Nine years ago, Selina Akter was in a deplorable state. She ran away to live with her husband in Charmotto, a village west of Dhaka, Bangladesh. But he was only able to find a low-paid informal job, and because of his escape his family had repudiated her. The couple had joined the ranks of the "ultra-poor" – the most destitute group of those who can barely feed themselves.
Akter caught the eye of BRAC, such a ubiquitous charity in Bangladesh that in some rural areas you see one of its pink and white signs every few miles. The BRAC made an offer she could hardly refuse. I would give her a cow and visit once a week to teach her about breeding, as well as the importance of saving money and the ills of child marriage. To make sure she had enough to eat, charity would give her lentils and a small amount of money.
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By Bangladeshi rural standards, Akter is no longer poor. She lives in a house with cement steps, a corrugated iron roof and a refrigerator. Among other animals, she has two cows, which rest in her yard under an electric fan. Thanks in part to her earnings, her husband was able to buy an auto rickshaw. He has many clients. The government has built good roads around Charmotto, and the district is getting richer as Dhaka spreads toward it. Akter's story is a tribute to BRAC. She also suggests why this huge and unusual charity has a problem.
The BRAC was founded in 1972 by Sir Fazle Abed, an accountant who was horrified by the state of his country. (The four letters of its name represent many things over the years, but today they mean nothing else.) It has become one of the largest nongovernmental organizations in the world – the only vestige of a poor country that paves the way. to the top of the rankings. BRAC has about 100,000 full-time employees, of which 8,000 work outside Bangladesh. In 2018, it lent nearly 8 million people money and educated over 1 million children in Bangladesh and ten other countries. She has a hand in a university, a bank, a seed company, an artificial insemination equipment, a chicken company, a driving school, and a chain of 21 fashion boutiques – among other things.
It is also one of the best charities in the world. The NGO Counselor, who tries to keep the score, has put him at the top of the pile for the past four years. Your corporate culture is a bit like an old-fashioned engineering company. BRAC employees are problem solvers, not intellectuals, and communicate well – the organization constantly refines its programs in response to data and criticism from local staff. Some of its innovations have spread around the world. His anti-poverty program, which involves donating goods and training to destitute women, has been copied by other charities and has proven to work in countries as diverse as Ethiopia, Honduras and India.
Now BRAC has problems that you may not be able to solve. Thanks largely to remittances and the garment industry, annual GDP growth in Bangladesh has exceeded 5% in each of the last 15 years – a record better than in India or Pakistan. Bangladesh is already a low middle income country. You will soon be too rich to be eligible for World Bank International Development Assistance loans.
Bangladesh has never been flooded with foreign aid. It is not strategically vital and is very populous. (Per capita aid is usually higher in small countries.) Between the early 1980s and 2016, overall aid fell from more than 5 percent of Bangladesh's gross national income (GNI) to just 1.1 percent. The following year, Rohingya refugees arrived from Myanmar and aid rose to 1.4% of GNI. But the slide will probably continue. BRAC's largest source of subsidies, a "strategic partnership" with the governments of Australia and Great Britain, ends in 2021.
Meanwhile, the state has more money than ever. Between 2000 and 2018, annual government spending more than tripled. It's a challenge. Large charities have taken root in Bangladesh because of the weakness of the government. A catastrophic cyclone in 1970 and a famine in 1974 had shown that the state was unable to provide public services, so it allowed others to do so. At the time Sir Fazle created BRAC, a university professor named Muhammad Yunus began experimenting by lending small sums of money to women; He created Grameen Bank, a microfinance organization. Today, however, the Sheikh Hasina government has many plans – digital education, conditional cash transfers and more.
As Bangladesh gets richer and its government reaches new corners, the country's charities are being squeezed. "Most NGOs are shrinking – they haven't seen it happen," says Asif Saleh, CEO of BRAC. They can simply be swept aside. Victorian and Edwardian England had powerful charities, often church-related, that ran schools and hospitals and built houses for the poor. Few were still powerful after the creation of the welfare state. But Saleh thinks BRAC can avoid this fate.
If aid money does not reach Bangladesh, perhaps BRAC can go where aid money is. The company ventured abroad in 2002 by opening an office in Afghanistan. It currently operates in five Asian and six African countries. Some of the programs he developed in Bangladesh and tested on people like Akter work well abroad. A recent evaluation of the BRAC World Bank's ultra-poor program in Afghanistan found a major boost in women's income and employment. In Uganda, their after-school clubs appear to reduce teenage pregnancy rates and encourage girls to start working.
But charity is still a goldfish outside Bangladesh. It is less prominent than Western aid agencies, multilateral clothing such as UNICEF or other major international charities. One reason is that a lot of money goes to humanitarian projects, which are not the main force of BRAC, although it has learned by working in the Rohingya refugee camps that have sprung up in eastern Bangladesh in the last two years. BRAC is good at proving its programs work and keeping their costs down (it pays less to staff than other international NGOs). But donors worry less about these things than might be expected.
At home, the charity is responding differently. If Bangladesh has fewer people in desperate need, why not take advantage of it? BRAC is already a hybrid of programs and charities. She uses some money-making activities to subsidize the rest – 15% of her microfinance profits go to the main budget. The goal now is to shift the balance from philanthropy to commerce and rapidly.
In Gazipur district, north of the capital, 30 children in one of BRAC's schools sing, sing the names of countries (they tend to know the good at football) and run the Bengali spellings of “waves”, “innovation” . ”And“ researcher ”. This school, which used to be free, now charges 350 taka ($ 4) a month. The teacher, Shahida Akhter, says things have improved as a result. She used to persuade children to go to school. Now your parents pay, they make sure the kids show up.
bracelet for school
Since 2016, the charity has created or converted about 8,700 primary schools – many with one-bedroom clothes – into paying schools. The change was painful. Safiqul Islam, who runs the educational program, says BRAC schools have been free for so long that some parents thought teachers were corrupt. Now that they are paying, parents expect tables, chairs, and electric fans; They also want qualified teachers, not the trained local women BRAC usually employs. Higher expectations are good, says Islam. But sticking to them is expensive. Today, paying schools cover only about a quarter of their costs.
The rates will surely increase. In January, the charity set up BRAC Academy, which charges three times the school in Gazipur. If this is popular, others will open. And the search is on other opportunities to get people to pay for your services. The BRAC has introduced small fees at its medical clinics and charges to check the paperwork of overseas Bangladeshi – usually to the Gulf states – to work.
Mo money, less trouble
Their efforts to rescue people from deep poverty have also changed. The lentils and money that women like Selina Akter have received are no longer: internal research suggests that almost no one in Bangladesh now struggles to buy food. The charity divides the roughly 100,000 working-age poor who deal with each year into two groups. The most destitute are expected to pay 20% of the asset value (usually a cow or bull) they receive. The least destitute are required to pay between 30% and 70%. In part, as a result, the average cost of helping a person has dropped from $ 530 to $ 430.
Independent research on the original ultra-poor program, which gave people animals and other assets for nothing, showed that it works extremely well in Bangladesh and elsewhere. It is still unclear if the new will be. One concern is that people most in need refuse help because they fear borrowing money. When the loan component was introduced in 2017, the refusal rate increased from less than 2% to 27%. It has since fallen, in part because the BRAC has changed the balance between grants and loans. But a group of beneficiaries in Borobaroil, near Charmotto, say the loans made them nervous – and one woman refused help.
A combination of foreign expansion, fees and cost savings is unlikely to be enough to escape the squeeze. If BRAC remains potent in Bangladesh and beyond, it will probably have to do something more radical. Instead of providing the services that governments fail, he will have to teach them how to do the job. Charity has a deep experience in …