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     Volume 7 Issue 32 | August 8, 2007 |

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Cover Story

Fazle Hasan Abed has been described as a “living legend”. He and BRAC are two of the positive things for which Bangladesh is known around the world, by global leaders as well as the poorest of the poor. When he walks into the BRAC Centre every morning, everything stops for a few seconds as people scramble to receive him, hold the elevator for him, and stand almost at attention. But “the Chairman” walks in casually and gets in line behind however many people may be in front of him, keeping his eyes on the changing digits, always looking up.

Giving People a Second Chance

Kajalie Shehreen Islam
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

Look up and out and towards change is something Abed has always done, not for himself but for those less fortunate. Abed was born in 1936 into a wealthy, landowning family. The house had many domestic workers and Abed's mother, Syeda Sufia Khatun, was always sympathetic to the poor, helping to provide them with food and medicine. Abed also felt an empathy for the poor, wanting to change their lives for the better, from as early as when he was in high school.

“I didn't think I'd be doing something like this [BRAC],” he says, “but I always had an ambition to do something to change the lives of the poor. I didn't know how I would do it, whether through political activism or social work as I'm doing now, but I realised that the poor needed a better future, a better life for themselves. Even when I lived abroad I felt I should come back home and help them.”

After going to school in Habiganj Government High School, Comilla Zila School and Pabna Zila School, and later to Dhaka College, Abed went to the University of Glasgow in Scotland, UK, initially to study naval architecture, but later switched to accounting. He travelled widely around Europe at the time and spent a lot of his time reading literature. In 1968, he came back to Bangladesh to work at Shell Oil, but during the Liberation War when he was asked to be a liaison officer for the Pakistani army, he quit and went back to the UK where he helped to initiate a campaign to raise funds for a war-ravaged Bangladesh.

Nakshi kantha, finely done hand embroidery, is one of BRAC's retail outlet Aarong's signature products.

BRAC Beginnings…
After the war, Abed returned home to find the country devastated, the economy in ruins and 10 million refugees who had taken shelter in India, returning home. Having sold his flat in London, Abed used the money to set up an organisation for the relief and rehabilitation of the refugees, initially called the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee and later the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee and now, simply, BRAC, in a predominantly Hindu and completely devastated area in Sylhet.

“We thought the project would last for about a year or two,” says Abed, “and we would move on to something else after that. But then we found that the people were too poor to be left to themselves and we realised that we needed to commit ourselves to long-term development to help the poor to come out of extreme poverty. We formed village organisations and provided them with adult education, clean water, sanitation, improved agricultural productivity, basically trying to improve the livelihoods of the people.”

A village organisation microfinance meeting. With her loan, Rawshan Ara has expanded her tea shop and started a rickshaw-renting business.

It started with health care, says Abed. Inspired by the Chinese barefoot doctors who received basic medical and paramedical training to provide health care in rural areas where urban-trained doctors would not settle, BRAC, realising that there were not enough doctors to cover the whole country, also trained paramedics. After a year, however, they decided not to train educated youth but village people themselves. One member of each village organisation was trained as a shasthyo shebika or health volunteer in basic health care.

Waterborne diseases were common at the time and to avoid them BRAC provided some grants in the form of tube wells in villages which did not have them. “It was difficult to convince people to drink water from tube wells when their forefathers had drunk water from the ponds for generations,” says Abed. “It was important for us to change their behaviour.”

At the Core
Over the years, BRAC has had health programmes in oral rehydration, women's health, reproductive health, nutrition, family planning, immunisation, tuberculosis and malaria control. Abed is particularly happy about the decline in fertility rates and infant and child mortality rates in Bangladesh, which happen to be one of the best in South Asia. “We realised that women wanted to have more children because many of them would die at birth or before their fifth birthday. When less infants and children died (child mortality has gone down from 250 per 1,000 in 1979 to 65 now), women had less children (fertility rates have gone down from seven children per woman to just over two).”

