In 2007, Shawn Ahmed went to Bangladesh with a laptop, a camera and a passionate yet indeterminate plan to help alleviate global poverty. “I sold it to my family as a two-month project,” he says. “Eight years later, I’ve done more than I ever imagined.”
Ahmed’s parents left Bangladesh to escape a civil war in 1971, 10 years before he was born. He visited the country often while growing up, and the poverty he witnessed made a lasting impression. “I knew very early that I wanted to do charity work,” he says. “I remember as a kid standing in front of the TV with a pencil and paper, writing down the phone number to help the starving kids in the ad.”
At U of T, Ahmed broadened his academic focus in pursuit of his goal. “Coming into U of T with an economics mindset and leaving with a sociology, political science and economics background changed my life,” he says. “They all touch upon global poverty, aid and development, but they tackle these issues from very different schools of thought.”
With top marks from U of T and a graduate program underway at the University of Notre Dame,
Ahmed was on track for a career in development when he dropped out and left for Bangladesh. The conventional path suddenly seemed far too long, and he wanted to make a difference right away.
He began creating YouTube videos documenting marginalized Bangladeshi communities, presenting tangible problems (a village damaged by a cyclone, for example) and proposing practical solutions (rebuilding a school roof). The videos went viral in 2008, and, at the urging of his followers who wanted to help, Ahmed began accepting donations to fund grassroots projects with various partners from local and international NGOs.
To date, Ahmed’s Uncultured Project – “my unplanned, unexpected and uncultured journey to make the world a better place” – has used social media to raise more than $100,000 for emergency disaster relief, clean water systems, community health care and schools.
His videos eschew the guilt-based tactics often used by traditional charities. Instead, they are upbeat, informal, and feature people speaking for themselves about their needs and challenges. This fresh take on charitable fundraising has struck a chord with more than 100,000 followers on YouTube and 200,000 on Twitter. “People are more engaged if they’re invested in someone’s story,” he says, “and if you give them messages of hope and positivity.”