Video blogger invited to World Economic Forum
Shawn Ahmed tired of buck-passing on ending global poverty
It was a lecture by world-renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs in September 2006 that propelled Shawn Ahmed to put his graduate studies on hold, liquidate his savings and buy a plane ticket to Bangladesh to try to make a difference.
Since then, the 29-year-old Toronto video blogger has managed to attract a huge following on YouTube, where his videos have been described as changing the way people think about global poverty.
More than 80,000 people subscribe to his videos — that's 10 times more than agencies such as Save the Children and UNICEF. He founded the Uncultured Project, which he describes as his journey to make the world a better place by inspiring people "to believe that we can be the generation that ends extreme poverty."
Ahmed's videos have given a voice to rural Bangladeshis. The reaction resulted in enough money raised to rebuild a school that was destroyed by a storm.
Last week, the World Economic Forum invited Ahmed to its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, after his video was selected the winner of the Davos Debates from 100 entries.
It means Ahmed will be able to share his ideas on ending global poverty with some of the world's most influential people.
Ahmed is trying to change the way people look at charity. He compares the way charities appeal for donations to the way fast food is marketed, which has less to do with nutrition than it does with hooking customers.
"You see pictures of starving kids, you feel guilty, you hear an ominous voice saying give us two dollars a day, you donate, you feel better. But as soon as you stop donating or feel that you're not donating enough, you feel guilty again. This is not what young people want, they want something more positive."
Ahmed has been travelling to Bangladesh — where several of his relatives still live — since 2007. He calls himself a free-agent, a bridge-maker who with a laptop and an internet connection has managed to link hundreds of thousands of people to help, in a concrete way, solve problems such as poverty, clean water and education in Asia and Africa.
"The last thing I want to do is be a PhD who passes the buck on to the next generation. I know I can't single-handedly do it, but I want to be part of the generation that realizes this goal. And I think I can help realize this goal by sharing that message that we can end extreme poverty, that it doesn't take a lot to make a big difference."
He has featured the lives of people who have survived catastrophes and who have had to choose between going to school to have a chance at a better future or forgoing school for low-paying jobs because their families are desperately trying to put food on the table.
Don Tapscott, an author, international consultant to world leaders and a participant at the World Economic Forum for the past 15 years, said Ahmed is re-inventing the way the world tackles global issues.
"I don't think there will be anybody, including heads of states who will be interviewed more [than Shawn]. He's an example of a sort of one-man global problem-solving institution."
Ahmed said he's thrilled to be going and to have the chance to share ideas with powerful people.
"As the World Economic Forum staff told me, I've been vetted, I'm a person of accomplishment, I have as much of a right to be there as Bill Gates, which really blows my mind."
With files from Maureen Brosnahan