BRAC, a national, private organisation, started as an almost entirely donor funded, small-scale relief and rehabilitaton project initiated by Fazle Hasan Abed to help the country overcome the devastation and trauma of the Liberation War and focused on resettling refugees returning from India. Today, BRAC has emerged as an independent, virtually self-financed paradigm in sustainable human development. It is one of the largest Southern development organisations employing 97,192 people, with 61% women, and working with the twin objectives of poverty alleviation and empowerment of the poor.
With its innovative approach to development, following no rigid model but constantly expanding and growing through experiential learning, BRAC today provides and protects livelihoods of 100 million of the 141 million people of Bangladesh. Diagnosing poverty in human terms and recognising its multidimensional nature, BRAC approaches poverty alleviation with a holistic approach. Through the unique integration of its core programmes, strategic linkages and constant evolution, BRAC has come to stand as a unique example of how a development organisation of the South can be sustainable without being largely dependant on donor assistance. BRAC’s outreach covers all 64 districts of Bangladesh and 78% of the total number of villages in Bangladesh and has been called upon to assist a number of countries including Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
From the time of its modest inception in 1972, BRAC recognised women as the primary caregivers who would ensure the education of their children and the subsequent inter-generational sustainability of their families and households and has thereby been committed to the empowerment of women and education and health of children. Its comprehensive approach combines Microfinance under BRAC’s Economic Development programme with Health, Education and other Social Development programmes, linking all the programmes strategically to counter poverty through livelihood generation and protection. While BRAC believes that micro credit is an important tool in breaking the cycle of poverty, it also places equal emphasis on training its members in income generating activities and facilitating their linkage with consumer markets. Instituting linkages between producers and consumers, BRAC has assisted in the entire process of income generation, juxtaposing itself so as to counter market failures and make it possible for the poor rural producers to be linked to the market for sustainable livelihood.
BRAC has held to the belief that community partnerships and institution building go a long way in sustainable development and the spreading and transferring of knowledge to future generations. BRAC’s Economic Development Programme has so far organised 4.86 million poor and landless people, mostly women into 142,117 Village Organisations (VOs). These Village Organisations serve as forums where the poor can collectively address the principal structural impediments to their development, receive credit, and open savings accounts and build on their social capital. BRAC’s microfinance programme by offering credit to the poor and assisting and encouraging them to save, strives to ensure economic and social sustainability of the poor. In a country which ranks as one of the poorest and most densely populated in the world, with a per capita income of about US$444 and 49.8% living below the “upper poverty line,” BRAC’s credit programme has so far disbursed Taka 133.21 billion (US$2.59 billion) with a 98.7% recovery rate where no collateral is required. Members have saved up to Taka 7,657 million (US$ 130.89) with BRAC. Its comprehensive approach combines Microfinance with Health, Education and other Social Development Programmes because BRAC recognises that its microfinance clients must be informed and aware enough to put their loans to the best use, must be cognizant of their rights, maintain good health and hygiene and have the confidence to establish a means of income generation. Thus BRAC’s strategy also includes human rights and legal education courses, provision of legal aid clinics, use of popular theatre to raise awareness and offer solutions to social problems, and household visits by volunteer health workers. Training is provided for ender equity, conscientisation, and awareness building that helps create an enabling environment in which the poor can participate in their own development.
Over the years BRAC realised that microfinance though a successful, thriving programme, was failing to reach the bottom 25% of the absolute poorest, composed of mostly women-headed families falling on the bottom rung of the poverty ladder. So in January 2002, BRAC introduced its Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction – Targeting the Ultra Poor (CFPR-TUP) programme. Using a specific set of criteria to identify these families in the margins of society who are too poor to take advantage of standard micro finance options, BRAC designed a smart subsidisation scheme that included income generating assets, training and health care services, tailor made to create opportunity ladders for the ultra poor to help them transition onto the mainstream micro finance programmes. The programme has already received widespread national and international attention and is setting the standard for other development organisations to emulate.
Yet another one of BRAC’s innovations that has been replicated in about a dozen countries is the Non Formal Primary Education programme set up in 1985. The programme started with 22 one-room schools and has grown to about 49,000 schools in 2004, accounting for about 11% of the primary school children in Bangladesh. It fulfills BRAC’s goal of poverty reduction through access to education for those traditionally outside formal schooling. The BRAC schools teach the same competencies as the government schools. However, they enroll and retain a higher proportion of hard-to-reach children, such as girls who make up 65% of the student body. The importance of maintaining literacy outside the school setting has been addressed with BRAC’s 878 rural community based libraries (Gonokendras) and 8,811 KIshori Kendras that give members access to a variety of reading materials. The Adolescent Development Programme (ADP) trains adolescent BRAC school graduates, both girls and boys, in vocational skills, health awareness including reproductive health, and leadership.
