Eliminating extreme poverty

2.5 million households in Bangladesh live in extreme poverty.

The challenge

People living in extreme poverty are forced to make impossible choices every single day about basic necessities such as food, medicine, housing, or education.

Extreme poverty is more than numbers. It is the denial of dignity.

As much progress has been made globally to alleviate poverty in all its forms, we are now intent on eradicating it.

Bangladesh has reduced its poverty level to 27%, but the challenge of extreme poverty remains - and women are disproportionately affected.

Pockets of extreme poverty are particularly prevalent in the hard-to-reach regions, where often entire communities lack access to basic services and limited economic opportunities.

The approach

We are working towards eliminating extreme poverty completely from Bangladesh by 2020, through a powerful combination of direct and complementary efforts.

Firstly, we are graduating over half a million households out of extreme poverty over the next five years through our own activities. Our graduation approach for extreme poverty is a development intervention for situations where microfinance is inappropriate or insufficient, specifically designed to support and uplift households left behind by macroeconomic growth and mainstream development interventions. We are intensifying and scaling up these efforts, as well as looking into how to further improve effectiveness and decrease the cost.

We are taking a specially integrated approach in poverty pockets such as wetlands (haor), riverine islands (char) and indigenous populations.

These regions are socially marginalised and geographically detached from mainstream development interventions. We are providing multi-faceted support through a single platform that includes education, legal services and activities that promote women’s empowerment.

Beyond direct service provision, we are working closely with the government to affect favourable changes to its social safety net programmes. Internationally, we are also assisting other countries and organisations to adopt our graduation model.

The impact


Pockets of extreme poverty exist all across Bangladesh, often in remote settings with limited infrastructure. Manual data management in these areas is time-consuming, limiting the face-to-face hours that staff can spend in client homes.

To tackle this challenge, we are digitising the systems that we use to monitor graduation, in collaboration with the US-based technology solutions provider Amplifier Strategies. It is speeding up data collection and allowing rapid decision-making.

While we often associate digital systems with easing the responsibilities of office-based urban staff, it is our operations in the remotest areas that report the most positive impacts.

Field staff input data into smartphones during each household visit. GPS instantly locates the place visited and identifies the client. Her information is added, verified and recorded in real-time.

One measurable gain is that the end-line surveys, carried out at the end of every 24-month programme cycle of graduation, will no longer be necessary. Digital data entry is improving data quality and decreasing the time needed to administer surveys by more than half. Impact analysis will also take less time and be more comprehensive, as the system will contain aggregated data of all households. Monitoring resources can be efficiently allocated, which will specially benefit regions where qualified workers are scarce.

The digitising process is expected to cover 30% of our field operations by 2017.

Expanding the financial choices of people living in poverty

Over half the people in Bangladesh - over 50 million adults - do not have access to a formal financial institution and customised financial products.

The challenge

People living in poverty across the world are financially vulnerable in myriad ways, because of limited earning opportunities, reliance on unreliable and variable income sources, and limited ability to invest in assets.

Millions of households still save, borrow and manage day-to-day expenditures through informal means in Bangladesh, such as hiding cash, using friends and family, or going to high interest money lenders, especially when faced with an emergency. These choices are often risky, unreliable and expensive.

The approach

We are one of world’s largest providers of financial services for households rising from poverty, providing financial services in seven countries across Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

We believe that everyone, regardless of their income level, should have access to and be able to effectively use the financial services they need.

With the help of microfinance, people excluded from the formal banking system can access a suite of financial services such as loans, savings, and microinsurance products. Microfinance facilitates families to build assets and to reduce vulnerability to health shocks or natural disasters, as people can borrow or withdraw savings to resume economic activity. Similarly, it smooths consumption for families who might otherwise be forced to sell assets or borrow high interest loans from local lenders when there is a short-term liquidity crunch.

We understand people in poverty have heterogeneous financial needs. Our range of products and services encompass micro-loans for entrepreneurship, household investments, medical expenditures, farming and migration, as well as savings via cash or mobile money, microinsurance and financial education.

We believe that sustainable poverty reduction must unite both economic and social development. Our microfinance activities, as part of our holistic approach to development, complement our other social services, making a powerful combination for building stable, healthy, and empowered livelihoods.

