Abed bhai –Fazle Hasan Abed – and I go back to 1986 when the informal-formal education debate had become important in the development world. I was then with Unicef and Bangladesh was getting into the initiative in a big way. However, there was a big debate on the issue and many were opposed to informal education.
This came most from those who sought validation in the official system and anything that was not governmental was considered less.
Although in the 1971 liberation war, it’s the informal sector –common people – who played a very significant role, if not the most significant, they are erased from official and academic historical narratives. Our denial of the informal is rooted in the “invader as savior” mentality whereupon we have looked to the raja/sharakar bahadur as the primary source of legitimacy.
Thus the debate between the formal and the informal is often about the political imagination of power. Does it belong to the people or the amlas. This includes the education sector. Within Unicef also, most supported the GOB. I was one of the few who supported the informal space. My experience of 1971 was a major factor I presume.
The China conversation
In 1989, a team went from Bangladesh to China to a major UN conference on education. Cole Dodge of Unicef, Abed bhai of BRAC and several others including myself were there. When Abed bhai made his presentation on informal education, it was met with some skepticism as too ambitious. But to me it was obvious that a bigger battle was on about the role and nature of the state and society.
As we visited the villages of Guangzhou, it became obvious that these villages had much greater freedom than people outside China would think. In fact, the official China seemed quite absent here. This included not only multi-child families which Beijing had officially banned but even ancestral worship. Large urns carrying ashes of the dead were in earthen holes poking out of mountain earth.
Abed bhai asked me on the bus back what I thought of it all.
“They have managed to mobilize people without interfering too much with their lives," was my response.
He smiled and said,”They have not imposed the formal system on the villages. They have kept the doors open. And that has worked. “
He was capturing the wisdom learnt from his own experience. As a freedom fighter he had organized the blowing up of the Karachi port using mercenaries in 1971 but at the request of PM Tajuddin Ahmed donated the money to the Mujibnagar government fund as it was more needed. The 1971 Government was itself an excellent example of mixing the formal and the informal.
Abed bhai understood that lesson in the 70s also when the ORS campaign became such a success. Later the informal education programme also worked and was ultimately undertaken by the GOB itself. It shows that it’s this alliance between the two socio- cultural spaces that makes things work best.