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From the archives

Our Violent National Game

The great hockey debate continues

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

Vision, Reason, Commitment

A Bangladeshi NGO combines the best of business and government

John Richards

Freedom from Want: The Remarkable Success Story of BRAC, the Global Grassroots Organization That’s Winning the Fight Against Poverty

Ian Smillie

Kumarian Press

285 pages, softcover

Ian Smillie is a Canadian with a distinguished career in international development. In 2003, he received the Order of Canada. He has written Freedom from Want: The Remarkable Success Story of BRAC, the Global Grassroots Organization That’s Winning the Fight Against Poverty, the best single-volume account available of BRAC, a remarkable organization. Known universally by this acronym, the organization has gone through several name changes. It started out in 1972 as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee.

Most readers need, I suspect, some background to appreciate why those involved in development work are in awe of BRAC’s accomplishments.

In terms of population, Bangladesh is a major country: it now ranks seventh, having overtaken Russia and Nigeria in the last decade. The only countries more populous are China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan. In terms of influence, it is insignificant. What little the world knows of it comes largely from earnest media stories about poverty—the fate of slum dwellers in Dhaka and landless peasants—or about natural disasters—cyclones, monsoon floods and, more recently, future loss of coastal lands due to global warming and rising sea levels.

Bengal is a poor region, even by South Asian standards, and it has in the last hundred years suffered more than its share of disasters, many of them human-made. At the turn of the 20th century, Calcutta (Kolkota), the metropolitan heart of Bengal, birthplace of modern Indian nationalism and capital of the Raj, was the subcontinent’s premier city. Its decline as a metropolitan city can be conveniently dated from the decision shortly before World War One to shift the capital to Delhi. As the Raj waned and Indian provinces each gained elected assemblies, Calcutta and Montreal came to resemble one another in that the elites of both were playing a central role in the political and cultural life of their respective countries, but were alienated from the majority in their immediate locale. Montreal anglos were far outnumbered by Quebec francophones, Calcutta’s Hindus by Bengali Muslims.

Given the Muslim majority in Bengal, by the 1940s its elected leaders were mostly Muslim. For a brief interlude, the government of Bengal pursued the not unreasonable option of a sovereign Bengal comprising what are now Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. Bengalis are known as a people of “fish and rice.” With the obvious exception of religion, they share a common language and literature; economically, the majority rely on farming delta land fertilized by monsoon rains, and fishing the rivers and tributaries that slice the landscape. The Hindu elite of Calcutta were appalled by the prospect of being in the minority; the Muslim League, led by men from the Indus Valley, were equally opposed. The idea of a sovereign Bengal was stillborn; instead, came partition of the predominantly Hindu west of the province from the predominantly Muslim east. With partition came the horrors of communal violence and ethnic cleansing as millions migrated to get on the “right” side of the border. Cut off from Calcutta, with a border that made sense only in terms of maximizing the number of Muslims on one side and Hindus on the other, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, described East Pakistan as “a moth-eaten rag.” Smillie describes it as a “political, economic and social backwater” under both the Raj and Pakistani rule.

A quarter century later, in 1970, a cyclone in East Pakistan killed an estimated 300,000 and devastated the villages of millions of others. The politicians in Islamabad were slow to respond and regional anger manifested itself in an overwhelming election victory later that year for a nationalist party committed to autonomy or independence for East Pakistan. The Awami League captured all but two parliamentary seats from the East and the overall majority. The leaders in Islamabad simply refused to call parliament into session. In March of 1971, Sheikh Mujib, head of the Awami League, declared Bangladesh’s independence. Civil war ensued in which the Pakistani army probably killed as many as had the cyclone a year earlier. The war ended when the Indians, in December 1971, invaded and installed Sheikh Mujib in office.

In the midst of this chaos, Fazle Hasan Abed launched BRAC, which has become the world’s largest and arguably most impressive non-governmental organization. Abed is a member of the educated Muslim elite. His maternal great-grandfather was the first Muslim to graduate from the prestigious University of Calcutta. He completed his primary and secondary education in East Pakistan, and attended university in the United Kingdom. He pursued practical professional studies, first in naval architecture and then in accounting. On the side, he read widely, from Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky, and his friends were 1960s radicals, many of them Marxists. Briefly, he visited Canada. He took an executive course in computer use at McMaster University. He then returned home, became an accountant with Shell Oil and was posted in Chittagong, East Pakistan’s only major port city.