The impact

Improving microfinance services through technology

This year has seen the scaling up of a number of digital initiatives, the most significant being:

Smart collection: We initiated the Smart Collection module, an application that enables field staff to instantly record client payment information and view transaction histories via handheld Android devices. Clients no longer need to visit branches to collect statements regarding repaid loan balances, outstanding loan amounts and savings balances and may request general information as well as a mini statement from their credit officer. This system also enables managers to rapidly identify repayment issues wherever they are.

Increase accessibility using mobile money for all: All microfinance clients can now deposit savings using bKash, BRAC Bank’s mobile money platform, through BRAC’s bKash-enabled deposit premium scheme. This service which enables clients to make deposits remotely, and offers a convenient and high return savings alternative for borrowers, especially in hard-to-reach areas, such as river and sea islands, wetlands (haor), riverine islands (char) and hilly regions, where branches are further away.

To support client orientation with bKash we have scaled up our team of customer service assistants to address clients’ general queries and concerns, help them learn basic operations for mobile transaction facilities and brief clients on how to use digital financial services.

Employable skills for decent work

2.2 million young people enter Bangladesh’s workforce every year, but three out of every four business leaders report that skilled workers are scarce.

The challenge

Young people in Bangladesh face a precarious future, despite living in one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Over two million people enter the potential labour force annually, but two out of every five young people are not in employment, education or training. Approximately ten million young people are currently unemployed or underemployed.

More than 755,000 people left for overseas employment in 2016. Economic migrants face myriad challenges, from high fees charged by recruitment agencies to low wages, lack of information on migration opportunities and risks, exploitation and abuse.

The approach

We offer high quality training to people from all backgrounds, and link graduates with decent work opportunities that respect the rights of workers. We work both in formal and informal sectors. We identify occupations in demand and skills in short supply in partnership with market actors and employers.

We offer technical vocational training, enterprise and institution-based apprenticeships, entrepreneurship and enterprise development, especially for startups in the informal sector, working to improve working conditions and strengthen market value chains.

We support the government in their goal of ensuring employable skills for all, and our training is in line with the National Skills Development Policy, with a special focus on women, people with disabilities and other marginalised groups.

We promote safe, regular and responsible migration, providing support to labour migrants at every step of their journey to ensure that they know their rights and can exercise them. This includes ensuring potential and departing labour migrants pursue safe migration routes, financing, have appropriate skills to avail decent work in host countries and supporting reintegration.

The impact

Business intelligence system means efficiency at speed

Our flagship project, skills training for advancing resources (STAR), innovates upon the age-old practice of employment through formalising apprenticeship-based skills training, and it is making changes at scale to the skills landscape.

One of the keys to our success is data management, which allows us to constantly map the effectiveness of our operations. This year we significantly invested in improving that through a real-time business intelligence solution.

The solution allows us to track the progress of young people, master craftspeople who offer apprenticeships, as well as entrepreneurs and institutions where graduates are placed. We have comprehensive performance metrics for all groups, which demand constant and rigorous follow up and support.

Our frontline staff sync the data collected during every household and firm visit on their tablets and smartphones. The data feeds into the real time analytics being used by staff at all levels, enabling them to take immediate actionable decisions. The new system particularly brings advantages in monitoring apprenticeship activities and job placements, keeping their progress on track in real-time.

The solution is being used across all 43 districts that we operate in.

Our goal across BRAC is to equip 500,000 people with skills through customised training programmes by 2020. Through this new solution, we hope to show the benefit of using big data in achieving big goals in the skills development sector.

Climate change and emergency response

27 million people are predicted to be at risk of sea level rise in Bangladesh by 2050.

The challenge

Climate change is a concern now affecting every one of us, and Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to its effects.

Two-thirds of the country is less than five metres above sea level, and floods are increasingly destroying homes, croplands and damaging infrastructure. Approximately 10,000 hectares of land is lost every year due to erosion. Agricultural land is shrinking by 1% annually and the population is growing by 1.2%. This is creating a rise in demand for food, while increasingly unpredictable weather conditions pose a growing challenge to farmers trying to meet those demands.

