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Monday, 14 December 2015 18:00

Leaving it behind

 20151212 IRP001 0
12 December, 2015
An Economist article

In a small hut overlooking a muddy river, a dozen women are trying to explain how they fell into destitution. After a few stories of husbands falling ill or vanishing, of ill-paid work drying up, of children sickening, of resorting to begging, almost all are crying. This is quite usual, says Sagarika Indu. BRAC, the large aid organisation she works for, has chosen these women and about 1.6m others since 2002 precisely because they are among the most desperate, ground-down people in one of the world’s poorest places.

But then something unexpected happens: the women invite your correspondent to visit again in a couple of years. Is this mere politeness or confidence in the future? It could be either—because they are very likely to be much better off by then.

Roughly 700m people are thought to live in extreme poverty, defined as getting by on less than $1.90 a day. That is huge progress: more than 1.9 billion lived on less than the equivalent amount in 1990. Yet the gains are uneven. Poverty has plummeted in China but declined more slowly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. And the poor are diverse. Among them are a particularly desperate bunch: the “ultra-poor”, who routinely go hungry. In Bangladesh, most are landless, illiterate rural women with children.

In the 1990s it became clear that microfinance, then the most exciting tool in development economics, was not reaching the very poorest people, recalls Sir Fazle Abed, BRAC’s founder. Microlenders offer small loans at lower interest rates than moneylenders charge. Costs are kept down by assembling small groups of borrowers and encouraging them to exert pressure on each other to repay their loans. One reason the poorest were not borrowing, Sir Fazle says, was that other villagers viewed them as hopeless cases.

BRAC came up with a scheme to help the ultra-poor. It gives them a small stipend for food, followed by an asset such as a cow or a few goats, which they are expected to manage. Field workers visit weekly for the next two years, teaching recipients, for example, how to tell when a cow is in heat and how to get it inseminated. The aim is to help women “graduate” from extreme poverty to the normal kind—as Sir Fazle puts it, “to help them back into the mainstream of poor people”. Then, perhaps, they can start borrowing.

Later research showed that microfinance was not the cure-all that had been thought. But BRAC’s graduation programme proved highly effective. Large randomised controlled trials (explained in the next article) show that it makes people wealthier and raises their spending on food and durable goods. It works outside Bangladesh, too. A study published earlier this year in Science showed that similar programmes run by other NGOs boosted consumption in Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Pakistan and Peru, with the effects lasting at least a year after they ended. The only failure was in Honduras, where many of the chickens given as assets died.

Such programmes are pricey. In India and Bangladesh they cost more than $1,000 per household at purchasing power parity. In Peru, where field workers are better paid, the cost was $5,742. If they are to expand—and about 30 countries are mulling or testing them—two questions must be answered. Do the recipients stay out of deep poverty or slip back? And how exactly do they work?

The results of two big research projects, presented at a conference in London on December 9th, provided some powerful hints. Esther Duflo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that women who were offered cows, goats and intensive training in the Indian state of West Bengal not only did not fall back into indigent poverty but kept climbing out of it. Seven years after the programme began their average monthly consumption was almost one-third higher than it had been after two years. The gap between these women and the untreated control group grew much wider.

Other research explains why. Oriana Bandiera and Robin Burgess, both of the London School of Economics, and four others followed 21,000 people in 1,309 Bangladeshi villages. They tracked ultra-poor women, some of whom were randomly assigned to the graduation programme, and also kept an eye on everyone else. Of the 21,000, only 6,700 were deeply poor at the start. The rest were a mixture of fairly poor, middle class and upper class (by rural Bangladeshi standards, that is: they do not swan around in Hermès).

The poorest women, it turned out, did far more hours of income-generating work: 991 per year on average, compared with 553 for middle-class ones. Yet they packed them into fewer days: the average ultra-poor woman worked for only 252 days a year, compared with 302 for a middle-class woman and 325 for an upper-class one.