Last year, BRAC's essential health care programme (including health and nutrition education, water and sanitation, family planning, pregnancy related care, basic curative care for 10 common diseases, immunisation and tuberculosis), which was targeted at the members of the village organisations, was expanded to include everyone in the community, and covered 92 million people in villages around the country.

BRAC currently has a staff of over 100,000. Its other core programmes include economic development, education, social development and human rights and legal services. Most of its stakeholders are women. In a society where, 36 years ago, women were given little responsibility outside the home, what made Abed choose them as not only his major stakeholders but also workers at every level in his organisation?

Discipline at BRAC schools starts at the doorstep. Learn ing is fun and the drop-out rate is less than two percent.

“I looked at girl children,” says Abed, “and I saw that girls as young as four would look after their younger siblings. A little older, they would collect fuel, take the goats out to the pastures, do household work. When they were grown and married, they would also manage poverty, because, especially if they were married to day labourers who did not find work and so could not make an income every day, it was the women who borrowed from others, they managed the lack of resources. If they could do this, they should be able to manage everything else, but often, women are not given the chance to manage things. But women have experience in running things, they are disciplined and they have foresight. I have seen many defeated men but not one defeated woman, and I knew that women would be the change agents of society.”

BRAC's microfinance programme, which was launched in 1974, provides collateral-free financing to both rural and urban poor to help start new enterprises or expand existing ones. Over 98 percent of these borrowers and savers are women, with a loan recovery rate of over 99 percent. The programme has three tiers -- for poverty alleviation of poor, landless women, microenterprise development for marginal farmers, and small enterprise development for businesses. In 2002, the Ultra Poor programme was launched to meet the needs of the poorest 10 percent of the population. “These people reproduce poverty generation after generation,” says Abed, “and people don't trust them as borrowers. To them we don't give loans but grants (along with asset transfer, training in enterprise development, health and human rights and legal services, etc.) which are like a ladder to get them out of extreme poverty and up to a level where they can become members of the mainstream microfinance programme.”

BRAC does more than provide loans, however. “We are providing large sums of money to people without access to resources,” says Abed, “but money is not enough. For example, there are 250,000 women involved in vegetable gardening but they don't have good vegetable seeds and so do not get good crops, so we decided to get into high crop vegetable seed production.”

"No matter where they come from, whether they are rich or poor, everyone has potential. I want to help it to flourish. I want to see it flowering in my society."

Some years ago when Abed met a woman who had bought a cow with her microfinance loan which gave her two litres of milk a day, he thought she would be quite satisfied, but she was not. “She lived in a very remote village and could not sell her milk, and when she did it was for Tk. 7 per litre whereas it sold in the cities for Tk. 25.” So started BRAC's Dairy and Food Project. Milk from remote areas is collected and chilled at 76 chilling centres around the country. It is then sent to the dairy factory in Gazipur for quality control, pasteurisation, production and packaging into dairy products such as whole and low fat milk, flavoured milk, butter, ghee, yoghurt, etc. BRAC also provides feed for the cows in order to make them bigger and healthier and able to give more milk. Along with poultry, livestock and fisheries (three million women are involved in poultry rearing alone, 40,000 as poultry vaccinators, says Abed), BRAC has support enterprises for agriculture, such as production, processing and marketing of high yielding varieties of rice, maize, vegetables and potatoes.

Besides BRAC Dairy, other commercial enterprises include Aarong, a retail chain, and BRAC Bank in which BRAC is a major shareholder. The latter is often criticised as being a profit-making wing of BRAC, but, says Abed, it was formed primarily to give loans to small entrepreneurs. “Sixty-two percent of BRAC Bank funds are given to people with small enterprises. Our aim was to create jobs for poor people in rural Bangladesh. Not everyone is entrepreneurial enough to start their own business, but our loans help those who are and create jobs in them for more people. Microfinance creates self-employment but not jobs for third parties who don't get these loans.”

Human rights and legal aid volunteer Majeda says people come to her most commonly for advice on problems regarding dowry and polygamy.

