Traveling at an early age with his father, a nutritionist, around their native country of Bangladesh, Kamal Ahmad, ODN's co-founder, first became interested in the problems of the poor. "Growing up in Bangladesh is an education in development," he says. "It is a country always in crisis."
In Dacca, the capital of Bangladesh, Ahmad grew increasingly concerned about the many illiterate children who lived in the city's slums and worked as domestics for wealthy families. At the age of 14, he started a school to teach these children to read, converting several vacant car garages into classrooms, hiring six university students as teachers and enrolling 200 students.
Ahmad's school received intense opposition immediately after opening in March, 1979. The families who employed the children were reluctant to have their young workers waste time in school, he says, and local authorities charged that the students made too much noise and were a health risk to the area.
Ahmad says the community resistance increased his enthusiasm for the project. "If nobody had opposed me, I probably would have lost interest," he says. Classes had to be moved to an open field where they were conducted for several months.
To raise money for his school, Ahmad targeted various overseas organizations from Canada to Italy. He raised enough money to build a bamboo schoolhouse, where the school still runs today.
When he arrived as a sophomore at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Ahmad says he was shocked to find a "very low level of knowledge about the Third World in this country." He began Exeter's Third World Society to promote awareness of development issues among students.
"Kamal is somehow able to evoke what is best in people, to touch a vision in them," says Mary DeVault, an Exeter professor and faculty advisor for the school's Third World Society. "In working with Kamal," she adds, "I've always felt that I had the extraordinary good luck of working with a young Gandhi."
Attempting to increase American students awareness and involvement in development issues on a broader scale, Kamal and Nazir Ahmad created the Overseas Development Network.
"Headlines only capture a very small part of the reality. There is an ongoing emergency situation that people should know about," says Nazir Ahmad, a doctoral student at the Food Research Institute of Stanford. "Through ODN, a generation of college students are encouraged to take these problems into consideration."
In recognition of his development work, Kamal Ahmad was one of five recipients of the 1984 United Nations Peace Medal, given in honor of Paul G. Hoffman, the founder of the United Nations Development Program.
Ahmad's official involvement with ODN ended last year. He currently works with a variety of development agencies from Boston to India on Third World grassroots community projects. He spent the 1985-86 school year on a University funded fact finding tour of local development groups in Africa and Asia.
"Kamal notices need and gets up and does something about it. He's mobilized people into action on behalf of others, and that's remarkable," says Robert Coles '50, Professor of Psychiatry and president of ODN's board of directors. "Kamal has what Tolstoy calls a great soul."
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