EXTRAORDINARILY ORDINARY

Asia—a region beleaguered by social problems.

To start, 800 million people—or over two-thirds of the world’s poor—live in this part of the world.1 Intertwined with the causes and consequences of poverty are social problems such as health, sanitation, education, housing slums, corruption, pollution, and prostitution.

For countries that have been blessed with wealth, there are hidden problems such as a high degree of individualism, an increasing divide between the rich and poor, human rights violations, and the suppression of media freedom.

Into this background of challenges and hardships are born the heroes of Asia. No, these are not the heroes that we read about in comic books, with super powers, and who wear masks and capes.

These are but very ordinary individuals who have responded in extraordinary ways to the social issues they have faced. They are social entrepreneurs. They are seismic change-makers leading the charge to alleviate social ills with innovative solutions.

Through their creativity, tenacity, and perseverance, they bring the full force of their formidable intelligence, imagination, and resourcefulness to bear on the lives of the underprivileged and neediest in societies and communities throughout Asia. They lead the way in making the impossible possible.

While social entrepreneurs have been widely identified and celebrated in other parts of the world, their work has been less acknowledged in Asia.

This book seeks to shine the light on 13 individuals from across Asia who have been unusually innovative in their social solutions. Some of the most striking social innovations have been successfully implemented in Asia: microfinance, the two-pit latrine system, a pollution-watch database, an anti-corruption watchdog, slum housing, and a more empathetic form of assisted living.

FINDING THE HEROES

In this book, we celebrate the work of heroes from 12 Asian countries.

Selecting a singular representative champion of social change from a country was not easy. We looked for change-makers who have made a significant impact on their respective causes, be it in changing policies, galvanizing people, or directly treating and solving the problems. Specifically, we looked for natives who have worked from the ground up while struggling through trials in their own lives.

We started with the most pressing social issues in each country. In finalizing the shortlist, we also sought to ensure a diversity of social causes so that no one cause is featured twice in this book.

Since champion and cause are so inextricably intertwined, we tell each hero’s personal story—what got them started, what they believe in, what they do, and why they continue to do what they do despite the challenges. Along the way, we have endeavored to understand and explain the nature of the cause, as well as the other groups and people working on their resolution, both globally and locally. At the end of each chapter, we recap each person’s journey by tracing the key milestones in his and her life and the recognitions that he or she has received.

For the benefit of readers not familiar with the countries in question, we have provided brief facts on each country’s population, economic and political makeup2, and expressed all amounts in both local currencies and their US dollar equivalents.3

 

WHO AND WHERE

In summary, the selected heroes and their causes are shown in the map in the diagram below. The chapters themselves are simply ordered geographically from North Asia to South East Asia, and then to South Asia.

 

THE HERO WITHIN

Although the geographical, social, and cultural divide across the countries of Asia is a wide one, every single hero in this book shares similar traits. For one, they never planned to be where they are now. In fact, most started with ordinary, quotidian ambitions— to finish school, find a job, and take care of their families. However, life in all its adverse forms threw these plans into disarray. It forced them to dig deep within themselves to discover hidden reserves of strength to fight for what they believed in so passionately.

And in doing so, they discovered a person they never imagined and carried out acts that they had never dreamed they were capable of.

Their journeys, though often long and difficult, have, nevertheless, been fulfilling and transformative, both for themselves and for the people they have helped. The paths that they have taken are, indubitably, the ones less travelled. Their stories teach us; they humble us; they encourage us; and, above all, they inspire us to reach for the heroes within ourselves.

END NOTES

  1. See “Rural Poverty in Asia” at the Rural Poverty Portal by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), http://www. ruralpovertyportal.org/region/home/tags/asia. In Asia, there are more than 800 million people surviving on less than US$1.25 a day, the level considered as extreme poverty by the UN Millennium Declaration.
  1. The country data for the “Brief Facts” box in each chapter has been sourced primarily from the CIA World Factbook in May 2015. Where GDP figures are not available from the CIA World Factbook, these are obtained from the World Bank. Most of the information is for 2014.
  1. Generally, the exchange rate used for each local currency against the US$ is the rate at the beginning of 2015. However, where historical exchange rates are significantly different from the exchange rate in early 2015, we have used the exchange rate relevant to the time period indicated.