From its humble beginnings shortly after independence, BRAC has grown into the largest NGO on the planet, touching the lives of millions of the rural poor. Khadija Rehma discusses how BRAC has developed into a leading light of the development movement, both in Bangladesh and inter-



The biggest NGO on Earth

In remote, benighted regions of rural Bangladesh, poor, vulnerable, illiterate, rural women -- many divorced or widowed and with children -- have become micro-entrepreneurs, educators, health workers, social workers and leaders in their respective communities. They have learned of the law, they have learned to live healthily and they have learned of their rights and challenged exploitive customs. They have learned to be socially, environmentally and economically aware. They have sent their children to school, and learned from their children.

Jahangir, a physically disabled boy from Kurigram, stood first in the Talent Pool Scholarship examination held in 2004.

Rahima, married at thirteen only to be widowed with children in her early teens and with no source of income or support, went on to become an active health worker, the owner of a medicine shop and a respected member of the village elected to run for local government. Today her son is a paramedical doctor and Rahima aspires to become a member of parliament.

Rahima and Jahangir are among the millions all over Bangladesh who have walked away from pasts filled with horrifying hardships and never looked back. The phenomenon has been referred to as a "quiet revolution" triggered by a small-scale relief and rehabilitation effort established at the time of Bangladesh's liberation that today, is the largest NGO in the world -- BRAC.

In the new millennium, world-wearied leaders face mounting challenges by regurgitating words like human rights, justice, equality, empowerment and poverty alleviation, that have been worn-out with practiced fervor. But global disappointment over failed humanitarian pledges to address the crisis of the developing world is much too poignant now to be subdued with empty promises. With the Millennium Development Goals in place, the world seeks measures for long-term sustainable development, and born in one of the world's poorest countries simply as a relief and rehabilitation effort, BRAC emerges as a paradigm in sustainable development and one of the leading sources of experiential learning.

Over its three decades in development, BRAC has time and again disproved traditional development ideologies, challenged rigid and disciplined structures, and baffled many a skeptic with innovative programmes and staggering achievements. Where NGOs are conventionally considered to be dependant on donor aid, BRAC went from an almost entirely donor-funded organisation to a virtually self-financed organisation. Where development interventions typically concentrated on small communities so as not to lose effectiveness through expansion, BRAC went national and international with its programmes without compromising on efficiency or effectiveness. Representing scale and sustainable development BRAC's strategies stem from the intelligent and inspired determination of a visionary -- Fazle Hasan Abed -- whose unwavering faith in the capacity of every human being to contribute to development irrespective of his/her socio-economic condition forms the pillars on which the organisation stands today.

Abed turned away from a lucrative career with a reputed oil company in the early 70s to dedicate his life to the development of a war-ravaged Bangladesh, suffering the aftermath of a crippling liberation war. The newly liberated country was traumatised by the worst-ever genocide and pogrom since World War II with people killed, agriculture ruined, infrastructure destroyed, and the country ravaged and looted. One of the most densely populated countries in the world, with 72 million people in utter disarray, Bangladesh was gripped by a violent outbreak of poverty and disease no sooner than the war had ended. In response, BRAC was established in a small village called Sulla initially with the aim to resettle war refugees.

Like all of BRAC's groundbreaking initiatives, its development approach is the result of keen insight, in-depth research, and intuition. BRAC identified poverty as a result of a complex interlinking of political, economic and cultural systems that have a long history, and undoing this system as its biggest challenge. So even though microfinance has contributed significantly towards progress in the developing world, BRAC realised that to tackle poverty and its many tentacles, microfinance alone was not enough. A multifaceted development initiative was imperative. Thus, BRAC launched a planned, multi-pronged attack against poverty through its inventive holistic, or "credit-plus" approach, combining health, education and social development along with microfinance, and linking them strategically for sustainable development. As early as the time of its inception, BRAC gave priority to women, for the poorest families were typically headed by women who were divorced, widowed or abandoned and pushed to the margins of society. BRAC also recognised women to be the primary caregivers of households who would ensure the education of their children and the subsequent intergenerational sustainability of their families and households, and so when the post-war relief work was over and BRAC turned towards long-term poverty alleviation and empowerment of the poor, it focused primarily on women and children.

