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Surrounded by Trees and Opinions

Iqbal Quadir '81

What did Swarthmore do for me? It freed my mind.

The lessons I learned at Swarthmore play a larger role in my life than the excellent courses I took there. The College taught me not to rely on standard education, not to drown myself in conventional wisdom, and not to lose sight of what really matters. It was a vital support for me and also an effective model that I was able to use later to solve problems of public service.

To explain that, let me first go back to my childhood and give proper credit to what I learned in rural Bangladesh, where I spent most of 1971-a momentous year in my life-and to my father, who paid a lot of attention to me during my formative years.

I grew up in a middle-class family. My father was a successful lawyer in Jessore, a town of approximately 100,000 in the 1960s. He was exceptionally knowledgeable about the world and its politics and economics. From the time I was about age 9, he enjoyed expounding his views on diverse subjects to me, his most admiring fan. These mind-expanding sessions were the happiest moments of my life.

Then, in 1971, the rhythm of our lives was harshly interrupted by civil war that brought extensive violence, especially in urban areas, and eventually created independent Bangladesh out of the eastern province of Pakistan. The fighting forced us to flee our town to settle in a remote village. Thanks to an absence of good roads and other means of communication, we were protected from the war, which tended to spread along highways, railroads, and rivers. At the same time, I realized that the absence of infrastructure held the people back from economic prosperity. I saw how the quality of life worsened as the war suspended the movement of goods and people. Then, when the war ended, I also saw how conditions improved as people were able to move and communicate again.

That year gave me a sense of life outside the urban pockets in Bangladesh, where only 10 percent of its population lived. In the midst of the sufferings of 1971, my father repeatedly pointed out that the general population, although poor, was the best source of ideas for enhancing its own well-being but was being kept poor by the powerful few, who were also causing the pain of that year.

However, 1971 was only the beginning of my problems. My father died in an accident in 1972. A devastating flood in 1974 put most of Bangladesh under water. Military coups in 1975 created even more uncertainties. As a result, I decided to venture abroad for education and chose America as my destination.

By 1976, when I was 18, I enrolled in a junior college in the American Midwest that waived my tuition fees. My mother found enough money for a plane ticket and a thousand dollars to cover my expenses for the first semester. I came to America without a long-term financial arrangement because I could not have made one. Luckily, my school performance led to increased financial aid and a confident search for a four-year college. In 1978, Swarthmore rescued me with full financial support.

At Swarthmore, I was surrounded by trees and opinions, increasing my respect for both. These trees, wearing their own name tags, had witnessed many debates in the shade of their boughs, and their discreet silence softened those exchanges of opinions. In the dining hall and in dormitories, where the debates were not moderated by trees-or teachers-the exchanges were more heated, and I was challenged from many directions. The result was my realization that the world was more complex than I had thought and that one's views benefit by being checked against those of others.

One such view was that the poverty in Bangladesh was caused merely by a lack of material things. This had led me to major in engineering and to choose Swarthmore because, unlike other liberal arts colleges, it had an Engineering Department. While I completed my degree in engineering, my discussions with students from diverse backgrounds led me to question my pursuit of technical competence. I started reading history and politics. Indeed, today at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where I teach, I pay considerable attention to European medieval history to see how societies began to establish better ways of governing themselves, removing blockages to economic and social progress. In medieval Europe, technological progress allowed people to be more productive and led to the dispersion of power and to better governance. The empowerment of citizens from below led to property rights, capitalism, and democracy.

After Swarthmore, I earned a master's degree in economics from the Wharton School and worked for two years at the World Bank. But my independent study of history made me see a serious disconnect between World Bank-backed, state-led development efforts and the ways in which economies actually have developed. Foreign aid to developing countries that was used to fund state-led efforts empowered authorities, not citizens, centralizing power, as opposed to dispersing it.

I came to the realization that the best way to advance poor countries is to pay attention to their poor citizens directly, by helping them to become more productive and, in turn, to assert their rights. By asserting their rights, they have a louder voice in determining how they should be governed. In contrast, external support that strengthens governments can potentially lead to actions contrary to the needs and wishes of citizens. As I thought about how to provide direct help to citizens, Swarthmore occupied my mind prominently. Its support, which enabled me to study there, was a clear example of private initiative for public good. Swarthmore laid the foundation for my faith in serving public ends through private initiatives, which can act as a countervailing force to public institutions-and a check against their possible abuse-while remaining weak enough to have to prove themselves continually.

Furthermore, appreciating how businesses have historically woven the economic fabric of today's developed countries, I returned to Wharton to pursue an M.B.A., and then worked in investment banking and venture capital in New York in the late 1980s. In the early 1990s, this financial experience, combined with my childhood exposure to rural Bangladesh, prompted me to recognize that the digital revolution could facilitate the introduction of telephones to 100 million people living in that area.

I set out to establish a business to provide these telephones. Many advised me to consider charity and subsidies because poor people lack purchasing power. But I argued that telephones make people more productive and, in turn, give them the necessary purchasing power. I was driven to design a commercial model-with profits as a means, not an end-so that whatever business I succeeded in establishing could sustain itself and expand on its own. It would also demonstrate that poor people needed commercial opportunities, not charity. More important, I was driven to find ways to engage ordinary and poor citizens in commerce, a process through which actual progress can occur, in contrast to large projects pushed by large organizations, which often disengage ordinary citizens and increase poverty.

With these beliefs, I was drawn to Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which provides small loans to poor people and engages them in tiny commercial projects (e.g., taking care of a cow and selling milk) that generated income for them. My study of the bank led me to conceive of an effective way of distributing telephone services. Borrowers of the bank could use loans to purchase handsets and retail telephone services in their communities. It would create both self-employment opportunities and connectivity.

I moved back to Bangladesh in 1994 to start persuading Grameen Bank to participate in this effort and to search globally for telephone companies and funding sources to join the project, which later became known as GrameenPhone. With seed funds from individual investors in America, I was eventually able to organize a consortium involving eight different organizations from many parts of the world, including the Norwegian telephone company Telenor and Grameen Bank. I needed to build a large network to achieve economies of scale, allowing it to serve many people at low costs. The total investment is now approaching $300 million (starting with $120 million in 1997), with additional funds coming from the company's own profits. With nearly 800,000 subscribers, revenues reached $150 million in 2002.

GrameenPhone's rural program is already available in more than 25,000 villages, providing telephone access to 40 million people. It also means that there are 25,000 microentrepreneurs who, on average, net $2 per day, an amount that is twice the per capita income of the country.

Even though this project appears to be a contemporary technical solution, it actually emerged from a historical perspective for which I owe much to Swarthmore. The school freed my mind so that I was no longer overwhelmed by technical solutions per se or by projects pushed by the strong but rather could keep my eyes on the human priorities that I had learned about from rural Bangladesh and from my father.

Iqbal Quadir, whose special interest is the democratizing effects of technologies in developing countries, teaches at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.