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Socially conscious Bangladeshi businesses seek to help poor students

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Financial aid helps gifted students realise their potential, contributes to Bangladesh's socioeconomic development, and prevents young people from falling prey to religious extremism.

By Shahriar Sharif

Dhaka: A day in 1997 changed the life of Mizanur Rahman forever.

The young man had enrolled at Dhaka University, but lacked the financial resources to complete his degree. He was going to have to quit and return to his home village in the district of Jessore, just over 100km southwest of Dhaka. A story in a leading daily newspaper, the Daily Janakantha, reported on his plight and caught the attention of those in a position to help.

The morning after the newspaper article appeared, Rahman saw half a dozen shiny cars parked outside his dorm at the university. A group of wealthy individuals, mostly corporate bosses, had come to provide assistance. With their help, Rahman finished his studies and later entered the civil service.

"I can never repay their debt," Rahman, now 37, told Khabar South Asia. "I'll try to give back to the society by helping impoverished students like me so that they can go to college and earn a degree."

Assistance blunts the appeal of extremist groups

In recent years, Bangladesh has seen an upsurge in the number of wealthy individuals and business establishments who seek to provide aid to promising, but impoverished, young students, Analysts say the trend is part of an emerging culture of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

"This is indeed a very encouraging development. It is not only helping poor students but at the same time, it's contributing to the country's socioeconomic advancement," Abul Barakat, professor of economics at Dhaka University, told Khabar.

It also helps curb the influence of Islamic fundamentalism, he said, because students from poor backgrounds are frequently targeted for recruitment by radical Islamists, who offer financial support as an incentive.

Business ventures affiliated with radical Islamist groups make about $250m annually, said Barakat, citing findings from his research on the financial strength of Islamist parties. "A substantial part of that money goes to brainwash the poor students," he added.

"The overwhelming presence of Islamist student bodies in many colleges and universities are an upshot of that effort," he said.

A broad spectrum of opportunities

The business sector, through its growing interest in CSR, may be able to defeat the extremists at their own game. Not only is more financial assistance becoming available, but the opportunities provided are broader and potentially more appealing to students.

Whereas Islamist organisations focus exclusively on religious education, help for students from corporations and philanthropists covers a wide range of areas, including art, science, culture and music.

Dutch-Bangla Bank Limited (DBBL) is one example of the emerging phenomenon. It currently funds about 2,000 students pursuing medical and engineering degrees.

Students selected for assistance receive a Taka 2,000 ($25) monthly stipend in addition to a lump sum of Taka 5,000 ($63). With an allocation of $12.3m, the bank plans to provide financial help to over 30,000 students by 2016.

"We have undertaken the programme as part of our moral obligation to do something for the underprivileged in society," Khan Tariqul Islam, the bank's deputy managing director and chief financial officer, told Khabar.

Several other financial institutions -- Eastern Bank Ltd., HSBC, Mercantile Bank, Jamuna Bank Ltd. and Exim Bank Ltd – have also launched CSR programmes. In the media sector, the daily Prothom Alo is also providing assistance to students.

In general, CSR contributions across the private sector have risen from $5.1m in 2008 to more than $12.3m in 2011, according to data from Bangladesh Bank.

Meanwhile, the government is also taking a proactive role. "We have created an education fund with Taka 10 billion ($123 million) to make sure that no deserving student is forced to quit studies for lack of money," Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid told Khabar.

(Courtesy: Khabar South Asia)
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