Fazle Hasan Abed is the founder and chairperson of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). He gave up a thriving accounting career to help Bangladesh's independence movement. After the birth of the country in 1971, he started BRAC to help refugees and victims of war integrate into society.
He spoke with columnist Ashutosh Tiwari in Dhaka recently about his work, which has by now grown into a diverse array of social and commercial services to help the poor get out of poverty. With an annual budget of $436 million-three-quarters of which is self-generated, and with a 48,000-strong staff, BRAC is the world's largest NGO with branches in Afghanistan and Africa.
Ashutosh Tiwari: What development changes have you seen in Bangladesh since the first decade of its birth?
Fazle Hasan Abed: Bangladesh has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Life expectancy at birth used to be 47. Today it is 63. Infant mortality rate was 142, and under-five mortality rate was 252. Today, they are 62 and 174 respectively.
Bangladesh used to produce 15 million tons of paddy for 74 million people on nine million hectares of land. On eight million hectares today, it produces 40 million tons for 143 million people.
Seventy-six percent of the population was under the poverty line in 1976. Today, that is down to 40 per cent, though the number of poor is similar. With poverty declining at 2.2 percent every year, Bangladesh can expect to be a middle-income country in about 20 years.
One of BRAC's early work involved immunising children. How did that come about?
I was struck that New York City in 1903 and Bangladesh in the late 1970s had the same infant mortality rate. From 1903 to 1925, New York's infant mortality declined fast. They started supplying chlorinated piped water to households. They rebuilt their sanitation systems. They introduced universal primary education. They spread knowledge about the nutritional value of food through mass media. They immunised everyone. On learning this, I decided to start a children's immunisation programs in Bangladesh. Immunisation was the most cost-effective public health intervention my small NGO could handle at the time. Besides, it was 1979, which the UN had declared the Year of the Child.
Persuading the government to help you must have been easy, since your work would reach out to millions.
Not quite. To reduce the rate of infant mortality, I needed to purchase vaccines from abroad. I needed fridges in villages to store the vaccines, but most rural regions were not electrified. I needed all the health workers in the country mobilised to administer the vaccine. But the government said, "We have waited thousands of years for vaccination. Why don't we wait for five more years when all the villages will have electricity? Meanwhile, you can do something else." So, we visited households door-to-door-13 million of them!- to teach village women how to make oral rehydration fluids by themselves with salt, sugar, and water in the right ratios. This bit of simple knowledge had the potential to save lives every year.
How did BRAC become the world's largest NGO?
The oral rehydration intervention was BRAC's first national program. Encouraged by its success, I convinced UNICEF to supply vaccines to start a national immunisation program. BRAC took charge of mobilising health workers and immunising half the country's children, while the government took responsibility for the other half. In four years, millions of children were vaccinated against childhood diseases. BRAC's nationwide success with immunisation programs gave us tremendous self-confidence. We then thought: why not also take agricultural, educational, healthcare- and livestock-related services to the poor? That is how BRAC grew. In the late 1980s, we had about 5,000 staff. By the late \'90s, that number was 20,000. Now we have about 48,000 full-time staff in Bangladesh, and that number excludes the staff of the 60,000 one-teacher schools that we run.
What are one-teacher schools?
Of the 19 million Bangladeshi children, 16 million are enrolled in schools. Of the remaining 3 million, BRAC has taken in about 1.6 million as students at its one-teacher schools. The model is that we have one teacher for about thirty children of different ages and skills. This arrangement seems to work well for children who, for various reasons, are not enrolled at formal schools. A variation of this model also seems to work well in isolated communities where there are a handful of children, not enough to open an entire school. In desert communities in Rajasthan, India, I saw that they gathered children of various ages at once, and gave them three years' worth of literacy skills in one year. There are isolated communities in Nepal too. Using this model in those communities could be a way Nepal could work toward meetings its Millennium Development Goals.
BRAC is known for bundling microfinance services for the poor with market access. How does this approach work?