The approach

Our scale, ongoing action research, and depth of engagement gives us a unique opportunity to support communities to mitigate and adapt to climate change and recover from disasters.

We support communities to build resilience, respond to disasters and rebuild. We focus on access to safe water and sanitation, alternative and adaptive livelihood options, access to health facilities, continuation of education, specific support for girls, women and children and psychosocial counselling to help communities cope with distress.

Beyond our work on the ground, we advocate on a national level for collaborative approaches and coordinate with local governments on our activities.

The agricultural sector is one of the sectors most affected by climate change. Our programmes work with governments to achieve and sustain food security in seven countries across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

We build systems of production and distribution, offering quality seeds at fair prices while developing better crop varieties and practices. We promote efficient farming techniques and environmental sustainability, and have seen in practice that these do not need to be mutually exclusive. We develop markets using an approach that encourages entrepreneurship and supports countries become self-sufficient in food production, and our global network of community model farmers are permanent ambassadors of good farming practices.

The impact

Architectural design for fire safety in Dhaka slums

40% of Dhaka’s population lives in poverty, and most people reside in slums or informal settlements. Korail and Saat Tola slums are home to hundreds of thousands of people who have mostly moved from rural areas in search of better lives. Approximately 2,500 of those people suddenly found themselves homeless when a massive fire tore through both slums in December, destroying 649 homes.

It was the middle of winter, and people lost everything.

We hit the ground immediately, providing access to food, safe spaces for children and medical care. Realising we needed support, we mobilised BDT 6.4 million (USD 79,716) from UNDP, BDT 3 million from Dhaka North City Corporation, and crowdfunded BDT 2.9 million locally.

In conjunction with the community, the city corporation and other NGOs, and in parallel with emergency relief efforts, we used the funds to rebuild. A voluntary team of architects consulted with families in the middle of armies of field staff distributing food, warm clothes, water and cookware.

The architects redesigned and rebuilt the 649 homes with better ventilation and bigger windows, and facilitated dialogue between house owners to reduce house sizes by a small increment each to allow wider roads for fire trucks. Dialogue between tenants and house owners resulted in a six-month rent waiver for most home owners.

Gender equality

Eight out of ten married women in Bangladesh are abused by their husbands.

The challenge

Women own less than 2% of total land in Bangladesh, and the country has the fifth highest rate of child marriage in the world.

32% of currently married, employed women who earn cash make decisions mainly by themselves on how to use their own earnings. Less than half of married women participate in decisions about their own healthcare, their child’s healthcare, major household purchases and visits to their family or relatives.

Women’s empowerment and gender equality are complex issues, stemming from factors at multiple levels.

The approach

Women from the poorest and most marginalised communities have always been our primary constituency.

We provide a platform for one million women to raise their voices through democratic grassroots institutions which close the gap between communities and local government. We educate and support women to exercise their rights, develop leadership and support actions against injustice. In parallel, we work with local government offices to improve governance through institutional strengthening, gender sensitising, and establishing elected female representatives.

We see a lack of access to legal and property rights as a major driver of poverty. We are the largest NGO-led legal aid service provider in the world, offering services such as legal education, dispute resolution and workshops with local community leaders. Through a network of entrepreneurs, we provide land measurement services to help people with the least access to property to navigate the land ownership system.

In addition to targeted programmes, a key component of our new strategy is the integration of a gender-transformative approach into all of our operations to achieve four overarching gender goals – a substantive reduction in violence, increase in men's engagement and support for gender equality in the community, and increased gender parity and gender equality within the organisation.

The impact

A five-year movement for women begins across Bangladesh

A world that works for all of us will never be possible if only half of the world has the opportunity to be involved in building it.

Every morning women across the country determinedly walk to schools and workplaces, and women are represented in every level of government. Despite this, they are still underrepresented in decision-making and leadership roles across every sector and in the household, and significantly overrepresented in domestic violence and sexual harassment statistics.

There is work to be done with both women and men.

60% of men in urban areas and 62% of men in rural areas believe that it is acceptable to beat women. 28% of women agree with one or more reasons justifying wife beating.

Our new gender strategy reflects our understanding of the complex relationship between women's empowerment, women's rights and gender equality.