Abed considers one of BRAC's biggest successes to be in primary education, giving children “a second chance” at education. Since the launching of its education programme in 1985 with 22 one-room primary schools, BRAC has been providing non-formal pre-primary and primary education to underprivileged children who have never been to school, many with illiterate parents, or children who have dropped out. Besides basic education in Bangla, English, math, science and social studies, the schools aim at building the confidence of the students and motivating them to continue their studies in the formal system. Abed says that of the 19 million children between six and 10 years of age in Bangladesh, 16 million are enrolled in school and only 12 million actually attend. Of those who do not, BRAC covers 1.5 million children, one-third of those who do not go to school, at over 32,000 schools under its non-formal education programme; 65 percent of them are girls. BRAC schools include children with special needs and also education for indigenous children.

For families who can hardly manage two meals a day, however, how viable is sending their children to school for half the day when they could have worked in the fields or helped with household work? Abed refers to his conversation with Indian member of parliament Rahul Gandhi on his recent visit to Dhaka where he said that people in India believe that the only way out of poverty is through education and that parents are willing to forgo a meal a day in order to save up and be able to send their children to private school where the quality of education is better than in public schools. Abed believes that though the value of education in our country is not as high as yet, parents are still willing to send their children to school as long as they learn something. “Parents cannot afford to send their children to schools where they don't learn anything. They want to see the results of their sacrifice,” says Abed.

According to Abed, the dropout rate at BRAC schools is less than two percent, and that too for external reasons like the children's parents moving to a different village. The reason for the success of BRAC schools, according to him, is that the children actually learn something and they enjoy it, so much so, that even during floods they swim to school. “Learning empowers children,” he says, “the feeling that one can read contributes to their confidence and sense of self-worth.”

Abed believes that in Bangladesh, the “disease” of private tuition gets in the way of quality education at schools. “If you need private tuition while in primary school, then schooling isn't free. Those who can afford it take private tuition, those who cannot do not do well at school and drop out.” At BRAC schools, private tuition is not necessary, and the homework that is assigned can be done by the students themselves without the help of parents, who are mostly illiterate anyway. BRAC is also starting a social entrepreneurship programme in which unemployed youths who have passed out of high school will provide private tuition to students who go to school but cannot afford private tuition.

Women at a health forum. A shasthyo shebika is responsible for imparting health care to 300 households in her own and nearby villages, visiting 15 homes daily. Shamsul Haque, 60, and Masum, 25, come to shasthyo shebika Khurshida every day to take their tuberculosis medication.

BRAC schools do not as yet provide vocational training. More than children, Abed believes that vocational training would be useful for adults, especially those who go abroad as migrant workers, most of them unskilled. “They get the worst jobs, worst pay and are treated badly. If they could be trained in whatever work they are going to do, be it welding, bricklaying, etc., and also language training in the language of the country they are going to work in, they would be at least semi-skilled and earn double. Such training would be useful even for those who live in Bangladesh.”

Under its Human Rights and Legal Services Programme, BRAC also provides legal and human rights education in order to make people aware of their rights and to claim them, protecting themselves from discrimination and exploitation. “We are one of the world's largest rural legal educators, having provided legal education to over three million people in rural areas,” says Abed. The course consists of 22 two-hour long classes on Muslim and Hindu family law, Constitutional Law, criminal law, Muslim and Hindu inheritance and property law.

BRAC's Social Development Programme includes Polli Shomaj and Union Shomaj. The first are ward-level federations formed by the members of village organisations who deal with social problems, mobilising government resources and encouraging local councils to allocate resources to the needy. The second are union associations which help poor communities lobby at the Union Parishad level to demand and access government resources. “If grassroots democracy is strong,” says Abed, “it can create pressure on the central government, demanding change.” Another interesting component of the programme is popular theatre. Under this, local folk artists form troupes and stage plays on contemporary social issues and problems within the community, raising awareness and exchange on various social issues such as dowry, tuberculosis, etc.

Going Global
In 2002, BRAC went global in another war-torn country, Afghanistan. It is currently the largest NGO there, with programmes in 23 of 34 provinces. “From our experiences in Bangladesh, we have learnt that in order to bring change to a country, you have to work in many sectors, like health, legal aid, etc., and not just microfinance. Our initial work in Afghanistan showed that not much adaptation was necessary and we want to take the BRAC model of a holistic approach to development to other countries,” says Abed.

