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Bangladesh is the land of a people who believe in and are committed to the idea of inclusion in every aspect of life. Our history is a product of unique geographical and climatic features that has over the centuries encouraged the arrival of many peoples and groups, ideas and faiths in this land. Consequently, we have an inclusive and mixed social, racial and ethnic identity. This land, dominated by one of the largest deltas in the world, has drawn people from all over the region. We all together constitute the country known as Bangladesh today.

We therefore envisioned an inclusive State when Bangladesh became independent in 1971. In the years since then, we have tried to make the idea a cornerstone of our national aspirations. We believe that development can be meaningful only when it includes everyone. Rights and services must be accessible to all.

Today, despite facing more challenges than ever before, Bangladesh is doing remarkably well. At a time of global recession, Bangladesh has achieved a high growth rate and can potentially do even better. This economic growth has been more inclusive in Bangladeshi society than in most other places.

“The established co-relationship between the status of women and welfare of children means that, by focusing on women, we can impact children’s lives as well.”

In this process of inclusion, the poor play a major role. The poor are an enormously powerful group with the capacity to change history. They overcome incredible challenges on a daily basis. The fact that the first of the Millennium Development Goals, that of halving the global poverty rate, was met five years ahead of schedule, is in large part a testament to the efforts and tenacity of the poor themselves, particularly women.

Governments, donors and civil society have played their part by creating the enabling conditions, but it is the poor who have done (and continue to do) the hard work of defeating poverty. With that in mind, our objective when formulating the next round of development goals, was to ensure that everyone, rich and poor, had access to opportunities to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life.

I believe this is a historic moment. For the first time in history, people truly believe in the possibility of removing poverty from the face of the earth within a few generations. If we are to do this, however, we must confront the challenge of rising inequality.

Inequality and “accident of birth”

What do we mean by inequality? How much of it is caused by the “accident of birth”. None of us has control over this. Whether we were born into a family that is wealthy or poor is a matter of chance. We have seen many promising people born into poverty, who missed the chance to realise their life’s potential merely because of the accident of their birth. So the impact of chance and accidents must be offset by the availability of opportunities.

There is much debate today about rising inequality, in both richer and poorer countries. Some think we should focus on equality of opportunity, rather than on equality of income.

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I agree with the idea of equality of opportunity. It is often said that talent is distributed more or less equally around the world, while opportunity is not. The problem, however, is that inequality of opportunity is difficult to disentangle from inequality of wealth.

In most countries, wherever one sees greater inequity in terms of wealth and other material conditions, one tends to see less social mobility – and therefore more inequality of opportunity.

For example, I do not think we have paid enough attention to quality when it comes to education, although this is a critical factor when it comes to creating greater opportunities for achieving equity and equality. We must have positive and targeted interventions to reduce inequality.

As we move to implement the Sustainable Development Goals, we must not look at our track record through rose-tinted spectacles. Yes, we have halved the poverty rate. But we have also failed to achieve the second Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education. Progress seems to have stalled at a little over 90 percent.

In my opinion, this number does not even describe the true depth of the problem, for it fails to address the issue of quality, which is too often treated as an afterthought in our discussions. In most of the poorer countries, the quality of state schooling leaves much to be desired.

Even children privileged enough to have access to a classroom often do not receive a good education. Of 650 million primary-school-aged boys and girls, an estimated 250 million will not learn to read or count, regardless of whether they have gone to school.

As a result of concerns regarding quality, many parents have understandably chosen to invest in private tutors for their children. This tilts the scales against children from poorer families even more.

Focusing on enrolment rates is not enough. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we must move the quality question to the top of the agenda.

Graduation of the poorest adults

Graduation is a concept that applies to both children and adults and in every sphere of life.

For decades at BRAC, we have sought to improve the lives of the poorest, often failing in the effort to do so. In 2001 we launched a program called “targeting the ultra-poor” that began showing remarkable results. It is a carefully sequenced set of measures, including healthcare, assets such as livestock, stipend support, livelihood training and intensive coaching.

The aim is to “graduate” the poorest (or ultra-poor, as we call them) onto the economic ladder within two years.

Of the 1.4 million women who have gone through this program, about 95% have graduated from a rigorously-defined category of ultra-poverty. Not only that, independent research shows they stay out, even two years after they’ve left the program.

This is a program that BRAC is keen to share with the world. Other groups have already begun doing similar graduation work. Overseen by the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), this methodology has been replicated in at least eight countries. All have shown good results through evaluations using randomised control trials.

In May 2015, Science magazine published the outstanding results of a massive six-country study, following 21,000 people in graduation programs similar to BRAC’s. Most participants have graduated from ultra-poverty and have taken the first steps towards graduating from poverty altogether. They’re on the pathway up from poverty – and they’re not going back.

I believe this is happening because we are igniting the spark of hope in people. When people see that they can change their lives for the better through their own efforts, things start to change. Their true potential is unlocked.

So what are the main lessons for us in the struggle to end inequality?

Simplicity: The important and most difficult part is the delivery: We need to figure out how to deliver these services effectively and efficiently.

Solutions for both young and old: The “accident of birth” affects adults just as much as it does children. We needn’t wait for an entire generation to achieve more equal opportunities. Many of the participants in the graduation program are older. Many are widowed. Yet we have shown that even people who have already spent a lifetime trapped in poverty are able to graduate to a better quality of life.

Reduction of disparity doesn’t happen automatically, however. It requires direct intervention and that can be effectively carried out only under the leadership of the Government through the formulation and application of appropriate public policies.

The existing achievement in various economic sectors has been the result of an excellent public-private partnership between the Government and civil society organisations. This robust arrangement between these two forces has led to many dramatic strides in inclusive poverty reduction. And it’s through this formula that we can best hope to deliver results in our quest for equitable prosperity and development for all.

Bangladesh’s capacity for economic development against all odds has been proven. The focus now needs to shift to those left out of the socio-economic surge. Inclusion is not a slogan but a critical tool for equitable development.

The most important excluded group in any situation is women. Thus, unless parity is achieved for women in all indicators, we can claim only limited progress. The established co-relationship between the status of women and welfare of children means that, by focusing on women, we can impact children’s lives as well.

We must address the needs of both the poor and the extreme poor. Extreme poverty has been cut in half during the last decade, largely due to the efforts of rural Bangladeshi women. They remain a critical force for development and have never been as important in the country’s history as they are today.

Besides women, ethnic and sexual minorities, religious minorities and those marginalised by geographical location are all left behind in the development paradigm because they lack access to rights and resources. In addition, the elderly population is often excluded from a variety of services, advantages and resources. The process of exclusion must be reversed in every sector to achieve universal development. A commitment to inclusion is at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals, which promise to build a world in which no one is left behind.

It is never too late to ignite the spark of hope that will free people from poverty, ensure quality education, and guarantee rights for all, including development.

It is to these ideas, so necessary in these times that we remain committed, indeed to their realisation in practical terms.

abedSir Fazle hasan Abed is founder and chairperson of Bangladesh-based BRAC, the world’s largest non-governmental organisation with operations in Afghanistan, Africa and other countries, and winner of many international awards for his contribution to poverty reduction, healthcare and micro-finance.