To Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC—formerly Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee—“Small is beautiful, but big is necessary.” It is a reference to the book Small is Beautiful by economist E.F. Schumacher, which criticizes western economics and hails small, local economies that empower people and their communities.
BRAC has the ambitious aim to eradicate poverty in Bangladesh. In the recognition that lasting social change that effectively reduces poverty requires a holistic approach to engage every aspect of society, BRAC is anything but small.
Today, it is the world’s largest non-governmental organization (NGO) employing more than 60,000 people and its programs reach over 110 million people. But it’s not just the impressive scale of its projects that has made BRAC so admired among aid agencies, it’s the scope. On its website, BRAC proclaims itself a “pioneer in recognizing and tackling the many different realities of poverty.” And it has the programs to prove it.
Despite the Nobel Prize and the publicity of Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank, BRAC is actually the largest lender of micro-loans in Bangladesh. It runs the largest private school system in the world, and educates 11 percent of Bangladesh’s children—70 percent of whom are girls. It provides public health and awareness services in Bangladesh’s most underserved communities. It promotes food security with agricultural extension services and the development of its own hybrid rice variety. It runs seed processing plants, feed mills, chicken farms, tea plantations, packaging factories, dairy plants, textile operations, a university, and a high-end merchandise chain. At nearly every level BRAC looks to create opportunities for the poor and women to take the reins, helping to create a self-sufficient social and economic infrastructure that can continue to lift the country out of poverty.
BRAC has had a knack for recognizing the interconnectedness of its activities and creating opportunities for cross-pollination. They support, for example, over 2,961 acres of mulberry bush production in Bangladesh’s northern districts. The mulberry bushes yield both a tea and a fruit and support BRAC sericulture, or silk farming. Silkworm larvae feed solely on mulberry leaves. This set of activities provides income-generating opportunities for poor, landless women through farming, silkworm rearing, silk spinning, and weaving. BRAC sericulture employs 7,500 silk rearers and 5,800 spinners and produces 21 metric tons of raw silk annually. BRAC also markets the silk through its own retail chain called Aarong.
According to a recent article in The Economist, BRAC is one of the fastest-growing NGOs in the world—and one of the most business-like. Profits generated from its social enterprises feed back into the organization’s core development programs, making it nearly 80 percent self-funded. It relies on international donors for only the remaining 20 percent of its budget.
After 30 years in Bangladesh, BRAC has now gone international. It’s now the biggest NGO in Afghanistan, Tanzania, and Uganda.
To date in Afghanistan, BRAC has disbursed US$234 million in microfinance loans, with agreements in place to disburse US$65 million more over the next three years. The program is operating in 24 of the country’s provinces. It aims to improve the livelihoods of women and help them realize their potential through entrepreneurship. BRAC uses its microfinance programs as a conduit for engaging the public in heath, education, and other poverty alleviation programs.
In Tanzania, teenage girls are trained by BRAC’s Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents Program to be peer leaders in their communities. Life skills training courses teach the girls to be conscientious, socially aware, and confident citizens. They develop leadership skills, gain better understanding of health issues, learn about conflict resolution and negotiation, and develop awareness of gender imbalance issues. Income generation training teaches them about vegetable cultivation and poultry rearing, tailoring, food processing, and general financial literacy. Small microloans are also made available to the teenage leaders to offer them a chance to put their training into action.
In post-conflict Northern Uganda, BRAC opened what it calls “second-chance” schools for children who had never attended school or dropped out in primary school—largely because of the war. In Uganda, adolescent girls are vulnerable to early, unwanted pregnancy and often know very little about family planning or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Recognizing that, most of BRAC’s teachers are women, and these issues are incorporated into the curriculum. To encourage high attendance among economically disadvantaged students—some of which are young mothers—the school schedule is flexible, there are no fees, parents and communities are closely involved, and there is little or no homework.
Poverty is often defined in purely economic terms, and almost always in terms of what poor people lack. But poverty is complex and woven into a larger social fabric. Small can be beautiful and small enterprise is essential for the world’s poorest people, particularly women, to earn a living. But BRAC believes big is necessary, and that the benefits of each small success can be amplified by a holistic, coordinated effort to connect them to a functioning, strengthening society.
Matt Styslinger worked as Student Researcher at BRAC in 2008/ 2009, conducting field research on BRAC’s Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene (WASH) Program. He is also a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.