BRAC is now also in Sri Lanka and Pakistan and, in Africa, in Tanzania, Uganda and Southern Sudan, with plans to be in Liberia and Sierra Leone very soon. “We want to be in five countries each in East Africa and West Africa,” says Abed. “We don't want to be small and beautiful in a hundred countries but concentrate on 10 or 15 countries and make a difference in them.” The current ratio of BRAC workers and local workers in the foreign projects is about 10:1, says the Chair, but it will ultimately be reversed, with one BRAC worker and the rest locals at the foreign offices.

BRAC in Africa and Afghanistan. Photo: BRAC

How BRAC Did It
So why has BRAC been able to achieve what other organisations, including, most importantly, the government, have not? BRAC's biggest strength, according to Fazle Hasan Abed, is its management. There is a strong system of supervision, monitoring and accountability. This, believes the founder, is what BRAC has and what State enterprises lack. The more than 50,000 teachers at BRAC schools, for example, are first trained, then supervised twice a week and given a refresher course every month. The same goes for health volunteers, human rights and legal aid workers, etc., all supervised and given refresher courses at regular intervals.

“There is no cushy life at BRAC,” says Abed, “people have to work in rural Bangladesh and they are constantly monitored, if they don't work efficiently they will be terminated, unlike in government service.” There is an internal as well as external monitoring system, the latter which reports directly to the Chair and not through the line management; there is also a team of around 250 internal auditors who check all costs in order to avoid corruption, says Abed.

For a nation to progress, it is not only the government which is responsible, believes Abed. Also important is a nation's private sector, how businesses do business, as well as its social sector, such as NGOs and whether they are given the space to do their work. “We are lucky because even though the government has failed in many aspects, it has not prevented NGOs from doing their work. This also provides donors with an alternative channel for giving foreign aid.”

High-yielding crops -- the fruits of BRAC's research and technology at the rice research and biotechnology labs in Gazipur.

Countering Criticism
BRAC and other microfinance providers are often condemned for the drastic measures taken to recover loans, ranging from threat of force to actual force, such as taking the tin roofs off of people's homes. Abed, however, says that it is usually not BRAC workers who do this. “A group will borrow money from us and if one of the group members is not repaying their loan the others think that they will not get their next loan so they put pressure on the one trying to abscond. If loans are not repaid, we would be making losses and the whole microfinance programme would stop. A bit of pressure is essential,” says Abed, “as, left to their own devices, many people may not repay their loans. It is because of this discipline that microfinance has been so successful in Bangladesh. But the drastic measures we hear about are rare, a few a year perhaps. They're the exception rather than the rule.”

Unlike some other NGOs, BRAC is also criticised for being a glamorous one, with huge and luxurious infrastructure. Abed's response, however, is that even greater infrastructure is needed. “We are the largest NGO in the world and we need our staff in one place. Management is far superior if you have everyone in the same place and are able to continuously interact with them.”

Despite all its good work, BRAC has also been labelled by some as being a “parallel government”.

Cow milk collected from women in remote villages is processed at
BRAC's Food and Dairy Project in Gazipur and sold in the city.

“How can we be a government?” asks Abed. “We don't govern, we don't have the power to tax people. We are only providing 'additionality' to what the government is doing, adding value to areas where government functions are weak. For example, the government is keen to improve agriculture but it will not be able to do so alone, so BRAC will be putting in more efforts in agriculture in order to increase food production so as to not have to import food, for we need to delink ourselves from the international market where prices are high. Already there are a whole new group of people involved in agricultural extension, seed production, etc., working at a national level.”

“We have also offered to train primary school teachers but the Teachers' Union does not want it. They are afraid because they know they will have to work hard because BRAC will monitor them, make sure they do their jobs properly. They can bribe a government official but not a BRAC worker and so they don't want third parties involved. We would be happy to take up education and management if the government asked us to.”

