In the summer of 2003 I found myself hiking with a small team through a leech-infested cloud forest in the Himalayas. In big woven baskets carried by Nepali friends were parabolic dish antennas, long-distance radios, solar panels, and a cornucopia of other electronics: strange cargo in a region with no power, no phones, not even roads connecting the scattered mountain villages. But we had a mission. Against all odds we were building the area’s first computer network.
This wasn’t my idea. It was the vision of a Nepali man named Mahabir. Hidden behind Mahabir’s quiet nonchalance is a brilliant mind and a tectonic dedication to the wellbeing of his people.
Mahabir is a what I call a local visionary, and I believe he is the key to global development. When I went to Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, I had no idea what its people needed or what opportunities existed. But Mahabir knew. He knew because he was raised there. He absorbed all the various nuances of Nepalese culture and society like we absorb our first language. And with great personal sacrifice he pursued a vision for his people that far exceeded what any outsider thought possible. Working for Mahabir’s vision was by far the best thing I could do for Nepal.
I think this is true everywhere. The best thing that I can do for Nepal or India or Haiti or Uganda, or for that matter for America, is to find a local visionary and support the work she gives her life to.
This caliber of local visionary is rare. But just one can change her community, her country, even the world. Most great global visionaries are local visionaries. Gandhi, Mandela, King: all were deeply and primarily rooted in the challenges and potentials of their place and people, and by their dedication they each shaped the global story.
Mahabir is one of a small handful of such visionaries that I have been lucky to meet. Sister Rosemary in Uganda is another, working simultaneously to rehabilitate war-affected girls and to recycle Uganda’s waste into socially useful products. Another Ugandan visionary is Abramz Tekya, who inspires hope, direction, and social consciousness in the youth of his country through breakdancing and hip-hop, the same pursuits that, as a young man, saved him from the dangers of the slums. Amani Matabaro, a Congolese visionary, splits his time between working for international non-profits and investing his earnings in community development work for his home village and those surrounding.
Those that I haven’t yet met include Alastair McIntosh in Scotland and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma (who today reportedly won a seat in Burmese parliament after decades of struggle), among thousands of others.
These remarkable people are the future of their communities and their countries. And they are part of a proud tradition. Local visionaries are not just the future of development, they are its best history, and its most impactful present. Collectively they are building a better world.