Technology and Empowerment: Fulfilling the Green Revolution’s promise to disrupt systems of suffering.
When I began working with farmers struggling with poverty in 1972, I was a young accountant, fresh from a job in the finance department of Shell Oil. I had lofty ideas of how I could help transform our new nation, Bangladesh, which was then one of the poorest countries on earth. I thought that if we could empower the poor by providing services like livelihood training, literacy classes and health and family planning, they would be able to vanquish the extreme poverty and hunger they had endured for far too long.
The world was quite a different place then. Bangladesh had gone through a bloody war for independence, and the world’s great powers were locked in a struggle between freedom and totalitarianism. The Green Revolution was still in its infancy, but we knew the vast promise it held for it had already delivered spectacular increases in cereal crop yields in India, West Pakistan and the Philippines; for this, Norman Borlaug had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
We were therefore optimistic—sometimes overly so. I told our first donor, Oxfam, that we would eradicate illiteracy in our intervention area within three years, which proved to be an unrealistic goal. Just gaining people’s trust was a huge task. Many of the lessons I had learned about top-down management in the private sector did not apply in rural development, which relied for its success on participatory decision-making.
I called this organisation BRAC, for Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. We set up demonstration farms, completely staffed by BRAC personnel, to show people how to grow new crops, including vegetables some of them had never seen before. The sight of young university graduates planting and ploughing the fields brought sniggers of amusement from the villagers, who seemed to think we were dirtying our hands just for the fun of it. It was only after they saw the yields at our demonstration farms that they began to listen to us.
Even then, progress was slow. Irrigation was not the norm in Bangladesh at the time, and bringing tube-well irrigation to rain-fed fields would prove to be a tremendous hurdle in the coming decades. The deeply ingrained habits of farmers would also not change overnight.
A glance at the numbers shows how far we have come since then. In 1973, Bangladesh produced just ten million tonnes of rice from nine million hectares of cultivated land—a paltry yield that was not nearly enough to feed our people. Today, the amount of cultivated land has shrunk by some measures, due to the crowding of homes, roads and industrial infrastructure, yet we managed to produce 35.5 million tonnes of rice in the market year 2016-2017.
What has changed? To start with, nearly 100 percent of rural farmers now go to school and therefore have at least some ability to read and write, which means they are more receptive to new ideas and technologies, including high-yielding seeds, fertilizers and pest-management systems. We have built dramatically more effective delivery mechanisms for seeds. In 1998, BRAC began importing hybrid rice seeds from China and field-testing them for viability in different ecological zones. We now market 12 varieties of hybrid rice in Bangladesh, including four developed at our own research center. This seed enterprise generates a surplus of around $2 million annually, about half of which we reinvest in the enterprise itself; the remainder helps fund our other, non-profit-making development efforts, such as schools and healthcare.
The Green Revolution did happen eventually, but it is not yet finished. We continue to bring better systems and technologies to the poor in Bangladesh and other regions of the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, recent randomized controlled trials have shown the effectiveness of pro-poor agriculture service delivery, in which seeds and other valuable inputs are distributed through self-employed, trained “community agriculture promoters” who generate extra income for themselves by charging a small margin on the goods they sell to their neighbours.
These are but a few examples of how the effective delivery of technology and empowerment can end patterns of suffering that have prevailed for centuries. We humans have called into question the fatalistic belief, prevalent throughout our history, that widespread misery is inevitable. No longer do people assume that hunger, poverty, seasonal famine, the oppression of women and the marginalization of great portions of society are simply aspects of the human experience, perhaps even ordained by some higher power. The Green Revolution gives people the power to disrupt these systems of suffering, forever.