Since its modest beginning thirty three years ago, BRAC's programmes have inspired and enabled millions of women across Bangladesh to take charge of their lives, providing unfaltering support in their fight against the evils of ignorance, disease, and poverty. Today, these women have become BRAC's greatest strength. BRAC typically organises women into groups called Village Organisations which serve as a forum where women can collectively address the principal structural impediments to their development and build on their social capital, and it is through these member-groups that BRAC's various programmes are implemented. To date, BRAC has organised nearly 5 million poor, rural women into VOs, and the same vulnerable women who were once easy prey to destitution and exploitation, are today successful and self-confident micro-entrepreneurs. Presently, nearly 5 million poor women, representing as many families are directly involved in many of BRAC's Economic Development Programmes that offer, in addition to training, a range of livelihood generation and protection schemes such as poultry and livestock development, vegetable cultivation, small trades like grocery shops, fish culture, to name but a few. A range of financial services are offered to them and so far an equivalent of USD 2.5 billion loaned without collateral with a 98 percent repayment rate. Members have saved over 100 million US dollars with BRAC.

Partnerships and institution building, be it within communities, among diverse member groups, with other private and public organisations, the government or other countries, have always been at the heart of BRAC's development strategies. Over the years, BRAC has cultivated the principle of forging strong alliances at all levels. At the ground level, community and member support through partnerships is one of the factors that have led to the success of BRAC's programmes. BRAC today runs a number of successful partnership programmes with the government at a national scale. BRAC's Health Programme, for instance, in addition to providing basic curative and preventive services to an estimated 31 million in Bangladesh, has collaborated with the government on a number of initiatives including its Nutrition programme and Tuberculosis Control programme. The Tuberculosis Control Programme undertaken with the National Tuberculosis Control project scaled up dramatically since it was started in 1984 and today reaches approximately 82 million people in 42 districts of Bangladesh. In the early 80s, BRAC partnered with the government to initiate an immunization programme, taking the percentage of immunized children from 2 percent to 80 percent. BRAC's Education Programme has also collaborated with the government to improve the quality of primary education in Bangladesh through a joint initiative called Primary Initiative in Mainstreaming Education (PRIME). To date, more than sixteen thousand pre-primary schools have been established of which 65 percent of students enrolled are girls.

Such successes are, however, just the tip of the iceberg where BRAC's long and impressive record of accomplishments is concerned. BRAC's Health and Education programmes in particular, testify to BRAC's tremendous progress in terms of expansion and scaling up. BRAC's first success in expansion came about in the 80s when it undertook an initiative in collaboration with ICDDR,B to combat diarrhea -- the leading cause of a high infant mortality rate in Bangladesh at the time. The programme was taken nationwide and door-to-door by 2,000 BRAC workers, 90 percent women, and taught 13 million mothers the simple technique of preparing home-made Oral Rehydration saline, embedding the practice in the national culture and communicating the knowledge to 100 percent of the population. Infant mortality came down to 75 per thousand from 258 per thousand. This initial success propelled rapid expansion of other BRAC programmes such as Non Formal Primary Education -- a unique model that has been replicated in about a dozen countries. Designed to include poor, rural drop-outs and children, particularly girls deprived of formal schooling, the Non Formal Primary Schools teach the curriculum of Bangladesh's standard five-year primary education within four years. Started with 22 one-room schools in 1985, BRAC has established more than 49,000 primary and pre-primary schools throughout Bangladesh, with an enrollment of over a million children, 65 percent girls. 2.8 million children have already graduated from these schools of which 94 percent have gone ahead for further education with formal, public schools.

BRAC's Essential Health Care Programme, aside from partnership programmes with the government covering tuberculosis, malaria, immunisation and sanitation programmes, offers a broad range of services to the poor, including critical services in reproductive health care and disease control, mobilises women and disseminates information among the poor.