In Bangladesh, where only 36% of the population have access to primary health care services beyond childhood immunisation and family planning, BRAC’s Health, Nutrition and Population Programme takes a broad approach to the health needs of the poor by providing basic curative and preventive services to more than 97 million people. Trained health workers and volunteers work to raise awareness among the rural poor of health issues that directly impact their lives and families. It seeks to reduce maternal and child mortality and reduce vulnerability to common diseases. Services are offered to control infectious diseases like tuberculosis, acute respiratory infections, diarrhea etc. BRAC has collaborated with the government to immunise children and pregnant women. Under the Essential Health Care programme, with the help of Shastho Shebikas (Health Volunteers) and Shastho Kormis (Health Workers) immunisation coverage of the population today is 80%. The programme also provides services to pregnant women for improving their health and nutrition status. The reproductive health needs of the community in general, with particular focus on BRAC members, are addressed through education on family life, contraception, STD/RTI control, and awareness of HIV/AIDS.
Various Support Programmes some of which include the Training Division, Research & Evaluation Division, Advocacy & Human Rights Unit, Public Affairs & Communications, Administration & Special Projects, Internal Audit & Monitoring, Finance & Accounting, Publications and Human Resources provide continuous support that is essential to the success and smooth functioning of BRAC’s core programmes. The Training Division is engaged in all aspects of staff and VO member training, be it poultry rearing or development management. Seventeen residential Training and Resource Centres (TARC) and two BRAC Centres for Development Management (BCDM) have been established by the Training Division. Through its Global Partnership (GP) programme, BRAC offers post-graduate diploma in NGO Leadership and Management leading to a Masters degree. Fostering its development principles into its own policies, BRAC’s Human Rights and Advocacy Unit has undertaken a number of initiatives to promote and protect human rights, particularly that of women.
BRAC is also the only NGO that has its own independent Research and Evaluation Unit set up in 1975 when BRAC was still very small, recognising the importance of evidence -based programming. The mandate is to provide analytical research support to improve existing programmes and provide direction to explore new avenues of development based on field experiences. Recently a discussion on the paradigm shift in development has been initiated by the division to provide new dimensions to BRAC’s development activities.
BRAC has invested substantially in commercial enterprises one of which is Aarong (retail handicraft chain stores), that links poor rural producers, or in this case artisans, with the expanding urban markets. Such enterprises also include the BRAC Dairy and Food Project which is the second largest liquid milk plant in Bangladesh and has an integrated system of milk procurement from rural dairy farmers to the production of quality dairy products. Six Poultry Hatcheries and three Poultry Feed Mills have been set up to meet the increasing demand for healthy chicks and quality feed in rural areas as well as to provide supply access to women trained in a variety of aspects of poultry rearing. BRAC Printers, a Cold Storage, a Tissue Culture Lab, 15 sericulture process centres, 12 Fish and Prawn Hatcheries, an Iodised Salt Factory and a Bull Station to improve cattle breeds through artificial insemination are also among its Programme Support Enterprises. BRAC’s Vegetable Export programme links poor farmers with international markets and in 2004 received the EUREPGAP Certification from FoodCert Netherlands to export high quality, fresh vegetables to countries under the European Union. Such commercial enterprises not only ensure economic sustainability for poor rural producers, but also earn revenues that the organisation can retain to fund its core development programmes.
BRAC operates on the ethical principles and practice and has maintained high levels of transparency in all its operations since it was established. BRAC has been able to maintain an unblemished reputation over the past three decades. The same principles of ethics and integrity that form the supporting pillars of all its activities whether of large scale or small, are also enforced in the organisation’s policies and practices. BRAC was the first NGO to establish an office of the Ombudsperson in 2004 and also received an Honorary Mention from the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) which recognised BRAC for consistently maintaining high levels of transparency in its annual financial reporting. BRAC has formed important links with the government over the years, facilitating the emergence of other NGOs in Bangladesh and has expanded into an organisation operating on a national scale, side by side and in partnership with the government, other NGOs and organisations and contributing to 1.14% of the country’s GDP. With an annual budget of US$245 million, around 77% of which is self financed, BRAC has established itself nationally and internationally as a symbol of innovation and dynamism, always ready to experiment with innovative ideas. As a recognition of BRAC’s dedicated work for the poor, BRAC received the Gates Award for Global Health and BRAC Founder and Chairperson was honoured by the UNDP Mahbubul Huq Award for Outstanding Contribution in Human Development.
Its programmes have been replicated in about a dozen countries including Africa and the Middle East. In 2002, BRAC was registered in Afghanistan to rebuild the ancient country that had sustained decades of conflict and war. Since then BRAC has expanded to 20 out of 34 provinces, providing services in micro finance, health, education, income generation, and small enterprise development. The programme takes the best practices of BRAC in Bangladesh and tailors its initiatives according to the needs of the Afghan people. At the end of 2004, BRAC Afghanistan had 2184 staff, of which 2033 were Afghans.
In 2005 BRAC was registered in Sri Lanka to help the country back on its feet after it was hit by the recent, devastating Tsunami.