The reason is that they toil mostly as domestic servants and in the fields—and casual agricultural work is seasonal. During planting and harvest they work extremely hard; the rest of the year they do little. Better-off women usually rear livestock, which is not only steady work but pays about twice as much per hour. When the poorest women are given cows, they quickly fill their idle time (see chart). They also cut back a little on domestic and field labour.

This is a clue to why microfinance does not reach the poorest. Ms Bandiera and Mr Burgess estimate that the internal rate of return for ultra-poor women going through the graduation programme is between 16% and 23% per year, depending on the assumed opportunity cost of time. That is roughly the interest rate on a microloan. So it ought to be worthwhile for a poor woman to borrow money to buy a cow (and returns would be even higher if they did not require the training BRAC’s field workers provide). The problem is that no microlender would lend them that much.

Some questions remain. The big one is whether the schemes would work in cities. Slum-dwellers are seldom as indigent as agricultural labourers, but they can still get trapped in poverty, and cannot be rescued by gifts of cows. Urban populations are growing so much faster than rural ones that this question is becoming urgent. Another is whether the programme can be run more cheaply. BRAC will soon test sending field workers to visit each recipient once a fortnight instead of once a week.

Their words are heard
For all the advances in research, some things defy measurement. Near Bonabalia, another group of women, recent graduates of the ultra-poor programme, have gathered. What is striking is not so much their greater wealth (reflected in their finer saris and mobile phones) but the way they stand straighter, and their direct looks. Their relatives have started talking to them. Asked to explain how their lives have changed, one of the first things they say is that they now get invited to weddings.



Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and BRAC held a series of events to discuss Nutrition and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): New Approaches to Partnership. The activities concluded today 2nd December with interactive knowledge sharing and a field visit at Palash Upazila (Sub-District), Narshingdi (District) in which the GAIN Global Board Members took part. GAIN’s discussion on SDGs started with a dialogue with government officials on 29 November where the Honourable Minister of Commerce Mr Tofail Ahmed M.P. was present as the Chief Guest.

The Honourable Minister of Commerce Mr. Tofail Ahmed M.P. attended the event as Chief Guest and Professor Dr. Gowher Rizvi, International Affairs Advisor to the honourable Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was the special guest. Panel discussion was facilitated by   Executive Director of GAIN, Marc Van Ameringen and discussants included, Mr. Md. Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan ndc, Secretary Ministry of Industries and Mr. Syed Monjurul Islam, Secretary Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Laurent Umans, First Secretary, Food Security from the Netherland Embassy and Heather McBride, Deputy Director, Planning and Lead Analyst from the Canadian High Commission.  The event was well attended by representatives from the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Food, ERD the Social Development Fund, USAID, UNICEF and the European Union.

On 30 November the discussion focused on nutrition and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which was jointly organised by BRAC and GAIN. Dr. Kaosar Afsana, Director of BRAC Health, Nutrition and Population Programme (HNPP), Executive Director of GAIN, Marc Van Ameringen and Dr. Tahmeed Ahmed, Director, Nutrition and Clinical Services Division, icddr,b facilitated the event. Dr. Muhammed Musa, Executive Director of BRAC and Vinita Bali, Chair of the GAIN Board gave opening remarks. The Honourable Finance Minister Mr Abul Maal Abdul Muhith M.P. attended the event as Chief Guest and Mr Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan, Secretary of Ministry of Industry was the Special Guest. The founder and chairperson of BRAC, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed KCMG attended as a Special Guest and the event was attended by officials of different ministries of Government of Bangladesh,  Board of Directors of GAIN Development, Civil Society and private sector partners and research organisations. Panel discussants included Dr. Khairul Hassan, Deputy Chief (Health), Ministry of Health & Family Welfare,  Dr. Md. Quamrul Islam, Director, IPHN and Line Director, NNS, Mr. Shawn Baker Director of Nutrition, Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), Dr. Stanley Zlotkin Chief, Global Child Health, Hospital for Sick Children, Canada, Mr. Laurent Umans, First Secretary, Food Security, The Royal Netherlands Embassy, Ms. Christa Räder Country Representative WFP, Dr. Md. Ataur Rahman Health & Nutrition Adviser Canadian High Commission, Dr. Jiban Krishna Biswas, Director General, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), Ministry of Agriculture , Mr. Michael Anderson, Chief Executive Officer, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, Mr. Omar Dary Senior Nutrition Adviser, USAID, Ms. Anuradha Narayan Chief, Nutrition Section, UNICEF and Ms. Abi Masefield NAS, Consultant, European Union.

