SCALING IS NECESSARY, SMALL IS ENLIGHTENING

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The personal story of Shumon Sengupta, Country Director of Save The Children in Bangladesh, illustrating his perspective on development, leadership, and the importance of empowering young people and women.


 

Entering his family’s courtyard on a weekday morning, Shumon Sengupta, Country Director of Save the Children in Bangladesh, noticed children playing with clay in the makeshift classroom his mother organised. He recalls, “I knew my mother would be teaching 40 children from the Santal community at Shanti Niketan, but this wasn’t the setting I was expecting.” His mother asked him to speak to the children – “I went up to one of the girls, and her excitement gave me most of the answer I sought; my mother was teaching through play.”

Sengupta’s inclination for the development sector was serendipitous to his mother’s humbling realities – “These  children lived only 500 meters away from our house. I was always aware of my privileges, the responsibility to society that came with them, and, most importantly, to not be desensitised to my surroundings. At 65, my mother initiated an informal classroom, instilling aspirations and changing generational narratives through pencils, chalk, and slates.” When his mother’s classroom grew, Sengupta joined the Department of International Development (DFID). It was a subconscious awakening to the ideologies and actions being taken around him – “I took the civil service exam, but my conscious alertness to inequity was a strength that would best serve the humanitarian sector. I wanted to connect directly with people like my mother.”

CALL IT DESH-TINY 

Three decades and two continents later, Sengupta feels optimistic about Bangladesh – “Returning to the country feels like a dialogue of equals. Bangladesh is a development model worldwide that I want to understand. I am also interested in seeing what it offers and elevating its innovative systems.”

Bangladesh has been imprinted in the director’s memory since he joined the recovery efforts during Cyclone Sidr from Save the Children United Kingdom. “We evaluated the best response efforts regarding asset and cash transfers to widows and those vulnerable to falling into extreme poverty.” Sengupta’s team spoke to the affiliated communities to best understand their plights. It was a young boy who was ingrained into Sengupta’s memory – “He pulled my shirt to show me paintings of how they rebuilt after the cyclone. I returned to Save the Children with the ethos that every child’s ambition needs to be met with the opportunities that allow them to thrive.”

Sengupta strives to see an Asia where hierarchy is a not measure of importance – “We need to get past our attempt only to guide the youth and instead hear what they have to say. Optimal leadership is people-centred. It starts with asking the youth about their vision for the future and how they best envision that future coming to life. You need to ‘feed-forward’ and think of unified ways to address global challenges.”

BE VOCAL BY STARTING LOCAL

Sengupta’s priority for Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) is to ensure that leadership represents everyone. He acknowledges the need to be gender sensitive and responsive. Still, Sengupta emphasises translating these efforts into being gender transformative. “We need to go beyond ticking boxes with indicators into reflections and implementation that starts in our homes and organisations.” 


Optimal leadership is people-centred. It starts with asking the youth about their vision for the future and how they best envision that future coming to life. You need to ‘feed-forward’ and think of unified ways to address global challenges.


Save the Children in Bangladesh’s initiative, ‘Girl Talk’, articulates one of Sengupta’s key transformative initiatives. “Stepping into this role last month is opportune because I witness Girl Talk’s evolution into its second year as it continues to amplify girls’ voices in solutions for equity and inclusion.” Girl Talk seeks to redefine conventional notions and dialogues, shifting global perceptions of girls’ agency and leadership. The campaign was activated at the ground level by engaging 21,000 participants in 64 districts, of whom 18,000 were girls aged 13 to 19. Their collective voice asserted girls’ endeavours for professional success, with 74% wanting to be doctors, teachers, police officers, engineers, or pilots and 45% seeking greater all-out support that guarantees their growth, opportunities, and protection. 

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY (IWD) 2024 

Sengupta is enthusiastic about Girl Talk’s evolution in its second year. He states, “We are hosting an entrepreneur fair and panel discussion connecting youth with women leaders this year. It puts their voices front and centre to the investments critical for their future.”

The event will take place at the Krishibid Institute Bangladesh (KIB) on 9 – 10 March 2024 and is dedicated to #investinwomen by supporting youth leadership. Sengupta details, “The ‘Invest in Women: Idea Challenge’ supports women-led youth innovations that accelerate women’s empowerment, access to basic rights, and resilience.”

Whether it be an informal classroom, an organisation, or national initiatives, Sengupta affirms that leadership starts with being and feeling heard – “Our backyard was a makeshift school for my mother’s class, demonstrating children’s unwavering optimism. We can never fully grasp the way forward until we include the voices of those most affected by global challenges. Give them the tools (or sometimes the clay), and they will mould an exemplary future that is theirs.”

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