Based on the successes of several gender-focused initiatives, we are now embedding gender transformation into how we deliver all of our services. We will work through all of our programme platforms in this movement over the next five years, confident that this is what it will take to shift social norms and significantly advance gender equality.

Coupled with government initiatives and activism from other non-governmental entities and individual activists, the goal of the movement is to reduce violence against women by 10% in 2020.

Universal access to healthcare, nutrition, water and sanitation

Up to five million people every year in Bangladesh are pushed into poverty because of healthcare costs.

The challenge

Demographic transitions, lifestyle changes and environmental factors, combined with malnutrition, are leading to a global epidemiological shift from communicable to non-communicable diseases. Healthcare costs are rapidly increasing, with approximately two-thirds being covered by out-of-pocket expenditure in Bangladesh.

Rapid urbanisation is placing a further burden on already-limited urban healthcare services. Identifying and providing quality care for tuberculosis remain difficult, with increasing drug resistance and childhood TB. Tackling malaria in hilly areas is also a challenge. A lack of quality and inefficiency in care, and an inadequately-skilled workforce are causing high morbidity and cost, and hindering progress towards SDGs.

The approach

Our community-based healthcare approach employs a wide network of community health workers to ensure that people living in poverty can access high-quality, affordable services. The approach was first pioneered in Bangladesh and has been replicated in five countries across Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The health workers are social entrepreneurs, earning income by selling health products and services while improving health and nutrition.

They ensure a continuum of care, bridging the gap between formal healthcare systems and the community. Over 50,000 health workers create demand, educate and offer reproductive, maternal, neonatal, child and adolescent health, nutrition, non-communicable disease and disability care services, and connect communities with government and private facilities.

We educate on hygiene, and provide access to safe drinking water and hygienic sanitation in hard-to-reach and urban areas. Our approach for TB diagnosis and treatment focuses on community level education and engagement, conducting orientations to engage stakeholders in identifying patients, ensure treatment adherence and reduce stigma. Tackling malaria includes managing cases, distributing long lasting insecticidal nets and disseminating messages.

Sustainability across all of our work is ensured through community ownership and partnership with the government, the private sector and a wide range of other partners.

The impact

Eyecare, everywhere

Eye health is yet to receive adequate attention in the public health agenda, even though 285 million people globally suffer visual impairment, of whom 39 million are blind.

In Bangladesh, 8.6 million have low-vision and 950,000 are blind. Eight in every ten people who report as blind have cataracts, a disease usually curable through a relatively simple intervention. About 12 million people are losing productivity due to presbyopia (near-sightedness), that could be tackled through a pair of eye-glasses that costs approximately one-fifth of a Starbucks coffee.

The already-limited eye care facilities available in the country are concentrated in cities, making access nearly impossible for underprivileged groups and people living in rural areas. Primary eye care barely exists.

Drawing on experience from Aravind Eye Care in India, we established three Vision Centres to bring affordable primary eye care to communities. Our trained vision technicians offer services supported by ophthalmologists of partner hospitals, through telemedicine, and correct refractive errors by getting the precise eyeglasses to people (eyewear is available in the centres).

The government has committed to introduce primary eye care at sub-districts and below, in partnership with NGOs and the private sector. This public-private partnership approach will ensure that even if eye health is not on the global public health agenda, access to affordable, comprehensive, quality eye care for all is on Bangladesh’s agenda.

Pro-poor urban development

The population in Bangladesh’s towns and cities will have doubled to nearly 100 million by 2050.

The challenge

Economic opportunities are pulling people to the cities. Climate change is pushing them out of low-lying areas. 40% of Dhaka’s citizens (12 million people) live in poverty, mostly in slums and other informal settlements, with the constant threat of eviction, violence, and disasters like fires.

Piped water reaches only about one-third of the urban population, and there is no systematic sewer disposal and treatment system. Only Dhaka has a sewer system, and it serves just 18% of the city. One in two women are harassed by public transport operators.

Unplanned urbanisation coupled with lack of proper services poses one of the greatest dangers for the future of Bangladesh.

The approach

We are a new programme aiming to make Bangladesh’s growing urban spaces liveable for all. By 2020, we will have a tested and proven model that can be scaled up across the country not only to tackle the escalating urban poverty and inequality, but also to promote sustainable urbanisation.

