Muhammad Ibrahim Sobhan
BangladeshFellow since 1989

Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.

Mohammad Ibrahim Sobhan, the first Ashoka Fellow in Bangladesh, launched an innovative organization called the Association for School Based Education (ASBE) that is improving rural primary education for Bangladeshi children attending government, non-government and community schools.

The Person

Ibrahim is a physicist whose interest in and flare for popularizing science and technology goes back to his school days when he founded Bijnan Shamuyki, still the country’s leading popular science magazine. Later he also played a role in launching and leading Bangladesh’s science club movement.

The New Idea

Ibrahim is using appropriate, economically viable technology as a means of making education attractive to the children of the very poor and to their parents. He hopes this low cost, effective educational alternative will ultimately also prove as attractive to government and become a part of the country's formal system. His schools, which are all day schools, are designed for and accept only the children of the countryside’s very poor. As soon as they arrive it engages them in mastering a locally usable technology. For the very young it might be candle- or soap-making or managing a tree nursery. For somewhat older children it might be technical drawing, poultry science, or repair and maintenance of diesel pumps. As soon as possible, the students start earning. Thus on a typical afternoon small groups of Ibrahim’s engine maintenance students will be out in the fields taking apart and repairing their clients’ diesel irrigation pumps. For products like soap that are more readily sold through the market, Ibrahim has developed brand names and marketing arrangements shared by his growing number of youthful producers. Having thus engaged his students (and won their parents’ respect for the usefulness of what they are learning), Ibrahim goes on. One skill leads to another, and they all quickly give these young people powerful, tangible reasons to learn to read, write, and calculate. It takes Ibrahim typically three years to produce literate, technically productive graduates. And he is able to do so at very significantly less cost per child than the relatively ineffectual (especially for children like these) official schools. Having demonstrated the idea, Ibrahim is now working to institutionalize and spread it. For each twenty basic schools (each with roughly fifty students) he is establishing a Rural Technology Centre to deal with older children, to provide training in more complex technologies, and to provide continuing backup and support to the basic schools. At the Center he is building a small group to manage the system, to handle cross-cutting functions such as product marketing, and to develop promising new appropriate, practical technologies the schools can use.

The Problem

In Bangladesh, education seems a luxury, a high-risk investment that the poorest usually feel they cannot afford. Even if a poor family can manage the cost of books, uniforms, etc. and of foregoing a child's work at home or for wages, there is little assurance that schooling will ultimately lead to a better life. Even a high school degree is no guarantee that a child will not become a laborer in the fields. The education that students receive often has little relevance outside the classroom, leaving them with few market skills. It is not surprising that children from landless families either never enter school or dropout well before they become functionally literate.

The Strategy

Ibrahim’s educational success in essence rests on his engaging poor students and their families in ways they understand and that in fact make sense for them and the world in which they live. He is providing practical technical and economic literacy, not just preparation for a government clerk job or college. Ibrahim’s approach works. Now his task is to systematize it, to make it easy and attractive for others to use, and to persuade them to do so. He is hard at work both institutionalizing his own already substantial program and developing materials and articulate procedures others could readily take up. He is just now, for example, completing a set of training materials for basic school teachers. He is also working to build support for his approach in the universities and among those in the government responsible for defining the country's standardized curriculum.