BANGLADESH: Rainmaker

Where the State fails, BRAC comes in to fill the void. Sir Fazle Hasan Abed’s model represents a new paradigm of development

Sanjay Kapoor Dhaka 

The 19th-floor headquarters of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) in Dhaka’s Mohakhali area is hardly the place to get a view, howsoever tinted, of this sprawling capital of 17 million people. The veritable height and distance from the sprawling slums where the bulk of the migrants and environmental refugees live, makes it look quite scenic and idyllic. The squalor, stench and struggle of poverty seem so distant from the office of an iconic anti-poverty organisation like BRAC that has transformed the lives of millions of poor people in this tragedy-scarred country.

BRAC’s founder and chairperson, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, may carry his achievements lightly, but if you are searching for a “Rainmaker” then look no further. The burden of his achievements, though, is borne by the cupboards and shelves in his spacious and well-lit office that house many of his awards, trophies and commendations. And there are reasons. Statistics, though very formidable, convey only part of the picture. What is remarkable is the scale of BRAC, which is like a state within a state or a multinational. His organisation staffs more than 1,20,000 people, works in all 64 districts of Bangladesh and nine other countries. Not as well-known as Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen, BRAC, though, is also big in microfinance. It disburses almost $1 billion every year through more than seven million microfinance members. It runs thousands of non-formal and formal schools, clinics, hospitals and many other activities.

To reduce its dependence on donor funds, BRAC has wisely created enterprises that run on commercial lines. It has the country’s fifth largest bank and provides, among other things, broadband services to the poor through an e-hut, a university, chain of handicraft shops called Aarong and much more. The creation of a bank and setting up of a university were part of Abed’s attempt to restore the “Missing Middle” in Bangladesh’s society that had been depopulated either due to flight of talent or due to organised ethnic cleansing that took place in 1971 when the Pakistani Army, in an attempt to crush the insurrection led by the Awami League, systematically killed students, doctors, engineers or anyone with a “potential for leadership”. So BRAC is not only one of the top employers of highly trained talent in Bangladesh, but contributes substantially to sustain the intellectual life of Dhaka and Bangladesh.

Abed came from a privileged background and was sent to England for higher studies. Trained to be an accountant, the horrific happenings in Bangladesh changed the course of his life. Employed as the representative of Shell in Chittagong, he managed to escape to London when the Pakistani Army brutally struck against Bangla nationalists. Hindus were the real targets of the Pakistani ethnic cleansing.

From London, he organised relief for the refugees in West Bengal. And, after the war ended in 1971, he set up a new organisation with his friends called the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC)—a precursor to the BRAC of today. He returned to independent Bangladesh and found misery all around. “Ten million refugees were returning to their ravaged homes and they needed relief and help,” he says. He went to a cluster of predominantly Hindu fishing villages in Sylhet district that had been worst-hit by the war. Initially, he used his own meagre resources to organise implements and resources so that the people could return to their livelihood. Subsequently, BRAC got funding for its work. It worked for two years in about 300 villages where it built houses, distributed fishing nets and met other needs. His biographer, Ian Smillie, in his book Freedom from Want, records that Abed discovered that he had 500,000 takas of the funding left after the completion of the project and offered to return it to Oxfam, whose staff had never experienced any NGO returning leftover funds. Needless to say, they asked him to use it for the next project.

What is remarkable is the scale of BRAC, which is like a state within a state or a multinational

 “It is then we realised that the poverty was so intense that we could not just stop working with them and they had to be brought out of this state of deprivation. The challenge was how to alleviate poverty,” Abed reminisces. It also meant taking some hard decisions and putting in place plans for long-term development of these communities by empowering people. Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed provided some answers to Abed and his team about using the process of conscientization to empower people. Expectedly, BRAC and its volunteers ran into problems from the village elite and the political class as they began to organise the poor and set about creating an enabling environment where they could live with dignity and earn a livelihood. 

BRAC realised that poverty was not unidimensional and went about addressing other related issues. Its programme design, therefore, evolved with their deepening understanding of Bangladesh’s problems as well as the experience of other societies in tackling these problems. So when BRAC realised that 52 per cent of the infant mortality in the country was due to diarrhoea, they independently launched an Oral Rehydration Programme that covered millions of households. In 1986 they were tasked by the government to immunise half the country. The rest would be immunised by the government itself. BRAC managed 78 per cent success against 61 per cent by the government agencies.

BRAC also embarked on the task of providing quality education. Abed spent time to figure out what model worked in different parts of the world. “At that time there was an article in Newsweek that listed the 10 best schools in the world according to their relative strengths,” he remembers. While Dutch schools were good with the teaching of language and mathematics, Italy was strong on pre-school, and New Zealand specialised in teaching the mother tongue. Abed requested Sir Edmund Hillary, the High Commissioner of New Zealand to Bangladesh, based out of Delhi, to send two teachers to train his team. Using their teaching methods, BRAC managed to scale up the number of schools. Now it has one of the largest networks of private schools in Bangladesh that has been sustained by building backward linkages and scaling up its infrastructure. Besides, BRAC engages in continuous monitoring of projects to ensure that they measure up to its high standards and it acquits itself well when evaluated by either donors or
external agencies.

How does BRAC countenance growing misgivings about microfinance? Abed believes that microfinance is here to stay. He believes that putting capital in the hands of the poor is quite empowering. Any kind of handout to the poor, in comparison, is far more expensive. He believes that the cost of microfinance could be reduced through the use of mobile telephony.

He finds no conflict in running enterprises based on profit. He set up the BRAC Bank, which provides corporate lending to enterprises. Unlike other banks, it follows the ethos of BRAC that supports many of the enterprises that also earn profit which is then channelised into non-profit activities. That way, it supports their biggest seed manufacturing business and many other similar enterprises that make working with the poor extremely critical and at the same time viable.

Despite BRAC’s scale, which is almost government-like, Abed sees only a complementary role for NGOs. “Wherever they (government) are not able to work, we work,” he says. In Bangladesh, he feels, the government has provided the right kind of space for civil society groups to work. BRAC has also engaged in governance-related issues. BRAC has tied up with a Canadian school of governance to train civil servants and to create the capacity to work better and demand better governance.

Has the economic slowdown hurt BRAC’s development activities and aid for poor countries? Abed says that their funding has not really gone down. In fact, DFID (Department for International Development, UK) has increased its funding.

Where the aid for Bangladesh is concerned, corruption has been a reason for stopping some funding, especially from the World Bank.

In many ways, the success of organisations like BRAC and Grameen challenge the notion of governments as they display high integrity and deliver services more efficiently. There are some of the old Left that feel NGOs like BRAC serve the interest of keeping the status quo and allowing a dysfunctional political system to perpetuate itself. Is there any merit in this charge? An answer to this allegation comes from a Dhaka-based admirer of Abed: “He is an ultimate subversive who has made the existence of the government and State irrelevant. His model represents a new paradigm for society’s development.”.  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2012