Honourable Finance Minister Mr Muhith M.P. said, “Bangladesh has broken the shackles of extreme poverty through combined efforts of Government, NGOs, academia and private sector”. He also stressed on the importance of research based initiatives to tackle hindrances like poverty and malnutrition.

Sir Fazle emphasised in frugal innovations in bringing nutritious food at the door steps of people. He shared his experience on how BRAC addressed the condition of iodine deficiency in Bangladesh with a holistic approach including setting up salt mills to produce iodised salt.   Sir Abed said, “To scale up nutrition intervention, a multi sectorial approach is necessary”. He also added that “the incidence of malnutrition is widespread not because of lack of food but because of lack of knowledge. Therefore, primary and secondary education curriculum may consider including relevant content on nutrition”. He also urged Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to step forward and persuade ministry of education to make this happen.

Mr Mosharraf Bhuyian, Secretary, Ministry of Industries, said, “The government of Bangladesh is committed to support the cause of combating micronutrient deficiency in Bangladesh. The Ministry of Industries has taken the lead in the Universal Salt Iodisation programme, with the goal of alleviating iodine deficiency by 2030. Mr Bhuyian highlighted the recent success of mandatory fortification of edible oil with Vitamin A as is a good example of a cost effective, scalable intervention.

Mr Jay Naidoo, the Chair of the Partnership Council of GAIN concluded the event with a vote of thanks.

Saturday, 29 August 2015 18:00

Debating for the right cause

30 August, 2015
The finale of BRAC Uganda’s Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA) programme debate competition was held in Metropole hotel in Kampala on 25 August 2015. ELA uses debate as a technique to engage girls in critical thinking and problem solving in their communities.  

At the beginning of the year, under the ELA programme, debate trainings were conducted where 8,310 girls competed within their clubs. From this, 1,385 girls went on to compete at the branch level, of which 282 proceeded to the area level. Eventually 21 girls made it to the regional level in which they were put in groups of three, each representing the seven regions in which ELA operates. 

The two winning teams - Gulu region and Kampala-I region competed at the national level ELA debate tournament held at Kampala.  With youth unemployment being a crucial factor affecting Uganda’s development, the topic of the debate was, ‘lack of skills is the main barrier to employment’.

Kyateka Mondo, the Assistant Commissioner for Youth in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (MGLSD) was present at the event on behalf of Minister Muruli Mukasa. He handed over the trophies, medals and prizes to the winners – Gulu region - and the runner-up team. High officials and staff members from BRAC Uganda, officials from the MGLSD, members of BRAC Uganda Advisory Board, representatives from UNICEF, UNFPA, Barclays Bank, Standard Chartered Bank, Makerere University and other organisations were present at the event.

26 August 2015, Dhaka. Interpersonal contact between healthcare workers and mothers have produced a large scale improvement in infant and young child feeding programme and in hand washing habits, said speakers at a seminar yesterday.

Referring to a baseline and an endline survey conducted in 2010 and 2014 respectively in 50 sub-districts where community-based Alive & Thrive programme was implemented by BRAC, they said exclusive breastfeeding went up to 88 per cent from 48, and the percentage of mothers washing hands before feeding young children improved from 23 per cent to 31.   
They were addressing a dissemination seminar on Alive & Thrive programme, lessons learned and evaluation results on infant and young children feeding practices in Bangladesh, held at BRAC Centre Inn in the capital.

