Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Tuesday September 17, Raymon Magsaysay Award winner, Mahabir Pun, visited the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility to talk about his experiences as a social entrepreneur and his current efforts to found a liberal arts college in Nepal.
It was Nimesh Ghimire ’15 who approached Dr. Jennifer Magee, the Associate Director for Student Programs at the Lang Center, with the idea of a visit by the Nepalese recipient of what many consider “Asia’s Nobel Prize.”
“It just sort of came together, and I was delighted at how fortunate we are,” Magee said.
Only a handful of Swarthmore students and Lang Center staff attended the meeting, allowing for an informal environment that allowed room for questions and conversation.
Pun spent much of his one-hour talk taking questions about the meaning of social entrepreneurship.
“You can’t learn [how to be a social entrepreneur] from books, even if you Google it, you cannot find it. You have to try by your hands,” he said.
Pun, who is also an Ashoka Fellow, achieved international prominence through his successful efforts to connect his home village of Nangi and other neighboring villages to the Internet by creating makeshift satellite dishes that transmit over long distances.
Seeing his network as more than just a way to communicate, Pun quickly realized its potential to serve as an educational tool.
“[Initially] we focused on providing communication, but what we’re doing now is using the technology and the network for training for teachers and health workers, providing e-learning materials to students and teachers,” he said.
Ghimire, who has worked with Pun on the liberal arts college project, confirmed Pun’s practical bent.
“Swarthmore is a very academic place, we learn all these tools and acquire these skills, but Mahabir is a different kind of guy. He learns by doing. To make any project successful, you need a good balance of theory and experience. I think Mahabir brings the second half,” he said.
Tinashe Mubvuma ’14, who attended the event, saw Pun’s willingness to dream big in spite of extremely limited resources as one of the key takeaways from the talk.
“The greatest lesson I learned from him is that it does not take loads of initial capital to start big projects, and anyone who plans to start a big project […] should not be discouraged by the lack of resources,” Mubvuma said, adding that his home country of Zimbabwe suffers from many of the problems Pun has faced in Nepal.
“Zimbabwe, my home-country, has a lot of educated young people and vast resources that could be used to improve many aspects of life in the country. Unfortunately, research and development is not well funded,” he said.
The current focus of Pun’s work is founding a liberal arts college in Nepal that would be attached to a National Innovation Center.
“I have concluded that unless we start a new system of education like liberal arts that focuses on teaching creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership, it will be difficult to develop a nation like Nepal,” he said. “We have natural resources – Nepal is the second richest country in the world in terms of hydropower potential. We can produce power and sell it to the government.”
According to Ghimire, the government has been responsive to Pun’s campaign.
“The national planning commission has put innovation as one of their foremost agendas. Now what all of us are struggling with is the resource generation part. We need 20 million dollars,” he said.
Much of the work in the Innovation Center’s development is done by foreign volunteers, many of whom are students. However, Pun stressed that the effort cannot be sustained through outside help alone, and that local communities must participate in the effort as well.
Pun’s efforts to promote education in Nepal are directly inspired by the hardships he faced as a child trying to get an education.
“I did not get [a] chance to go to [a] good school at my early age. I got to see and read a textbook for the first time in my life when I was in the 8th grade. My effort now is to help the young people to get better education in the villages so that they don’t have to go through all the conditions that I went through,” he said.