Korvi Rakshand is a Dhaka rich kid with a ready, gap-toothed grin and a seemingly boundless reserve of energy. Four years ago, aged 21, with a newly minted British law degree in hand, he decided that rather than entering his dad’s business, he was going to start a school for underprivileged kids.
Together with half a dozen like minded friends - all of them around the same age - he founded Jaago, an NGO dedicated to education for the poor. Pooling their “pocket money”, the youngsters started out renting a small room in a poor area in Dhaka. Today, there are classrooms spread out over two floors, teaching 360 kids in two shifts, so the kids can work a few hours to help the family income.
The education is completely free with each child's schooling funded by individual sponsors who pay BDT 100 (1 euro) a month. Every three months the donor gets a progress report on the child they’re sponsoring. “They never stop the payments” said Korvi, “because they feel engaged with the child’s development.” In addition, all the children and their families get free medical check-ups and, for a tiny sum, can insure themselves for medicines.
"Our business or your madness"
Korvi’s family thought he’d “grow out of” his youthful idealism and eventually come to his senses. He didn’t. Eighteen months ago, his parents gave him an ultimatum: “our business or your madness”, so he packed his stuff and moved out. Today he occupies a small, windowless room at the school, which he admits is handy, “I’m always here anyway”.
Each year, Jaago staff go into the community and interview the families of that year’s potential student body. There are a few essential requirements: the child must pass an IQ test and one for their motoric abilities; the child needs to come from a family earning less than BDT 6000 (60 euros) a month; the child has to be of an age to start at kindergarden level and no older; and the parents must be ready to commit to that child’s education with no messing about. If a child misses more than four or five days of school, they’ll be issued a warning and then they’re out. “I have a thousand kids on the waiting list,” says Korvi.“I can’t waste the places.”
Rice for schooling
When Jaago first started there was a great suspicion in the community. What was a group of rich kids doing in the slum? What did they want with the children of rickshaw pullers, domestic servangs and garment workers? How long would they last? Jaago had to lure kids to the school by offering lunch and half a kilo of rice per child per month.
Then several months in, the landlord came to Korvi shouting that the rent was late and that he’d kick them out if it happened again. One of the girl students overheard the exchange and went back to her class with the information. A delegation of students – ages six or seven – came to Korvi to tell him that they’d forego the half kilo of rice. “They wanted the school to go on and wanted me to use their rice money to help with the rent”, says Korvi with his wide grin.
Rich kids selling flowers
Now Jaago has no shortage of would be sponsors; their numbers are limited by the school's annual intake of students. But even in the early days, when there was a desperate need for money, the school’s board – none of them are over 26 – maintained strict rules of engagement. There was to be no international donor, no corporate interests and definitely no government interests because “they’d all want us to do it their way.” Instead, Korvi and his gang had some pretty firm ideas of their own. The classrooms of Jaago are decorated with letters strung on ropes, and posters and drawings to make learning a fun experience. There are computers, games, and motivated young teachers and staff, each of whom could be earning stiff salaries somewhere else, but who have decided that this is the place they want to be.
A couple of years ago, the Jaago team decided to give a new meaning to Universal Children's Day. They invited 1000 of Dhaka’s working kids to a day off. The kids, under the supervision of volunteers, had a wild day at an amusement park while 2000 volunteers – almost all of them, young people from privileged backgrounds – took to the streets in yellow t-shirts to take over their jobs, selling flowers on the roads. Young people used to air conditioned SUVs, roamed the hot streets knocking on car windows to raise money and awareness. Korvi himself was astonished at the response: “In six hours we raised 24 lakhs (BDT 240,000 or 2,600 euros). We had motorists giving us 10,000 taka for a rose."
The effort was such a huge success that it’s been repeated yearly, earning incrementally higher amounts. The movement spread like wildfire on Facebook and other networking sites, with so many thousands of young people wanting to be part of it that it will be repeated in three cities around the country this year.
It’s a sign that Jaago is more than a small school for a few hundred children. Jaago is an idea, a seed that’s being planted in the minds of the kinds of young people who will be the power brokers of Bangladesh in the future; an idea that an unfair system can be changed if you’re willing to try to change it.