“The Work Will Go On”
There have been no failures at BRAC, believes Abed. “We have never felt that we can't achieve something we have decided to delve into. We have emphasised on particular programmes at different times in our history, but there were never any failures. We have strong monitoring and evaluation practices and we correct weaknesses quickly and are always at the cutting edge of new developments, learning from the work we do as well as the experiences of others, changing our programmes in ways that help the poor.”

Popular theatre is an innovative and effective communication medium of BRAC's Social Development Programme, involving the community and creating awareness on social issues through entertainment. Photo: BRAC

For example, BRAC plans to focus next on agriculture and climate change. While agriculture will be the biggest programme, the impact of climate change and how to mitigate it is one of BRAC's projects in the pipeline. “When the sea level rises due to climate change and 35 percent of the land will be under saline water, we will have to know how to grow rice in saline water. In other areas, there will be less rain and for that we will need drought-tolerant rice varieties. We will be researching into these. Another issue is protecting our land from sea level rise, whether with dykes as the Dutch did in the 12th or 13th century, or some other means to protect people from destitution. We have already started planning for what we may need to do for all this.”

BRAC is also working on governance, says Abed, training mid-career civil servants at the Institute for Governance Studies in governance and development at BRAC University. “Thus we are working with both the poor as well as in government in order to improve at both levels,” says Abed. The university's School of Public Health has also been successful in promoting and practising innovative public health education through community-based experiential learning.

“For an organisation to be effective and to sustain itself, it must be relevant to the needs of its society,” says Abed, referring to a study of institutions which have survived over the last 500 years, many of them universities, a few churches, parliaments and a business institution.

Thirty-six years down the road, Fazle Hasan Abed is not tired, and says he still has time for his family and reading. BRAC, however, is probably the biggest part of his life and his strategy of thinking nationally, working locally and looking for inspiration globally has served him well over the decades. Among other things, he has drawn inspiration from Paolo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which built “a new kind of consciousness” in him about the role of the poor not simply as passive recipients but actors in their own development.

“My motivation has always been to see Bangladesh out of poverty, its people living with dignity and self respect, every child getting an opportunity to be educated. I want to see a stable society where people are not completely helpless.” Abed says he is an egalitarian, believing that human beings are all essentially the same, no matter where they come from or whether they are rich or poor. “Everyone has potential and I want to help make this inherent, latent, potential in people flourish. I want to see the flowering of it in my society.”

“I know I will not live forever,” says Abed, “but through the organisation and values I have helped to create, the work will go on.”

Keeping OurCrafts Alive

Srabonti Narmeen Ali

Spinning, weaving, block printing and embroidering at Ayesha Abed Foundationfactory in Manikganj.

On any given day, all the branches of Aarong in Dhaka are filled with people milling about, buying gifts for their friends, household items to make their homes more ethnic and colourful, or just randomly shopping for the sake of it. Aarong has something for everyone, be it their specialised silver jewellery, panjabis and fotuas for men, or even clothes for the younger generation at Taaga, an innovative venture started by Aarong's Director, Tamara Abed.

Aarong, established in 1978 by BRAC, aims to empower artisans across the country who are otherwise unable to come into the city. The organisation provides a medium for these craftspeople and artisans, its core objective being to provide employment and also to make sure that these crafts do not die out.

“The problem with the traditional system of selling handicrafts,” says Farheen Khurram, Senior Marketing Manager of Aarong, “was that it was not sustainable and the craft was not encouraged. People were leaving hereditary crafts and moving on to other things and so there was a need to retain and keep our traditional crafts alive.”

In addition to keeping crafts alive, it was also important to empower destitute and underprivileged women and ensure the commercial success of these women, who do not have other opportunities and outlets. This is where the Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF), a trust formed in 1976, established in the village of Manikganj, came in. The AAF, now boasting 13 centres and 653 sub-centres all over Bangladesh, is an organisation that provides all its artisans and craftswomen with either a set salary or piece-by-piece payment. A woman who usually works eight hours for 25 days in a month usually gets paid at least Tk. 2,000 monthly. The price varies according to which skill the person in question has, but they all get a minimum of Tk. 2,000. Regardless of how they are paid all the AAF members are entitled to free medical check ups, day care services, free legal advice, worker retirement funds and also free schooling for their children (at BRAC schools).