The Bangladesh part of the project had been implemented by BRAC from 2009 to 2014 with a strong emphasis on community engagement by using its existing healthcare platforms and a cadre of frontline community health workers.

"People in Bangladesh are very receptive," said Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, speaker in parliament, at the programme.

The chair of the event, BRAC’s executive director Dr Muhammad Musa noted that nutrition interventions are difficult to implement and the high success rate of Bangladesh proves the strength of BRAC’s engagement with the community.

Ellen Piwoz, senior programme officer on nutrition at the Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program, said: “We are looking forward to working in Bangladesh with government, BRAC, and all the partners in future with our new strategy.” She also added that the project on improving infant and young child feeding practices funded in three countries was the “most successful” in Bangladesh.

Launched in 2009 in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Ethiopia with funding from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Canadian and Irish governments, Alive & Thrive used advocacy, interpersonal communication and community mobilisation, mass media and strategic data to improve breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices and to reduce stunting and anaemia in young children.

Besides, BRAC and other international development organisations joined the initiative under the management of FHI 360, a US-based organisation.

Dr Tina Sanghvi, country programme director and senior technical advisor, Alive & Thrive said Bangladesh's improvement in breastfeeding was better than Vietnam and Ethiopia where the exclusive breastfeeding increased from 19 percent to 58 and 72 percent to 83 respectively.

Complementary feeding with diet diversity increased in Bangladesh from 32 per cent to 64, she said.

27 August 2015, Dhaka. On 14 April 2015 during the pohela boishakh celebrations around 20 women and girls were sexually abused in Dhaka University's TSC and Suhrawardy Udyan gate areas. Similar kind of incidents took place in different parts of the country on the same day, stirring the entire nation. Practices like child marriage, dowry and violence against women and girls are issues that Bangladesh continues to struggle with.

A national survey carried out by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) in 2011, shows that as many as 87 per cent of married women reported having experienced both physical and psychological violence in the last 12 months.

BRAC expressed its stand against such incidents of violence and harassment and decided to organise a nationwide human chain, BRAC bondhon on every last Thursday of the month for 15 minutes starting from May 2015 until December 2015. People from other sectors and organisations, including onlookers, are also expressing solidarity by joining the BRAC bondhon.  So far BRAC has organised four human chains with participation from  70,000 BRAC staff and BRAC’s affiliated community members including government officials, community leaders, parents, students, teachers in all of 64 districts, and in an average of 2,326 spots around the country.

BRAC has been working to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality since its inception. The organisation takes an active stand against  harassment and sexual violence on women and children.

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, BRAC’s founder and chairperson, was announced as the winner of the 41st annual World Food Prize on 1 July 2015. Sir Fazle has been recognised for his outstanding contribution to enhancing the world's production and distribution of food to those most in need.

Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, President of the World Food Prize Foundation, announced this year’s winner at a ceremony at the State Department in Washington, DC. The Prize, which includes an award of USD 250,000, has been referred to as the Nobel prize for food and agriculture.

“Being selected to receive the 2015 World Food Prize is a great honour,” said Sir Fazle in a statement. “I thank the Foundation for its recognition of the work of BRAC, which I have had the privilege to lead over the last 43 years.”

“The real heroes in our story are the poor themselves and, in particular, women struggling with poverty. In situations of extreme poverty, it is usually the women in the family who have to make do with scarce resources. When we saw this at BRAC, we realised that women needed to be the agents of change in our development effort.”

Announcing Sir Fazle’s name as the Laureate, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn said, “At a time when the world confronts the great challenge of feeding over nine billion people, Sir Fazle Abed and BRAC, the organisation he founded and leads, have created the preeminent model being followed around the globe on how to educate girls, empower women and lift whole generations out of poverty.  For this monumental achievement, Sir Fazle truly deserves recognition as the 2015 World Food Prize Laureate.”

At the ceremony, the U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “I offer my sincerest congratulations to Sir Fazle and appreciation for the progress he has made in improving people’s lives, alleviating hunger, and providing pathways out of poverty. Sir Fazle’s and his organisation’s recognition that engaging women in STEAM fields—science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and math—benefits our local and global communities is a vision that we share at United States Department of Agriculture. It is my honor to participate in this event today with people who see the need for innovative approaches to feeding our rapidly growing population”.

BRAC is widely credited as a major contributor to Bangladesh's achievement in halving poverty and hunger* levels since 1990, in line with the UN's Millennium Development Goals, through its sustained efforts in the fields of poverty and hunger eradication and food security. By focusing on scalable solutions, BRAC’s food programmes have turned into sustainable social enterprises that provide inputs and access to stable markets for the rural poor.

BRAC's agriculture and food security programmes are part of a larger set of poverty eradication interventions working in 11 countries, empowering the poor, especially women and girls, using tools such as microfinance, education, health care, legal services, community empowerment, social enterprises, and a full-fledged university, BRAC University, in Dhaka.

Download the 2015 Laureate Announcement

BRAC has made significant contributions in attaining Millennium Development Goal (MDG) that have been set to achieve by 2015-said speakers at BRAC’s annual report 2014 launch. The event was held on 23 June 2015 at BRAC centre at Mohakhali. 

Bangladesh is on track in achieving the 5 of the 8 MDGs. The country has made remarkable progress in the areas of poverty alleviation, primary school enrolment, gender parity in primary education, lowering the infant and under-five mortality rate and maternal mortality ratio.

Highlighting BRAC’s achievements executive director Dr Muhammad Musa said, “99.97 per cent out of 43,843 BRAC primary school students passed the PSC exam in 2014. Around 61.17 per cent of these students are girls and their pass rate is 99.9 per cent.

In health sector, BRAC has achieved 91 per cent immunisation coverage in its working areas across 64 districts. The TB treatment success rate is 95 per cent.

Dr Musa also stressed that significant improvements have been made in alleviating ultra poverty. Since 2002 BRAC’s ultra poor programme covered 1.6 million people and 95 per cent of this population have been able to come out of ultra poverty. In addition to that BRAC’s water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programme has distributed 32 million sanitary latrines in 250 sub districts.

Explaining BRAC’s future direction Dr Musa added, “BRAC is extending its services to manage urban challenges, youth skills development, climate change resilience and violence against women”

BRAC and BRAC International’s senior director Asif Saleh moderated the event.  Country Head of Department for International Development (DFID) Sara Cooke, Counsellor (Development Cooperation), Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Priya Powell and  BRAC senior management and representatives from media also attended the event.

At the closing session, BRAC launched its new ‘augmented reality’ app to complement the content of its annual report. Smart phone users can access additional features using this app. This is the first app of its kind in Bangladesh which is also developed by BRAC staff.

Dr Muhammad Musa has been appointed as the new executive director of BRAC, the largest development organisation in the world.

Dr Musa is a veteran development practitioner whose career spanned in different parts of the world in Asia, Africa and North America over a period of 32 years. Immediately prior to joining BRAC, he was the CEO of CARE India and represented the country at the global board of CARE International.

Dr Musa has a masters in public health (MPH) from Johns Hopkins University, USA, post graduate diploma from The Netherlands Universities Foundation for International Development, and an MBBS from Chittagong Medical College, Bangladesh. 

The education budget for the FY 2015-2016 stands at 1.8 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) compared to the last FY which was 2.2 per cent, said experts at a national seminar held today.  The net worth of the reduced amount stands BDT 6162 crore. The national seminar titled “Quality Education for Next Generation” was jointly organised by BRAC and Institute for Informatics and Development (IID) at BRAC Centre Inn. 

In the keynote presentation, Syeed Ahmed from IID highlighted although the total allocation for the country’s education sector slightly increased in size, but in terms of its share of the GDP, it declined significantly. The allocation has been the lowest since FY 2006-2007.

State minister for Education Mr Nurul Islam Nahid, MP said, “The national education policy has been set in alignment with the national goal of turning Bangladesh into a middle income country by 2021”. He stressed on the fact that Bangladesh is on the right track although the growth might seem slow. “We have worked two years to develop the education curriculum. 10 lacs teachers have been trained to improve the quality of education” he said. Highlighting the gender parity of teachers in the government schools he mentioned, “The ratio of female and male teachers in our primary schools is 51:49 and 53:47 in secondary schools.”

The consultation also highlighted that apart from GDP, the government has proposed 10.7 per cent for education sector for the next fiscal year against 11.7 per cent in the previous budget. This decrease in budget will seriously affect the quality of education stressed experts present at the seminar. More focus on the infrastructure of schools, quality of education in terms of relevance and age appropriateness, putting more resource in school management are the key factors that were emphasized in the discussion.

Present as a guest of honour, State minister for Ministry of Finance and planning, M A Mannan, MP said, “We need to be literate first before talking about other issues. At this moment we are raising the number of literacy. Focus on quality will come next. But we have brought infrastructural change in primary, secondary schools and madrasas in the last 6 years.” Appreciating the effort put up by BRAC and IID he said, “We will consider adjusting the inflation rate in the budget.”

Director General of directorate of primary and mass education Md Alamgir said, “We have piloted a project in 5 districts to avoid leaking questionnaire. For the first time we are using digital system to develop questionnaire” 

Amonsgt the notable guests were senior programme manager of Australian High Commission Meher Nigar Bhuiyan, Founder and CEO of JAAGO foundation Korvi Rakshand and representatives from media. BRAC’s director of Education programme Dr Safiqul Islam chaired the seminar which was jointly moderated by BRAC’s senior director Asif Saleh and the CEO of IID Syeed Ahmed.  

Speakers urged the government to set up an independent land commission to ensure improved services for citizens, especially for women and minorities, at a policy dialogue organised by BRAC. The policy dialogue titled, ‘Institutional and social barriers for women and marginalised communities to access land and property rights’ took place on 15 June 2015, at BRAC Centre. The event was moderated by BRAC’s executive director, Dr Muhammad Musa.

“An umbrella land services authority needs to be established in each upazila with a view to offer one stop service,” said additional secretary and former director general of land records, Md Abdul Mannan, in his presentation. He made this recommendation to overcome the obstacles in realising property rights of women and marginalised people.

Special guest of the event, honourable state minister, Ministry of Land, Mr Saifuzzaman Chowdhury urged all stakeholders “to come up with a proposal to address resolving this land rights issue’.

BRAC organised this policy dialogue as part of its property rights initiative (PRI) project. PRI aims to develop linkages between laws and rights by helping poor communities in identifying their entitlement to property rights and supporting them in accessing their claims.

Present at the dialogue as a panellist, Barrister Sara Hossain advised, “We should exercise the intervening opportunities present in our existing laws instead of solely aiming for formation of a new law. For example, there is a scope of gifting property to women in Muslim law. This can be used to deal with property rights issues.” This dialogue was a step to create a coordination amongst the organisations working from grassroots to policy level on land rights issues.

Leading researchers, land rights and women’s rights activists, academicians, and representatives of NGOs and CSOs including international development partners attended the event. They reiterated the necessity to simplify and shorten the otherwise complex land documents like khatian, dalil and porcha for easier understanding.

The director of BRAC’s human rights and legal aid programme, Dr Faustina Pereira concluded the dialogue with a commitment to come up with an activity mapping. Organisations working in the land rights issue will identify their working areas in the map to ensure a more coordinated approach to work in future.

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