The 1970 cyclone came ashore near Chittagong. Abed joined others in relief work. His character and eclectic training proved exactly what was needed: political idealism combined with managerial competence, plus a sophisticated understanding of both South Asian and western ways. The group around Abed formed the administrative core of what subsequently became BRAC. Several features have characterized BRAC: a penchant for innovation, rigorous evaluation of programs and openness to ideas of modern corporate management, which enabled rapid scaling up of successful programs. BRAC has been efficient, largely free from corruption and able to adapt. In effect, BRAC is part NGO targeting relief programs to the poor, part corporation providing goods and services for sale at a profit and part parallel government providing the social services expected of a modern state.

The government of Bangladesh, unfortunately, is neither efficient nor free from corruption, nor able to adapt. By 1972, Bangladeshis were finally free from both the British and their overseers from the Indus Valley, but they were not free from the fetid stew of Soviet-influenced Marxism and dynastic leadership, the basic diet at the time among the subcontinent’s politicians. Sheikh Mujib was far more proficient as nationalist orator than as chief administrator of a sovereign country. By 1975, Bangladesh had five-year economic plans, new money-losing state enterprises and a one-party state. That year, leaders of a military coup assassinated Mujib and all but two of his children. In due course, General Ziaur Rahman became ruler. Whether he was involved in the coup is still debated, but his regime was notable for its improved efficiency and relative lack of corruption. In 1981, he too was assassinated.

The most recent swings of the political pendulum started in 2006. The then-governing party, headed by Khaleda Zia, widow of Ziaur Rahman, was preparing to rig the election scheduled for January 2007. The other major party, the Awami League, is led by Sheikh Hasina, a daughter of Sheikh Mujib, one of two family members to escape assassination. She organized massive protest demonstrations that paralyzed the major cities. Shortly before the election, the military intervened and installed a government of technocrats, most of them immensely more competent than the ministers they replaced. The majority of the population was relieved to see a semblance of order; they took satisfaction from the numerous prosecutions of the blatantly corrupt. But the military had no persuasive agenda of development. Under intense pressure from the major donor countries to “restore democracy,” the military-backed government organized a non-rigged election in late 2008 and allowed all parties to contest. Sheikh Hasina won a majority.

During my latest trip to Bangladesh, in June 2009, I made a point of asking those I met to assess the last three years. Some damned the military, not for having seized power but for having done so little with it. Most expected Hasina’s government to be worse than its predecessor. To quote Smillie, writing shortly before the 2008 election:

the vengeful daughter [Sheikh Hasina] of one murdered president would return to seek her father’s job, while the wife [Khaleda Zia] of another would carry the political torch of her murdered husband far into the 21st century. These two women would become implacable foes, as first one, then the other took the helm of state; and ultimately … first one, then the other was arrested and jailed for mismanagement, nepotism, and corruption.

Against this grim backdrop, what has BRAC accomplished over four decades? Smillie devotes separate chapters to each of its major activities.

Microfinance: BRAC has organized microfinance operations not only in Bangladesh but, at the request of western donors, in other countries. It is, for example, the largest NGO operating in Afghanistan. The lead prophet of microfinance is Muhammad Yunus, head of the Grameen Bank, another very prominent Bangladeshi NGO. Yunus has immense faith in the potential of microfinance to liberate the latent entrepreneurial talents of villagers and, at times, implies that it can by itself enable a country to escape poverty. On occasion, he employs humour to make his point. We Bangladeshis have proved that anarchism works, he begins. How so? We have never enjoyed in Bangladesh a government that works but, thanks to microfinance, we have experienced at least modest economic growth. (Which is true, albeit the growth in per capita incomes has been exceedingly modest and Bangladesh is far poorer than either India or Pakistan.) BRAC has been more circumspect in the potential it accords to microfinance.

BRAC Bank: Smillie compares Bangladeshi credit arrangements to an hourglass. If the venture is large, then it can obtain finance from established banks; if very small, from microfinance institutions. But there are few trustworthy banking options for small business. Since 2001, BRAC has organized a bank specializing in loans to such small business entrepreneurs.