Microfinance is BRAC's largest program. This year, we have given out $900 million to 6 million borrowers, most of whom are women. Next year, we expect to give out more than a billion dollars as loans. Our borrowers meet our staff every week to pay their instalments. What we have done is connect our loans to income-generating activities. For instance, a borrower may buy a cow that gives her two litres of milk a day. She may sell that milk to her neighbour at 7 taka per litre. But I know I can sell that milk at higher prices in urban areas. BRAC collects milk from her at 18 taka, pasteurises and packages it, and sells it in Dhaka at 30 taka per litre. Both the borrower and BRAC make money providing a product to the market.
Similarly, a woman may borrow 5000 taka to buy vegetable seeds. But she can't find high-quality vegetable seeds. BRAC produces high-quality seeds, which it then sells to her. Over time, with higher yields and higher sales, her income goes up, and that raises her family's quality of life. In poultry too, we give out high-quality day-old chicks, and have trained women to offer vaccination services in villages. Our chicken lays 240 eggs a year compared to the 40 a year a deshi bird lays, thereby fetching farmers more money. We thus see microfinance as a tool to raise the income and quality of life of the poor by connecting them to the market.
Under BRAC's umbrella are vegetable packhouses, fashion and handicraft retail outlets, dairies, banks, internet service providers, a university. What are you doing right that most donor agencies are not?
My view is that most donor agencies do not understand development. Development is about human beings, about individuals, their families, their livelihoods. At most agencies, doing development is a job, and they do good professional work. But until your thinking is in terms of how what your actions affect other human beings, you are not doing development. You are doing a job.
Every time I go to Aarong, our retail outlet, for example, I ask a salesgirl, "How much have you sold in the last two hours?" She will say something like, 18,000 taka worth of goods. I tell her that a third of it goes to the producer in village. That means one village woman is employed for a month. This sort of thinking-making rural producers and farmers the centre of what we do-has served us well. Above everything, I want to make the lives of poor people better, more liveable-that underlies everything I do.
In the last few years, BRAC has set up branches in Afghanistan and in parts of Africa. What motivated you to do that?
We went to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Donors were ready to fund programs, but there was a need for a BRAC-like entity that could provide development services. We thought we could help them with our Bangladeshi experiences. Today BRAC Afghanistan provides everything from microfinance to maize seeds to the poor. It runs on an annual budget of $80 million and has about 6000 staff, most of whom are Afghani women.
Last year, we decided that we should also be in Africa to replicate our Bangladeshi experiences. We want to make a difference in the lives of the poor in Africa. Donors are confident about our approach, and we are already in southern Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.
Nepal's experience with microfinance has been a mixed bag. It's hard to provide microfinance services in thinly populated hilly areas. The operating costs are too high, and there is no provision for related services, such as training.
Often, the problem may not be with microfinance per se. It might be with how poor the people are in the first place. In Bangladesh, we have found that microfinance does nothing for the ultra poor. These are the people who can hardly afford two meals a day. They have malnourished children. They have no social support. They are doomed to stay poor generation after generation.
In 2001, I decided to help the ultra poor by giving them outright grants. The idea was to make one-time asset transfer that allowed them to have regular stipends for meals, access to free medical services, schooling for children, and income-generating activities. We looked for ways to reduce their vulnerabilities and strengthened their ties to the better-off people in their villages. We have found that after two years of handholding and confidence-building, most of these people can get out of chronic poverty, and graduate to a level where they can merge with the microfinance group. We have helped hundreds of thousands of families break the cycle of poverty in this manner, and today we run what is considered to be the world's most effective program for the ultra poor.
With such a diverse portfolio, people might say you are running a parallel government.
I see BRAC adding to the work that the government is already doing. Some government officers like our work, and some feel threatened. That's the way it goes.
How do you manage your organisation in terms of recruiting and retaining staff?
We do not pay high salaries. Most of our recruits are from local colleges, people who appreciate our values and share our concern for the poor. Most grow in their roles and stay with us for years. We put an emphasis on training, on continuous skill development, and on value development. Our training centres are always full. Unlike most NGOs, we also do research. We have a large research wing. Creating new knowledge and continuously learning from what worked, what didn't work and why, is important for our growth and success.
Next in Focus on Bangladesh: Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank