Borlaug Dialogue Symposium
Des Moines, Iowa
16 October 2015
"Thank you, Ambassador Quinn, World Food Prize Laureates, distinguished guests and friends. It is appropriate that we are gathered in Iowa in October, in the middle of the harvesting season. Throughout this month, combines are rolling across the fields, here in one of the world's largest corn-producing regions.
In my native Bangladesh, where the main crop is rice, October, in the northwest of the country, has long been a time of chronic food shortage known as monga (M-O-N-G-A). Lasting about 60 days, monga is often referred to as a "season," as though it were a natural phenomenon, like the American autumn or the Asian monsoon. But it is a season defined only by widespread unemployment and hunger among the landless. It was long assumed to be a part of the enduring fabric of rural life in northwest Bangladesh. But today, we are starting to see the disappearance of monga and, in many places it has gone completely.
How has this happened? The answer is through the gradual adoption of new technology and a change in cropping patterns. We began working with farmers to alter the cropping pattern in a way that provides year-round employment to landless labourers. We did this by introducing a shorter-maturity rice variety for the summer rainy reason. A larger gap thus opened up between the two annual rice crops, long enough to allow cultivation of a third crop: the potato. Planting and harvesting potatoes during this period provides an extra 65 person-days of employment per hectare. Land that once yielded two harvests now produces three, and as a result, the monga season is close to disappearing.
We have thus succeeded in disrupting a pattern of suffering that had prevailed for centuries.
We can count many examples of methods that enable the poor to end poverty in their own lives, putting an end to cycles of suffering like the one I have just described.
One of these enabling tools is microfinance. BRAC began offering loans and savings services to the rural poor in 1974, when we were working in just one remote area of Bangladesh.
Wage employment was low, so we wanted participants in our development programs to have their own sources of income. We started making small loans to buy cows, seeds, farm tools, and other productive assets. These were offered as part of a package of services that included literacy and empowerment training, health care, sanitation, hygiene, and family planning.
Many of the women we worked with had a hand-to-mouth existence. They could only dream of having, say, 5,000 Bangladeshi taka, or about $100, to buy a cow. We created borrower groups in each village, thus removing two of the biggest constraints on poor people's ability to take control of their lives: a lack of resources, and a lack of solidarity among themselves.
Yet our borrowers faced many more problems trying to generate income from assets bought with micro-loans.
In 1991, I remember visiting a village in the north of Bangladesh that was about two miles on foot from the main road.
I spoke to a woman there, one of our microfinance borrowers, who was selling milk from the cow she had bought with her 5,000 taka loan. She told me the cow produced two liters of milk every day which she sold for 7 taka (about 15 cents) per liter.
She said, "I'm using that money to pay the loan back and, after that, I have no income."
I knew at the time that the price of milk in the capital, Dhaka, was 25 taka per liter. The demand for milk in our growing cities was enormous, and yet this woman had no way of accessing that market.
I thought, if we could collect milk from this woman, refrigerate it, and transport it to Dhaka, we could easily pay her 15 taka per liter -- roughly twice what she was getting at that time -- and still cover our costs.
This led to the establishment of the BRAC Dairy enterprise.
In order to improve services to livestock farmers, we have trained 400 paravets -- and set up a bull station to provide artificial insemination services, with bull semen from Friesian and others high-milk producing cattle. This is now being distributed through 3,000 trained inseminators throughout the country, equipped with a cell phone and a motorcycle, to provide artificial insemination services directly to farmers' home.
Bangladesh milk production is one a growth trajectory due to these services.
As the years went by, I found many examples like this where microcredit alone was not enough to boost incomes significantly. To help borrowers become more productive, we invested in training, inputs, and ways to get their goods to market.
We also encouraged people to develop multiple streams of income. We urged people to diversify, starting with small vegetable gardens alongside their homesteads. These supplemented their income and added nutrition to their diets. Many of our borrowers who produced vegetables for the market didn't have access to quality seeds so, in 1986, we launched our own vegetable seed production business and began producing high-quality seeds with the help of outside experts.
By the 1990s, microfinance in Bangladesh had grown quite large, driven by organizations like BRAC and Grameen Bank. Many clients were now using their micro-loans to buy and raise imported high-yielding varieties of chickens, which produced more eggs than regular domestic chickens. Over a two-year period, we trained 40,000 women in as many villages as poultry vaccinators, so they could provide provide regular vaccinations, using vaccines provided by the government, to the poultry rearers in their village.
Again, we faced constraints. This time it was a scarcity of quality poultry feed. In 1994, we began introducing hybrid maize seeds imported from Australia, so our farmers could grow maize for poultry feed.
It was quite a struggle to get Bangladeshi farmers to accept this idea. Maize was a new crop at the time and farmers weren't aware of the demand. So we offered them a buy-back guarantee. We told them, "If you grow our hybrid maize and can't sell it on the open market, we'll buy your harvest at a guaranteed price. You have no obligation to sell it to us; if you can find a buyer willing to pay more, by all means do so."
Farmers took us up on the offer, and the increased production of maize for poultry feed greatly benefited our poultry farmers. Maize is now an established crop in Bangladesh.
In 1998, our seed enterprise entered the market for our country's dominant crop, rice. We started importing hybrid rice seeds from China and field testing them for viability in different ecological zones. We now markets 12 varieties of hybrid rice in Bangladesh, including four developed at our own research center. This seed enterprise now generates a surplus of $1 million annually -- one of many similar enterprises that support our borrowers.
We are now working in five countries in sub-Saharan Africa, using self-employed local agents to extend similar solutions to farmers there.
There are those who say a nonprofit like BRAC should follow a purely charitable model rather than generating its own income, but I reject this. Today BRAC's social enterprises, including microfinance, generate revenue in excess of $600 million, with a net surplus of $150 million. Together with substantial donor funding, this funds our schools; our programs on maternal, neo-natal and child health and nutrition; water, sanitation and hygiene; human rights training and legal services; and many other programs.
Microfinance became one of our largest and most successful programs. But by the late 1990s, our field research showed that we still weren't reaching the poorest 10 per cent of Bangladesh's population. Even after 25 years of building rural livelihoods, we were failing to provide any significant opportunities to those most in need.
Millions of households at the very bottom were being systematically excluded from group-based microfinance. The group members, who were all poor women themselves, would not let the poorest women in the village join the groups. The members thought the poorest would not be able to regularly save and use loan capital to generate income.
We called them the “ultra-poor,” a sub-set of the extreme poor who lived on less than 80 US cents a day. They were mostly households headed by women, many of whom were widowed or abandoned.
We found the poorest do not take part in village life. Their children do not go to school. With their basic needs unmet, microfinance alone could not offer them a pathway out of poverty.
In 2001, BRAC developed a program tailored for the ultra-poor. We sought to address their multiple barriers to development simultaneously, hoping to give them a boost that “graduated” them from ultra-poverty.
Selected ultra-poor families receive a package of support: a cash stipend, a productive asset (such as a cow or half a dozen goats), training, a savings accounts, and basic healthcare.
This support period lasts 24 months. During this time, we make sure their children are able to go to school, encourage them to adopt savings habits, and coach them in the basics of financial management. Our staff pays regular visits to their homes for coaching and handholding to help them through any problems they may encounter. We involve others to get them into the mainstream life of the village.
The change that takes place in these women over these 24 months is remarkable. They begin to emerge from the darkness of poverty and hopelessness. It is as though a light has been switched on, and their lives begin to change in ways that far exceed what we put into the program. After years of suffering, it seems their hard work is finally gaining traction.
Since 2002, 95 percent of the 1.4 million families who have come through this program have graduated from ultra-poverty -- a 95 per cent graduation rate! -- and independent studies conducted by London School of Economics show that, even four years after members graduate, they continue to experience growth in their household income and improved well-being.
Success is not limited to Bangladesh. In May, Science magazine published the results of a large randomised control trial, conducted by researchers at Yale and MIT, covering pilots of similar graduation programs, based on BRAC's model but run by other NGOs in India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Ghana, Honduras, and Peru. The results showed definitive success. In all six of the countries studied, treatment households saw significant improvements across a range of indicators that continued beyond the end of their programs.
So these graduation programs seem to work in all cultures -- not just Bangladesh.
I have compared people's realisation of their own power to change the world around them to a light being turned on -- the light of hope. It is a light that all people have within them, even those who may seem lost in darkness.
Time and again, we find examples like these, where poor people are able to harness their own energy and change their own lives, once we create the enabling conditions for them to do so.
To break the inter-generational cycle of poverty, BRAC opened its first schools for the children of the poor in 1985. One of our main objectives was to ensure quality, because these children, deprived of home learning opportunities, needed the best education they could get.
I remember reading an article in the Times Education Supplement about where the best teaching was taking place. It said that the Dutch were the best and language and maths, and the New Zealanders were best at mother language teaching. So we paid a visit to the New Zealand High Commissioner in Delhi, who happened to be Sir Edmund Hillary. I asked if he could help us find some of the top educators in New Zealand to help us improve our mother-tongue language teaching. "Sure," he said. "I can find somebody to help you."
So we recruited teachers from New Zealand, the Netherlands and elsewhere to help our team develop our curriculum, materials and teaching methods, with a view toward provide the highest-quality education we could to the poor.
To find good teachers, we didn't go to teachers' colleges, but looked within the community for a housewife with a high school education. These women received an initial induction training of two weeks, followed by classroom supervision twice a week and monthly refresher training. This developed them, over time, into excellent schoolteachers for the children of the village. And these teachers would be role models for local girls, who form the majority in our classrooms.
By ensuring quality, we soon found that students from BRAC schools were outperforming those from government schools. We are now operating 60,000 one-teacher schools in Bangladesh and other countries in Asia and Africa. We have been able to provide high-quality schooling to an entire generation – approximately 11 million graduates from the primary and pre-primary levels – who would have otherwise remained illiterate.
I would end by reflecting on remarks made by Norman Borlaug in his 1970 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, when the Green Revolution was still in its early days. Despite the spectacular gains in wheat production that had been seen in India, West Pakistan and the Philippines, Borlaug said the Green Revolution was not yet a victory but merely "a temporary success in man's war against hunger and deprivation." It had granted us a breathing space, he said, in which we had a chance to solve larger problems.
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that today we are still within that breathing space created by the Green Revolution. We now have a historic opportunity to end extreme poverty and hunger within our lifetimes. The Sustainable Development Goals set a target of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030, and I believe it is within our power to do so.
We have called into question the fatalistic belief, prevalent throughout history, that widespread human misery is an immutable part of nature. We understand, finally, that things once considered an inevitable aspect of the human experience, often thought to be ordained by a higher power -- things like hunger, poverty, seasonal famine, the oppression of women, and the marginalisation of great portions of society -- are in fact changeable through the power of human activity. And we understand that even the poorest among us can be the agents of this change.
Let us therefore make good use of the breathing space of the Green Revolution to disrupt these cycles of suffering forever.
- Sir Fazle Hasan Abed KCMG