Community health: Early on, BRAC experimented with training large numbers of community health workers to treat basic illnesses and dispense a few essential drugs. (An interesting innovation: BRAC obtained the drugs at cheap prices, sold them roughly at cost to the health workers, who sold them to patients at a fixed price.) When the technique of using oral rehydration salts became available as an effective, cheap treatment for diarrhea, BRAC community health workers distributed the salts and taught families how to administer them.

Aarong retail shops: As a means of generating employment for village women, BRAC runs a profitable chain of shops, in Bangladesh and abroad, selling what the women produce. The heart of Aarong’s wares is wall hangings, quilts, cushions, table coverings, traditional embroidery illustrating village scenes, imaginative renderings of animals and such. (Aarong in Bengali means village fair.)

BRAC University: Unfortunately, the “youth factions” of the political parties control access to public university dormitories, heavily influence faculty hiring and promotion, and have rendered Bangladesh universities dysfunctional. While the government continues to dissipate about $100 million annually to run them, more students now attend private fee-charging universities—many of which admittedly are also academically weak—rather than public universities. In the last decade, BRAC has contributed to post-secondary education by founding a university. In addition to teaching, the university serves as a focus for various research activities. These range from public health studies to the Institute of Education Development, the country’s premier education research agency.

“Non-formal” primary schools: Perhaps the single most valuable innovation over the last quarter century has been BRAC’s network of 40,000 primary schools targeting the hard-to-reach poor. About one in twelve Bangladesh primary school students now attend a BRAC school.

As in all other domains of the public sector, corruption bedevils the public school system. Here is Smillie’s description of the system in the 1980s, when BRAC launched its first schools:

A prospective teacher might have to bribe the powerful teachers’ union, the local educational authority, and perhaps several others in order to get an appointment … Only one out of five were in class more than 80 percent of the time. Why bother going if there are no books, playgrounds, and teachers? … Teachers played as much hooky as the students. Many ran side businesses or had their own gardens and farms to attend to … Teacher training was dismal, commitment was low, and supervision was largely absent.

Some things have changed in the school system since the 1980s. With the active prodding of international NGOs, enrolment in government schools has tripled; virtually all children enter primary school and gender parity has been realized. Unfortunately, much has not changed. Student attendance remains erratic; the quality of primary education remains low and corruption persists.

By contrast, the BRAC primary school model typically entails training a young village woman who has obtained her secondary school certificate (grade ten). The future BRAC teacher receives twelve days’ training, monthly refresher courses and regular field inspector visits. After her initial training, she starts teaching primary grades (one to five). Her salary is low, and she cannot extract bribes from parents, as frequently occurs in the public schools. It is a barebones system that is far from perfect. Its virtue is that students graduating from BRAC schools fare better on core skills than do students from the public schools. In field tests conducted earlier this decade among children eleven years and older, 75 percent who had attended non-formal primary schools were assessed as literate, compared to only 52 percent from government schools.

Smillie has been involved, off and on, in BRAC’s work for decades. This allows him an intimate view. The revers de la médaille is that his book is more memoir than hard analysis. A question he does not address: to what extent can a country rely on large NGOs such as BRAC as a substitute for government failure? Despite this limitation, Smillie makes important points.

First, he shows it is possible to marry western managerial techniques to South Asian ways and deliver social services efficiently on a large scale.

Implicit throughout his account is a second theme. Reasonable-quality health and education services, available to all, are necessary for economic development, and private markets will never get them right. A minimum agenda for government among the least developed countries (a list that includes Bangladesh) is universal access to primary health clinics and to primary schools. No state has surpassed $3,000 (purchasing power parity) annual per capita income without having achieved at least 75 percent literacy. In Bangladesh, literacy has hovered around 50 percent over the last two decades.

The book’s final theme is that Yunus is wrong: anarchism does not work. For a sizeable minority, BRAC and other major NGOs substitute for the government’s failures. But until the culture among the country’s politicians changes and governance improves, Bangladeshis will remain poor. 

John Richards is a former member of the Saskatchewan legislature and a professor of public policy program at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver.