25 September 2008, Dhaka. Politicians of Bangladesh who have used the state apparatus to further the interests of their own and those of their cronies keep making news because of their corrupt deeds.
Over the past 35 years, a section of the country’s urban middle class has also amassed wealth through dishonest means.
Even as several corrupt politicians are either brought to justice or forced to be on the run, the country is in search of the right leader and the right formula for the future.
The fate of more than 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s 145 million people — deprived of proper education, sanitation and healthcare facilities and other basic needs — is also gradually changing for the better.
Over the years, the rural poor have remained left out of any plan for development.
They were, in fact, left to the mercy of God and a handful of non-government organisations.
One of these, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), which is the world’s largest in terms of reach, has been training Bangladesh’s rural poor on education, sanitation, nutrition and healthcare since its inception in 1972, right after the independence of Bangladesh.
Focus on back of beyond
BRAC is now focusing on how to save the rural poor from the recent food crisis, at a time when the global economy is trying to come to terms with high oil prices and shortage of food.
“Just grow more food per hectare and use better quality seeds that will ensure better yield," Fazle Hasan Abed, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and BRAC’s founder and chairperson, told Weekend Review in an interview recently.
“Increased productivity in the agricultural sector with better quality seeds could help most agriculture dependent economies to become self-sufficient in food.”
While some economists struggle to assess the magnitude of the situation and find out what went wrong with capitalism, Abed is helping his compatriots cope with the crisis.
“Chinese farmers produce eight tonnes of rice per hectare while we grow only five in Bangladesh.
"If we can match the Chinese efficiency, countries such as Bangladesh will be able to meet the growing food demand and be able to store for the future,” he says.
Forbes recently ran a feature on Abed, saying he should have been considered for the Nobel prize. Many in Bangladesh share this view. The belief gained strength after Mohammad Yunus won the Nobel prize in 2006.
Born in 1936 in Bangladesh, Abed is the son of a rich landowner. He was educated in the Dhaka and Glasgow universities.
The 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh had a profound effect on Abed, then a professional accountant in his thirties holding a senior corporate executive’s position at Shell Oil in Chittagong.
The war changed the direction of his life. In the face of the brutality and agony of war, the comforts and perks of a corporate executive’s life ceased to have any attraction for Abed.
As the then East Pakistan was under virtual occupation, Abed left his job and went to London to devote himself to the Liberation War of Bangladesh.
There Abed helped initiate a campaign called Help Bangladesh to organise funds for the war effort and raise awareness in the world about the genocide in his homeland.
Abed launched BRAC in 1972 to help rebuild a nation ravaged by a nine-month war that claimed 3 million lives and displaced 10 million.
He sold his property in the United Kingdom for $17,000 and invested the money in BRAC, leading him on a difficult journey that eventually succeeded.
Since then, his organisation has engaged itself in a silent revolution by providing rural healthcare, education and income-generating schemes to millions of poor people in a country where the birthrate averaged seven children per mother.
“Poverty eradication helps people access knowledge and credit and empowers them to become consumers," Abed says.
“We will disburse more than $1.2 billion in microfinance this year to more than 7.4 million borrowers in Bangladesh.
"We have brought 120 million people within our reach during the past 35 years, including 110 million in Bangladesh.
"This makes BRAC the world’s largest NGO in terms of reach. We are not the richest but the largest. We are also the only southern NGO that has gone global.”
BRAC has a presence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tanzania, Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
It has a network of 33 offices in Pakistan with 1 million borrowers. BRAC has a strong social development network across 23 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Population explosion had at one stage become the biggest threat to Bangladesh’s economic growth.
In 1977, the Bangladesh government identified population growth as a national problem, gradually helping to bring down the growth rate to 1.7 per cent.
Through BRAC and other NGOs, the Bangladesh government and large international donors have made cheap contraceptives available to millions of couples and educated them to use these products, breaking a social taboo.
Use of contraceptives and prevention of childbirth was considered an act against God’s will in parts of Bangladesh, which fuelled the high birthrate.
“We have managed to bring down the birthrate per mother to 2.7 from 7 in the 1970s,” Abed says.
In 1979, about 135 infants out of 1,000 in the country died before their first birthday and 250 before reaching 5.
Cuting down mortality
“Over the past 35 years, we have been able to help cut down mortality among infants and children. This has come down to 65 per thousand, which we are trying to reduce further,” he says.
“Survival of children cuts the propensity of a mother’s desire to have more children. As the child mortality rate was high, couples used to have more children, so that [at least] a few would survive.”
BRAC has brought more than 80 million Bangladeshis under its healthcare programme. “Bangladesh has been the most successful in this area. No other country has managed to achieve this so fast.”
If population is topmost on the list of Bangladesh’s priorities, then education and empowerment of people should come second.
However, both these tasks have proved to be huge challenges. BRAC has a network of 52,000 informal schools through which it provides basic education to more than 1.5 million students.
Bangladesh has 19 million students between the ages of 6 and 10. About 15 million study in 17,000 government schools while 2.5 million do not go to school.
“In the 1970s, the dropout rate in primary schools was 60 per cent, with a very low enrolment. Today Bangladesh has 85 per cent primary enrolment in which there is still a 30 per cent dropout,” Abed says.
“At least 55 per cent complete primary schooling, although the quality of teaching and learning remains an issue. We are now trying to improve this.”
BRAC has undertaken a programme to improve the quality of education in public schools by providing training to teachers. But this initiative has come under severe attack.
Hopes for a better life
BRAC has a borrower base of 7.4 million people who are trying to improve their lot with the help of microcredit. It has a recovery rate of 98 per cent — the same as Grameen Bank — another microcredit pioneer set up by Nobel prizewinner Mohammad Yunus.
“Many of them [borrowers] have already changed their livelihood and improved their lives.
'While more than two thirds of our borrowers have achieved significant improvement, several have also dropped out of the microcredit programmes as they could not make any headway,” Abed says.
The success of microcredit and microfinance schemes has successfully pulled millions of Bangladeshis out of absolute poverty.
In the 1970s more than 66 per cent Bangladeshis used to live below the poverty line or absolute poverty, earning less than $2 per month.
“This has come down to below 40 per cent because of income-generating schemes and microfinance projects run by NGOs,” he added. “We provide $200 million to the poor to come out of absolute poverty every year.”
BRAC has already established a footprint in southern Sudan as part of its plan to expand in ten countries in Africa.
“We are already present in five African countries and we plan to enter ten,” Abed said. “We want to make a difference in the lives of the people of these countries in terms of healthcare, education and anti-poverty programmes.”
By Saifur Rahman, Business Editor, Gulf News
02 November 2008, Dhaka. The two BRAC staff members who were kidnapped in Afghanistan last week have been released. BRAC Afghanistan area managers Akhter Ali and Mohammad Shahjahan Ali, who were abducted on 23 October from Ghazni, Afghanistan, were left in front of BRAC’s Ghazni office on Saturday evening by their captors. BRAC Afghanistan officials, who found Akhter and Shahjahan to be in good health, conveyed them to the head office in Kabul on Sunday morning. The two released staff members have since been in contact with their families in Bangladesh and BRAC is working to bring them back home as soon as possible.
The BRAC chairperson expressed great relief and joy at the release of the two BRAC staff members. In separate letters, he thanked the Government of Bangladesh, in particular the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Government of Afghanistan, in particular the Ministries of the Interior and Rural Rehabilitation and Development, the Afghanistan Embassy in Dhaka and the Ghazni authorities for their prompt action in securing the release of Akhter and Shahjahan.
Mr. Abed pledged that BRAC will continue to put maximum effort in ensuring the safety of all its staff members in Afghanistan as well as in the other countries where it operates.
16 November 2008, Dhaka. BRAC Chairman Fazle Hasan Abed was honoured with fellowship of Asiatic Society of Bangladesh (ASB) in recognition of his contribution to national development and poverty reduction yesterday.
He was also given a reception at the programme held at the National Museum auditorium in the city yesterday.
Chairman of the Centre for Policy Dialogue Prof Rehman Sobhan, who is also a fellow of ASB, attended the programme as chief guest.
Prof Sobhan hoped that Abed would take his innovative initiatives forward and turn the poor and deprived people into development agents.
He said BRAC's system of non-formal education has become a role model in many countries.
The speakers appreciated the development theories of Abed, his thoughts and steps for the improvement of education sector, and the contribution of BRAC to poverty reduction.
Abed in his speech said, “When we were engaged in rehabilitation work after the liberation war we learnt that long-term development initiative needed to eliminate corruption from the country and we have started doing that through BRAC.”
“The honour was given not only to me but also to all the staffs of BRAC,” he said.
Abed formed BRAC in 1972 with a view to rehabilitating the poor people in the aftermath of the Liberation War.
BRAC has now expanded its activities to different countries of Asia and Africa including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Uganda.
Abed also received many prestigious international awards like Unicef Maurice Pate Award, Ramon Magsaysay Award, Hilton Award and Rockefeller Award.
Presided over by ASB President Prof Sirajul Islam, the programme was also addressed by another ASB Fellow Prof AF Salahudddin Ahmed, Vice-presidents Sharif Uddin Ahmed and Ameer-ul-Islam Chowdhury.
19 November 2008, Dhaka. BRAC and the MasterCard Foundation announced yesterday a $19.6 million programme to expand financial services to the poor across Uganda, benefiting approximately 2 million people. The programme will provide economically active women in Uganda with loans, training and technical support to enable them to improve their livelihoods. Additionally, the programme will expand vocational and life-skills education for adolescent girls. As part of this programme, BRAC will also explore the feasibility of becoming a regulated deposit-taking institution in Uganda, a role it has not yet played in Africa.
This initiative will demonstrate for the first time the full potential of BRAC’s holistic microfinance approach to reduce poverty and improve livelihoods in Africa. Insights generated from this programme will enable BRAC to accelerate its long-term plan to adapt this approach for other African countries.
“The MasterCard Foundation is working with innovators like BRAC to expand the access and reach of microfinance services to the poor, supporting their entrepreneurship so they can improve their own lives and communities,” said Reeta Roy, President and CEO of The MasterCard Foundation.
“This initiative with The MasterCard Foundation will be our largest programme in Africa,” said Fazle Abed, Founder and Chairperson of BRAC. “What we learn in Uganda, including how to provide savings to poor women and their communities, will help us rapidly scale up our operations to provide services to millions of people throughout Africa.”
BRAC is poised to become one of Uganda’s most effective institutions serving significant numbers of rural households. The government of Uganda has made expanding financial services to the rural poor one of its top priorities. More than 37 percent of Uganda’s population live on less than a dollar a day and 62 percent do not have access to financial services.
It may be mentioned here that BRAC is one of the world’s leading providers of microfinance services and its approach, “microfinance multiplied” increases the ability of poor clients to productively use their loans to augment their incomes, and build their assets, as well as stimulate economic and social development within their communities. BRAC recognizes the need of poor people to have a secure place to save their money and the role of savings in sustainable microfinance.
ABOUT THE MASTERCARD FOUNDATION
The MasterCard Foundation is an independent, private foundation based in Toronto, Canada. It was established through the generosity of MasterCard Worldwide customer financial institutions at the time of the company’s initial public offering in 2006. The Foundation has more than $1 billion in assets. Its vision is to make the economy work for everybody by advancing effective and innovative programmes in the areas of microfinance and youth education. For more information, go to www.themastercardfoundation.org
24 November 2008, Dhaka. A book titled 'Inside Schools' jointly written by Samir Ranjan Nath, research coordinator in the research and evaluation division of BRAC, and Amina Mahbub, chief of research evaluation and dissemination unit of Plan Bangladesh was launched at BRAC Centre Inn in the city.
In the launching ceremony, Primary and Mass Education Adviser Rasheda K Choudhury underlined the importance of constituency advocacy to ensure education for all (EFA) and reach the target of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. “Still it is a big challenge for all to bring all the children to primary schools by 2010. We are yet to reach our target due to some deprivation in pocket areas like char land, monga region, children with disabilities, indigenous and Dalit communities,” she added. Rasheda said the prevailing class culture would have to be changed especially by ensuring the education of the children from hard-core families. She also encouraged the third group research for identifying the key points on how to reach education in the deprivation points.
Samir Ranjan Nath, one of the authors, said, “The book is an outcome of an ethnographic investigation in four medium category government primary schools. Key theme of the research was 'school culture'. How the people in schools do things was the centre of the study, which included knowledge, belief, behaviour, morals, law, custom and other capacities and habits.”
Former adviser Kazi Fazlur Rahman, Director General of Primary Education Directorate Nazrul Islam Khan and Brac Executive Director Dr Mahbub Hossain also took part in the programme.
02 January 2008, Dhaka. Speakers at a view-exchange meeting on Thursday stressed the need for setting up a ‘centre for journalism’ in the country to provide training and education to working journalists and to carry out research.
The meeting on opening of ‘centre for journalism’ was held at a city hotel where BRAC University officials and local journalists from both print and electronic media were present. Golam Kibria, Manzur Elahi Shibli and Zahid Hossain of BRAC University briefed the local journalists on various issues such as in-depth and investigative reporting. USAID has initiated a four-year project styled ‘Promoting Governance, Accountability, Trans-parency and Integrity’ designed to assist Bangladesh to combat corruption.
Under the project, Institute of Governance Studies and BRAC have been selected to set up the ‘centre for journalism’ in Bangladesh based on a thorough assessment of 16 local organisations. The officials suggested imparting training on issues like investigative reporting in print and electronic media, reporting and modern technology, laws, regulations and ethics, budget and financial reporting and community radio. Issues relating to media report, research on journalism and working atmosphere, in-depth and investigative reporting and fee-based training, certificate, diploma and credit courses for undergraduates also came up at the meeting for discussion.
A non-partisan advisory board to provide long-term guidance to the centre would be formed through discussion with media managers, senior reporters and academics, the officials said. Local journalists also agreed with BRAC officials on the necessity of training, academic courses and researches and urged to assist the media houses in developing journalism outside Dhaka with ensuring congenial working atmosphere. They also stressed need for maintaining rules, laws and ethical values in journalism with objectivity and introduce online, basic and advance courses on journalism, information technology and English language for the journalists outside Dhaka, taking into account their academic, financial and professional limitations.
16 January 2007, Dhaka. On January 15th, the NoVo Foundation hosted a reception for BRAC USA's board members, advisory council members, staff, and friends. Since supporting the launch of BRAC USA in 2007, NoVo has been a deeply committed partner and this event was the latest instance of their invaluable support.
Guests began arriving at 6:30 PM and were greeted with drinks, hors d'oeuvres, panoramic views of midtown Manhattan, and an exhibit of photographs representing BRAC programmes.
After a first round of introductions, Jennifer Buffet gave a characteristically gracious welcome describing NoVo's engagement with BRAC and the reasons for their support.
"BRAC listens to what is living inside of people. They realize that the answers are on the ground with the people who live in a place - and this must be understood, empowered, harnessed and leveraged. BRAC works through and with the grassroots - with ordinary and extraordinary local people and talent."
Susan Davis, BRAC USA's President and CEO, thanked Jennifer and Peter for their commitment to BRAC and told the story of two BRAC women. The first was Jhonuka, a Bangladeshi girl and BRAC member whose photo was selected for the cover of Ian Smilie's book about BRAC, Freedom From Want, which will be published in April. We hope you will pre-order a copy from Amazon or directly from the publisher. Susan then spoke about Veronica, the first Ugandan to be hired at BRAC Uganda, who has been twice promoted and appointed as head trainer for the microfinance programme.
Lincoln Chen, Chair of the Board, then spoke about the late Alan Rosenfield, BRAC USA's former Chairperson, and his considerable contribution to BRAC.
The occasion marked the first meeting of board and advisory council members; hence there was an enthusiastic exchange of BRAC stories. Everyone was in high spirits and there was a special sense of great, like-minded people, connecting on issues they feel passionately about.
07 February 2009, Dhaka. Debate Aynapur High School of Jhenaigati Upazilla of Sherpur watched victory unfold as they won the Interschool debate competition arranged by BRAC Education Programme. In the final phase of this debate titled, "Reading class textbooks is enough for student improvement," the team for the resolution- Mahishbathan High School of Mahadevpur Upazilla, Naogaon secured the runner's up position. Today, Saturday (07.02.09) the best speaker prize was awarded to the opposition team member Sumaiya Kawser Kajli at the Dhaka Teacher's Training College Milnayoton where the debate was organised.
Chaired by the Executive Director of BRAC Dr. Mahabub Hossain and accompanying Chief Guest - Education Secretary Syed Ataur Rahman, the competition was officially inaugurated by literary intellect and author Selina Hossain. Speeches were also delivered by special guest of the ceremony Managing Director of secondary and higher education department Professor Khan Mohammed Habibur Rahman and Director of BRAC Education Programme Dr. Safiqul Islam.
BRAC Education Programme's aspiration to elevate education standards has come a long way in surpassing the great challenges of educating Bangladeshi's at all levels, especially the goal of ensuring primary education. The education programme at BRAC assists the Government of Bangladesh by training secondary level teachers on a variety of subjects with the objective of enhancing the non- government secondary education. There are other initiatives spun around this programme including management related training for the headmaster and school management committee members. Taking this training one step further is the "Mentoring" Programme which started in 2003 - an endeavour out of the ordinary involving the training of secondary students building them to take a real life experience into teaching others. This training to students inspires students to become the little assistants of the classroom where they pull weaker students out of their apparent trouble at class work, motivate more class presence in order to keep the school premises clean, airy and hygienic. They help to inspire students into participating in extracurricular activities - an intention to sustain their active participation in the various activities occurring in their schools to improve the schools educational status and produce an overall better environment for all. This mentoring programme, which has won wide appraisal, stimulates many a dormant talent through an encouragement of active interest in all that is going on in the school.
The debate training and competition were both fractions of this mentoring activity. BRAC arranged this debate competition after selecting 99 of the best schools that had undergone this mentoring training. 443 schools participated this year 2008 in the debate competition.
21 January 2009, Dhaka. BRAC's chairperson Fazle Hasan Abed, was recently bestowed with an honourary doctorate in humane letters by Rikkyo University in Japan. The President of Rikkyo University Mr. Hideitsu Ohashi gave a warm welcome to Fazle Abed on January 20th at an award-giving ceremony followed by an insightful lecture delivered by the founder of BRAC titled, "A New Path to Innovate Our Global Society."
In another initiative taken by Rikkyo University, BRAC, and BRAC University, a comprehensive co-operation agreement on both academic and practical grounds has been signed. Focusing on Japan and other Asian countries, this fruitful alliance will lead to a partnership in research and education aiming to cure social problems that counter the advancement of globalisation, such as poverty, governance issues and threats to the environment.
07 March 2009, Dhaka. Eleven of the world's leading sustainable banks have created a new alliance to build a positive alternative to a global financial system in crisis. The banks, which have assets of over $10 billion and serve over seven million customers in 20 countries, came together for the first time at a special meeting in the Netherlands from 2 - 4 March.
The banks in the Alliance range from BRAC Bank - part of BRAC, to ShoreBank, a community bank based in Chicago, and Triodos Bank, Europe's leading sustainable bank.
The Global Alliance for Banking on Values was launched at an event which included speeches from Her Royal Highness Princess Máxima of The Netherlands, a former banker and former member of the United Nations Group on Inclusive Financial Sectors, and Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme.
The new partnership plans to develop new ways of working, build organisations better suited to long-term sustainable thinking, and new forms of ownership and economic cooperation. And, given the financial crisis, and its profound and lasting influence, the new Alliance believes its timing is crucial.
According to Fazle Hasan Abed, Founder and Chairperson of BRAC, "We are increasingly dependent on each other economically, wherever we live in the world. If we are to tackle the global problems we face, we are going to need international action to do it. We believe these banks have the potential to change the architecture of the financial world, and start delivering lasting solutions for unserved and underserved communities and sectors."
Founded by BRAC Bank in Bangladesh, ShoreBank in the United States, and Triodos Bank in The Netherlands, the Alliance's members are senior bankers, seven of whom are founders of the institutions themselves.