Members of the AAF are also trained in a particular craft or skill, be it stitching or dyeing, etc. and, as a result, are one of the two sources of product supplies for Aarong (the other being independent producers of a particular craft, such as silver jewellers, metal arts, handloom fabrics). In total there are about 65,000 artisans supported by Aarong, combining both members from the AAF and the independent producers.

“The way it works is that with independent producers, we provide the designs and orders,” says Khurram. “We have a costing department to assess and decide on how much should be paid. The cost is very much negotiable and is usually agreed upon by both Aarong and the producer.”

Independent producers have to be producers of Aarong, which mean that they fulfil certain requirements that Aarong has, such as while being skilled they have to be needy enough to be eligible. Aarong has teams to make sure that the producers are paying their workers fairly (usually a producer has a team of workers), and also to make sure that their factories have good working conditions.

There are currently eight Aarong outlets in Bangladesh, five in Dhaka, and one each in Chittagong, Khulna and Sylhet. There is also an outlet in London. Aarong also exports with different fair trade companies.

“We work with fair trade organisations because we are also a fair trade company, and we follow all the rules required to be one,” says Khurram. “The organisations that buy from us are mainly based in Europe, such as Italy, France, Germany and UK. Although it varies we mostly export selective products such as household items, as the demand is different abroad.”

Aarong has been celebrating its 30th year anniversary this year starting with a Nakshi Kantha Exhibition entitled 'The Story of Stitches' at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy in July. It took one year to plan the exhibition which incorporated craftsmen specialising in the traditional art of Nakshi Kantha from all over the country. There were four AAF groups participating in this particular exhibition -- Jamalpur, Sherpur, Khushtia and Jessore. Overall there are about 16,000 women who are employed in the art of Nakshi Kantha and Aarong selected eight people who were awarded the Master Craftsperson award, for which each of these eight got a certificate for their skill and Tk 20,000.

Aarong is also organising various other exhibitions for the rest of the year, such as one on Jamdanis, etc. In addition they have an Eid Fashion show coming up, in which, according to Khurram, they will take fashion to a new level.

“When Taaga first came into being five years ago,” says Khurram, “it was because Aarong saw the need for Indo-western fusion clothes and also the need to cater to global trends. We were a society moving towards fusion wear. It was important that young women found something to wear which was not just western, but also had some hint of cultural significance, be it embroidery, or the kind of cloth used, or whatever else. Even with menswear, we have tried to make different types of fusion panjabis and fotuas, which people will be seeing in our Eid Fashion show.

“Our Eid collection has many changes because the Aarong designers have gone all out and experimented with new things. All the items, be it clothes, bags, sandals, are all created with fresher concepts. We are trying to bridge the gap between the ages, making the clothes appropriate for people in our parents generation as well as in our generation.”

Aarong markets in cities and also exports traditional handicrafts made by rural craftspeople.

Although Aarong is breaking barriers and has made Bangladeshi crafts a household name, rather than a dying art, there are those that claim that the items in Aarong are very expensive. However, Khurram explains why things are priced the way they are.

“What everyone has to remember is that these are all handmade clothes, which means that the basic raw materials are more expensive and take longer to make,” she says. “If the cost of making is high the sale price will also go up. Objectively we also want our products sold. The money goes into paying these women salaries, electricity in their factories or their workplaces, and the remaining profit is sent back to BRAC for its development programmes because it is important that BRAC remains self-sustainable through us.”

It is a small price to pay, for us customers, when we consider the bigger picture at hand. It is important to remember all the lives that we are, in our small way, contributing to, just as these lives are contributing to keeping our hereditary and traditional crafts alive. This is not charity. The women at AAF are learning to be self-sufficient and taking care of themselves, all the while ensuring that their children will have better opportunities. Instead of rendering our underprivileged completely helpless, Aarong and the AAF is teaching them to be responsible and giving them the chance to earn their keep, thereby giving them something much more important than money -- the belief that they can make it.


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