We are focusing on delivering customised, affordable and quality basic services and linking with government services. This is accompanied by empowering communities on citizen rights and entitlements, transparent and accountable access to public services. We are also supporting the building of innovations that can bring transformational changes in making sure citizens are more informed about local development and aware of their rights, and technology innovations that can create more opportunities and play a role in better services for urban residents.

We are building a strong policy advocacy platform to promote a citywide planning and management approach to include low income settlements in service provisioning. This includes working with urban government institutions, city corporations and municipalities, the Urban Development Directorate and professional institutions, to help low-income communities benefit from urban growth and strengthen their capacity to develop, adopt and effectively implement pro-poor policies and services in urban spaces.

The impact

Crowdsourcing innovations for social challenges

Our cities, our solutions and coding for Bangladesh

Bangladesh is rapidly changing, and we are facing new challenges every day in our urban spaces. We started BRACathon at the end of 2015, a competition to make mobile applications that could offer solutions for real social problems. Following its success, we complemented it with the Urban Innovation Challenge at the end of 2016, to engage young people to find urban social business models.

We spent this year incubating the five winning BRACathon apps, which cover solutions to problems ranging from tuberculosis to fire response. Incubation included prototyping, intensive mentoring and training, piloting - under the guidance of our leading development practitioners, promotion of the apps to increase their user bases, and connecting them to our programmatic work.

We launched the Urban Innovation Challenge in October, in partnership with Dhaka North City Corporation. We are offering seed support, bootcamps and coworking space to a new generation of innovators, and throwing our active support behind them to build the cities they want to live in. Participants will submit social business models as innovative solutions to specific urban problems in early 2017.

Investing in the next generation

13% of children aged 3-5 are receiving early childhood education in Bangladesh.

The challenge

Globally, children from the poorest households are five times more like to be out of school than those from the wealthiest.

A key challenge for Bangladesh is to ensure quality education for all. Children who participate in quality early childhood programmes are less likely to repeat grades or drop out of school. Currently only 50% of students who enroll in first grade reach class 10. Dropout rates among girls in secondary school is particularly high.

Curricula, teaching approaches and examination systems at all levels lack critical thinking and analytical skills.

The approach

Our low-cost, scalable schooling model has made us the world’s largest private secular education provider. 1.1 million students are currently enrolled in our schools across eight countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

We firmly believe that girls’ education is one of the greatest catalysts for large-scale societal change, and our classrooms are always at least 50% girls. We also highly value diversity, with at least one child with a disability included in every classroom.

We believe that generational cycles of poverty can be broken by ensuring that classroom learning is relevant to all. By teaching children to think for themselves, we inculcate an enterprising mindset. Our schools have allowed over 12 million children to grow up with opportunities that would have been unimaginable in previous decades.

We address educational needs from early childhood to tertiary level, including indigenous mother-tongue based curriculums for ethnic children. In secondary education, we support government schools with teacher training, libraries and computer aided learning. We provide scholarships, particularly in Bangladesh and Uganda, and schooling for especially hard-to-reach populations using boat schools in Bangladesh and the Philippines. Our youth interventions create safe spaces in communities for adolescents to socialise and learn valuable life skills, employable skills and access finance.

The impact

Going digital: reaching 20 million students with quality learning content

2016 was the final year of the 'Developing multimedia digital content based on primary curriculum' project, an initiative of the ICT division, in partnership with the Directorate of Primary Education and National Curriculum and Text Board, BRAC and Save the Children.

A total of 21 primary textbooks on five subjects (mathematics, Bangla, English, science and an introduction to Bangladesh and the world) were digitised. We led the digitisation of the content in 16 of the books.

All district primary education offices are now ensuring that children are using digital content in classrooms. The content has so far been downloaded over three million times. In Bangladesh, where one in every four people live below poverty line, but more than 80% use a mobile phone, the use of this digital learning content is expected to grow substantially.

A pilot initiative has started to understand the effectiveness and user-friendliness of the digital content in 30 schools across the country. The content will continue to be modified based on the feedback.

We are now partnering with the government and other non-governmental organisations to develop quality digital content for secondary level education.