom with seventeen students, JAAGO now has 206 classrooms and has reached 30,000 students.
JAAGO’s success and rising reputation as a change maker have enabled its expansion into other engagements. A major initiative is its Volunteer for Bangladesh (VBD) program, established in 2011. It seeks to involve the youth in positive social change through capacity building, youth led community participatory campaigns, mobilization for humanitarian assistance to build a skilled Bangladesh. This has stoked such wide enthusiasm that VBD is now a movement of 50,000 youth leaders. JAAGO’s programs have evolved into other themes, such as women empowerment and children’s rights, climate change, democracy & governance.
Illustrations of its dynamism is that it has set up a “Safe Haven Project” that supports the physical and mental well-being of the children of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in the sprawling Cox’s Bazar camp in Bangladesh.
The driving force behind all these is Korvi Rakshand, whose innovative, enterprising, and bold leadership has enabled JAAGO to build a network of support from donors, sponsors, and partners in government and the private sector, in Bangladesh and abroad, and more importantly, the popular participation of Bangladeshis themselves in their country’s social transformation. Venturing outside of his sheltered background, Rakshand started his journey by saying to himself, “Wake up!”—and, in the process of truly seeing—has awakened others as well. He said, “We wanted to start a movement. We were young, we were activists. It was a movement of young people. We said, ‘Wake up, it’s time to wake up. Not from your dreams but from (within) your heart.’”
In electing Korvi Rakshand to receive the 2023 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his determined spirit and quiet courage in turning away from a secure life to a more demanding one of working for the underprivileged; his strong, visionary leadership in democratizing education and inspiring thousands of young people to heed the call of social transformation, and for thus demonstrating how the young can be not just the bearers of the promise of the nation, but its realization.