It engages 29,736 Community Health Volunteers called Shastho Shebikas who are members of the Village Organisations, trained to provide health education, sell essential health commodities, treat basic ailments, collect basic health information and refer patients to health centres when necessary. In recent years, a cadre of female community health paramedics called Shastho Karmis have been recruited and trained to strengthen the work of the Shastho Shebikas. In addition to monitoring targeted households and providing pregnancy related care, the SKs also supervise the SSs. Women all over the country have been benefiting from BRAC's programmes providing ante and post-natal care. 48 Health Centres have been established by BRAC in addition to 3 Limb and Brace Fitting Centers providing low-cost quality devices and services to the physically disabled. Among others, BRAC Health Programme's newest initiatives include its HIV/Aids programme, which has been promoting mass awareness in the community about the disease, providing condoms to high risk groups and performing syndromic management of STIs and RTIs in high risk groups to reduce the risks of HIV infection. Other new initiatives include Community-Based Arsenic Mitigation programme, Saving Newborn Lives programme and Micro-Health Insurance programme.

BRAC Education programme has recently started to intensify its focus on programmes for indigenous children and those with disabilities. Realising the limitations confronting children with disabilities due to lack of specialized facilities, BRAC first focused on identifying children with disabilities and started to include them in BRAC schools. Currently BRAC schools have enrolled about 14,471 children, helping them with visual, hearing and speech impairment along with mental and physical challenges. Existing classrooms have been changed into inclusive ones. In many cases, students with disabilities are provided with assistive devices and often ramps and railings are created at the schools. BRAC's holistic approach towards inclusive education that ensures the combination of proper advocacy and linkage in the community along with networking with parents of children with special needs, development of teachers and proper monitoring and evaluation of the programme, may create a unique model for inclusive education not only in Bangladesh, but across the world. BRAC also concentrated its efforts on integrating ethnic minority children into its primary school programmes and have so far enrolled nearly 40,000 ethnic minority children of whom about 56 percent are girls.

Among its newest and innovative initiatives, custom designed for particular poverty groups, is BRAC's Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction-Targeting the Ultra Poor (CFPR-TUP) programme. BRAC, using its wealth of experience in the field of development, extensively researched not only the various dimensions of poverty, but also its varying degrees that often trap a heterogeneous population of the poor who vary in their needs. In 2002, BRAC designed a programme to reach out to the chronic poor forming the 25 million of the absolute poorest in Bangladesh who cannot take advantage of standard microfinance options. Using a specific set of criteria to identify these marginalised women of society, BRAC tailored and implemented the CFPR-TUP programme based on smart-subsidisation and focused application of BRAC's core programmes in health, education and social development with the intent to lift the chronic poor out of destitution and ultimately help integrate them into the mainstream microfinance programmes. The success of this initiative highlights the need for development initiatives to focus on innovation for sustainability, rather than short-term, temporary solutions to chronic problems.

Alongside its value-driven holistic approach, its focus on marginalised women, forging partnerships and creatively addressing chronic problems with sustainable solutions, BRAC's development strategies include strategic linking of its programmes. In order for poor rural producers to be able to access and take advantage of an expanding urban market, BRAC institutes linkages between producers and consumers, juxtaposing itself so as to counter market failures and ensuring sustainable livelihoods of its members. For example, the Ayesha Abed Foundation is a handicraft production centre that employs artisans who are VO members whose products are, in turn, marketed through Aarong, a reputed retail outlet established by BRAC. Similarly, the BRAC Dairy and Food Project provides a market for VO members who have invested their loans in cows and facing barriers at local markets. Such linkages have proven extremely effective in the continued development of the rural poor, providing crucial safety nets to protect them from possible failures.

From the small-scale relief and rehabilitation effort that it started out as, BRAC has taken bold and determined strides towards development and growth, stepping beyond the borders to the aid of countries in distress like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka with future plans to initiate development interventions in a number of African countries.

Its history running parallel to that of Bangladesh, BRAC is a name that has through its course of three decades remained true to its values of dedication, honesty and hard work and reflects the vision of Mr. Fazle Hasan Abed who at age 71, stated in an interview: "If I were thirty-five now instead of sixty-seven, I would do so many other things that I haven't done. Now at the twilight of my life, I feel that I must complete all the things that I have started."

Indeed there is much to be done still and Mr. Abed continues to inculcate his faith in human potential and spirit of hope into all of those that work with him and continue on in their journey into the future. At a time when Bangladesh faces mounting challenges in terms of governance, poverty, public health and human rights, BRAC's success, continued efforts and dedication is undeniably a source of hope and comfort.
Khadija Rehma is Communications Officer, BRAC.

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