February 6, 2013 by Snigdha Ali
The auditorium was full, the anticipation palpable, and the speaker keenly waiting to talk about his mentor in front of an enthusiast audience – that’s how the mid-morning of the Hartal day looked like for us at BRAC yesterday. Dr. Laurence Simon1 presented a seminar on ‘Paulo Freire and the Subaltern Consciousness’ at the BRAC Centre on the 5th of February. Some seminar it was! Deeply influenced by Freire, Larry Simon once again reminded us how important ‘freedom’ is. Freedom from unawareness, freedom from exploitation, freedom from poverty, freedom from oppression. In fact, looking at the foundation and evolution of BRAC one can easily see that BRAC not only subscribes to this value, but is still very much rooted in this ideology.
Paulo Freire was a Brazilian philosopher, educator and an influential theorist of critical pedagogy. His groundbreaking work in ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ published in 1970 changed the way disenfranchisement or poverty or underdevelopment was viewed by many. Freire believed that society was divided in two groups – the oppressor and the oppressed, and that it is the oppressed who will have to struggle and attain freedom from oppression. The process of struggle is important and intrinsically related to the emancipation of the oppressed. Any solution imposed by the oppressor cannot sustain. The struggle and gained strength of the oppressed will eventually change the reality for all, and will compel the oppressor to respond and adapt. That in turn will reshape the struggle itself. The social tyranny is the source of power which will ultimately lead to freedom. The power of the oppressed thus will come from the oppression itself. That is the dialectic of freedom. Larry Simon rightly says “What a conundrum he presents!”
Growing up at a time when both Catholicism and Marxism were the two main sources of intellectual provenance in Brazil, Freiere’s philosophy must have been influenced by both. He believed that poverty was not an inescapable destiny, the poor did not exist in an apolitical situation. And that, the ‘false generosity’ expressed by the oppressor just perpetuates the exploitation and does not end it. To help humanity, one must begin with an understanding of ‘dehumanizaion’. The poor must become aware of their limiting social reality. Not even well-intended interventions can lift them out of dehumanization, only a process of raising awareness and consciousness will enable them to do so. His notion of ‘conscientization’ of the poor laid out the ideological foundation of the NGOs in Bangladesh during the 70s and 80s.
Larry remembers coming to Bangladesh for the first time about 21 years back. He visited Salla at that time, the place where BRAC began its journey. After talking to a group of women in Salla, Larry was surprised to see how outspoken those village women were. He asked Sir Fazle Hasan Abed – the founder of BRAC, what could be the reason behind this unexpected out of the norm behavior in a society like Bangladesh. Sir Abed answered, it was because of Freire! BRAC adhered to the philosophy of Freire from the very beginning and its values are embedded in empowering the socially disenfranchised and realizing potential for the underprivileged. As Sir Abed has said: “People are poor because they are powerless. We must organize people for power. They must organize themselves so that they may change their lives.”
Larry believes that Freire’s conscientization is the source of agency in today’s development world. BRAC has a number of programs which reflects the agency building processes quite visibly. The barefoot lawyers, the shasthyo shebikas, the BRAC school teachers, the recipients of the ultra poor program – all are agents of change. The small and medium entrepreneurs who initiate business ventures with the loan from our Microfinance program, or the adolescent girls who are given a safe social place to exercise their potential by the Adolescent Development Program – make us believe in dreams coming true.
The seminar by Larry was an “intellectual treat”, as Faustina Pereira, director of Human Rights and Legal Services, BRAC justly puts it. His articulation of a seemingly difficult subject was so eloquent, so engaging that the audience lost track of time. Larry made us look back and revisit the philosophical underpinning of BRAC, the reason behind what we do. He once again made us realize that no matter what, liberation from social evils, emancipation from social disadvantages has to come from within.
 Professor Simon is Professor of International Development and Director of Graduate Programs in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management and has worked extensively in development in organisations such as Oxfam and the UN. He has been associated with such figures as Gunnar Myrdal, Paulo Freire, and Archbishop Helder Camara.