The following blog is an excerpted speech given by President and CEO Alex Counts at the inauguration of AIF’s eleventh chapter in Philadelphia at its first Annual Gala on November 18, 2016. Alex reflects on his three decades of work in poverty alleviation in South Asia and discusses AIF’s role in educational innovation in the context of mass poverty reduction in India.
It takes something special to get something as significant as an event like this, and an AIF chapter, off the ground. To attempt to launch something for the first time takes tremendous effort and courage – courage, because the possibility of failure is real.
So please join me in applauding everyone who worked so hard to make this event happen and make it so successful. So, Philadelphia, welcome to the American India Foundation family! I am actually quite new myself. I joined as the CEO just eight months ago. I’d like to tell you why I joined this great organization.
Are you familiar with the idea of “paying your dues”? I know that many of you have paid your dues in your professions, or in the arts, or in raising a family. You’ve done lots of unglamorous grunt-work that has allowed you to build on whatever natural talent you had. It gives you capabilities and credibility. Today, as a result, you see thing clearly and are able to accomplish things easily, compared to someone who has not putting in that time and effort.
Well, I have not paid my dues in many fields of human endeavor, but I have in one: in the work of reducing poverty in South Asia. How did I go about paying my dues? I lived for six years in South Asia, mostly in remote rural villages without electricity, running water, or other conveniences. I lived with people who only knew what it was like to experience the conditions of extreme poverty. I shared their food, their diseases, and their culture. At one point my weight dropped to 25 pounds less than what it is today – I was like a walking skeleton.
More importantly, I had thousands of conversations – over thousands of cups of tea, and more tea, and more tea – with people living on the margins of existence. Many of those conversations were in their native language. It allowed me to see the world through their eyes, and gave me insights into which well-intended programs change lives, and which don’t.
Later in my career, as I assumed positions of leadership in the international humanitarian sector, I became a decision-maker. I made some good decisions, and a few really bad ones. (Of course, I thought they were all good when I made them!) I learned how and why certain assumptions about what can change poverty prove true, and how some prove to be mirages.
I studied best practices, and I launched initiatives and organizations, including two in India. Some thrived and still are, years later; some did not. Throughout it all, I kept learning. And coming back to AIF, which I have chosen to spend the next phase of my career serving, I believe that it has gotten a lot right in its 15 years of existence.
Rather than focus on a single intervention or thematic area, it recognized that poverty is complex and requires a holistic response. It works in three areas, and in my judgment, the right three areas: public health, childhood education, and livelihoods.
During those thousands of conversations I had with the poor of South Asia, it didn’t take long for people to zero in on those three issues as central to their aspirations. They wanted to figure out how to educate their children, how to get affordable treatment when they fell ill, and how to earn enough to put food on the table and stash away a little for a rainy day.
The other thing that attracted me to AIF was how it approached these thematic areas. What I saw was excellent program design, innovation, solid and at times excellent execution in difficult environments, awareness and use of best practices, and a commitment to sharing its intellectual property so other organizations could use those insights for humanitarian ends.
The last thing that struck me about AIF was that while it realized that the work of eliminating poverty in India is serious, it can also be approached joyfully and in a celebratory way. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, since Indians and people like me with affinity for India … well, we just like to party!
In closing, let me note that unlike some public figures, I actually like to read books. The most recent book I read was written by one of tonight’s speakers, Raj Gupta. It’s title is Eight Dollars and a Dream: My American Journey. I loved it and highly recommend it. One of Raj’s life mantras mentioned in the books is, work hard, play fair, and seize opportunities. Wise words. For me, they also capture how AIF operates.
One of the most charming and unique parts of the book is where Raj lets friends, colleagues and family members comment, at length, about him in their own words. These passages give the book a richness and credibility that many memoirs lack. I admire his openness and inclusiveness. These sections reminded me that learning about many things in life benefit from hearing from a diversity of voices and experiences.
Tonight, we will be focusing on one AIF program, LAMP. It is an educational program that uses an innovative approach to ensuring quality education for the children of families where both parents migrate away from their home village for months at a time in search of economic opportunities. I admire AIF’s holistic approach but it would be impossible to do justice to all 7 of AIF’s programs during an evening like this. So we focus on just one.
In the spirit of Raj and his commitment to bringing in diverse voices into a conversation, we had planned to bring a beneficiary of the LAMP program to speak to you tonight. It would have given you a sense of its power to change lives, in a very human way.
But bringing beneficiaries to the U.S. is not easy. It is costly, including the need to bring a bilingual chaperon. It is disruptive to the people who travel, most of whom have not travelled outside of India, or even their district, before in their lives. And sometimes the U.S. government, in its infinite wisdom, does not grant them visa. And that is what happened this time for the person we had lined up to come and speak to you tonight.
So I am going to ask your assistance to use your imagination to create the same kind of effect that our LAMP beneficiary would have. Can you join me?
Let me first ask a question. How many of you derived great benefit from your education? Let me see a show of hands. I’ll bet that you, like me, had a teacher or a subject that touched you and made you a life-long learner. Who or what was that? Think about that for a moment. How did that change the trajectory of your life?
Now, imagine being a child in rural India who has just had the love of learning stoked by some subject or some teacher. And then your parents tell you that you will need to leave school to join them on a trek 300 miles away to work with them for seven months at a construction site, or a brick kiln, or a salt marsh. Somehow, you realize that this is going to an annual event, and that you will likely never get back on the track to completing your education. How do you feel?
Now imagine you are that child’s parents. You are forced, through economic imperatives, to decide between having no income for months at a time and taking your child out of school, replacing learning with back-breaking work they will perform with you. How anguished do you feel?
Now, imagine that you hear about a program that is coming to your village that allows children like yours to stay in school and live in a clean, safe, well-run seasonal hostel staffed by people in the community you know and trust. That same program enables low-income children like yours to attend pre-school and after-school enrichment classes to make sure they keep up.
How do you feel? How grateful are you? How is this opportunity likely to shape the trajectory of your child’s life?
Well, in a nutshell, that is what the LAMP program has been providing for families in rural India for more than decade. We want to do more of it. We want to bring the number of children who leave school because of their parents’ seasonal migration to zero. Zilch. Nothing.
With your help, I know we can.