A former corporate executive at Shell Oil, Fazle Abed is now the founder and chairperson of BRAC, formerly the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, an organization he started when he returned to his country at the end of the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh. One of world’s leading social entrepreneurs and change makers, Abed told BSR conference attendees he believes he is making the difference between hope and despair for millions of people living in dehumanizing conditions.
Today 98,000 BRAC employees are pioneering innovations in education, health, social finance and local development to help lift women out of poverty in Bangladesh, to increase the decline of infant mortality, and to increase school attendance there. BRAC is the largest citizen sector organization in Bangladesh with 4.8 million group members active in 48,000 villages and its training programs are being replicated in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Abed hopes to take his work to Africa soon.
“After the civil war in Bangladesh, I felt I needed to leave my job and work for humanitarian needs there,” he said. “We were only in 200 villages in the beginning, just feeding children and building houses. But I felt with the kind of poverty our people live in, we couldn’t leave them to their own devices so we committed to a long-term fight against poverty in Bangladesh.”
How to empower the poor? That was the question Abed struggled with. After reading a book by Paolo Freire of Brazil, he decided he wanted to see people involved in their own process of change in their own societies. So he organized the poor within their own communities and trained them to be actors of change in their own societies. BRAC began by organizing women in villages and is now in 68 thousand villages with 128,000 groups of women trying to solve their own problems. First they helped the women to look at what resources they could mobilize themselves. Then the women started saving a little money each week. With community resources they planted trees and stocked fish in bodies of water.
Next they looked at what resources were flowing from the state and tried to mobilize the women to access these resources. BRAC provided micro-financing for poultry, livestock, fisheries, and other businesses. The women felt that, from a group perspective, they could trade networkers so one woman in every village organized trade services such as water, sanitation, and disease control. This woman was the village helper and visited 10 houses a day. Often anyone coughing received money to take the sputum to the laboratory to test for tuberculosis. If they tested positive, BRAC would provide medication but the problem arose when a tuberculosis patient would start to feel healthy in a month or so and stop taking the drugs. The village helper provided drugs and also checked to see if the patients were taking them.
In 1979, during the International Year of the Child, BRAC looked at Bangladesh’s infant/child mortality rate and found that 115,000 children died before their 5th birthdays. There were high fertility rates too, as parents tried to ensure some children would survive into their old age. BRAC tried to bring down the infant mortality rate as fast as possible. One half of the children died of diarrhea so BRAC decided to go to every household in Bangladesh and teach one woman how to increase hydration and sanitation there. It decided to train workers to be sure they trained women in the village properly, but were unsure as to how to implement that training.
First they sent workers into 30,000 households to find out what percentage of diarrhea was treated with oral hydration therapy. Learning the percentage was low, BRAC realized its field workers didn’t believe in the efficacy of oral hydration so they brought the workers back in to show them exactly how oral hydration works. Once the field workers were convinced, they went back to teach the villagers. They were better at it the second time around and found that better than 18% of mothers were using oral hydration after that.
“We went through the households to find out what was holding them back from using oral hydration,” said Abed. “We found the men were poo-pooing the idea, calling it a second rate drug. So we went to every marketplace, every mosque, every church and talked about oral hydration and how it works. After that, utilization went up to 65%.”
Abed wanted workers paid on the basis of performance and retention of knowledge. If employees went to 200 households, then BRAC checked 20 households and looked to see how much of what was taught was passed on. If retention by villagers fell in the correct range BRAC paid 10 taka per household, if not 5 taka per household. Abed found the system worked well, resulting in good teaching. The Secretary of Health for Bangladesh came to see Abed and decided to use same system with his health department field workers, paying them on the basis of performance.
According to Abed, infant mortality declined quickly in Bangladesh after the BRAC field workers began teaching better hygiene. Over the last 5 years of the 1980’s BRAC also started immunizing children in conjunction with a government immunization program. Half of the immunizations were done by the government and half by BRAC. By 1990 immunizations were down to 1% and, over the last 25-30 years the infant mortality rate has dropped from 275 deaths to 71. Once the health program had 50,000 women, one in each village, providing a health care system to other women, BRAC then turned to examining microfinance, which Abed believes works well with lots of people, allowing them to get into business by themselves.
Abed wondered if BRAC were able to plant more margery trees whether it could create more jobs in the silk industry. They decided to plant 25,000 trees in the 1990’s and the result was a quarter of a million jobs were created. 13,000 village women looked after trees so the goats and cows won’t destroy them. BRAC then took the next step, deciding that if they could train poor women to become entrepreneurs those women could use the trees to create businesses for themselves. To date women have used microfinance options from BRAC to go into the poultry, livestock, and fisheries industries. Two million women wanted to begin a poultry business, but poultry mortality was high in the villages so BRAC vaccinated the poultry to increase survival rates and help the women become profitable. One woman in each village was trained as a vaccinator with vaccines obtained from the government livestock department. The poultry were vaccinated for small fee. BRAC also set up its own hatcheries and now produces 200 chicks a month to women who want to raise poultry.
One enormous problem in fostering a poultry industry was the need for feed because Bangladesh didn’t grow its own maize, but, instead, imported 500 tons of seeds from Australia. If it was a good crop, Australia bought back some of the maize and sold it on the market for a good price. Bangladesh now grows its own hybrid maize in a joint venture with the Australians. They grow 250,000 tons of maize each year.
“We’ve started a movement where not only the village women are raising poultry, but others are also getting into a profitable enterprise of feed and more,” said Abed. “We have also gone into business as iodized salt manufacturers after learning there were iron deficiencies in most of the crops in Bangladesh despite UNICEF efforts to get salt manufacturers to put IDD in the salt.”
Rural women in Bangladesh grow vegetables in their villages, but often the seeds they used were of poor quality, so BRAC entered the seed industry as well as the rice industry, partnering with China. Another problem for women in this country is the lack of education. Abed says the education of girls is important in any society and has an impact on society as a whole from mortality to fertility to every aspect of a family’s life. It cost $20 per child per year to educate a child in Bangladesh, and girls are in desperate need of at least a basic primary school education in most villages. BRAC chose village women from each community with 10 years of education or more and trained them to be teachers. Each teacher was supervised twice a week initially to see if they were performing well. BRAC now has 35,000 teachers and 2.5 million children enrolled. Thirty percent of those children are girls, giving even the poorest children a head start. Many of the children being educated by BRAC are from households with illiterate parents.
“We have now gone into a university – BRAC University – and have an undergrad program,” said Abed. We have also started schools of public health to create leaders in public health and to help health management systems.”
Abed concedes that BRAC cannot solve all the problems. Ultimately it has to be a systems approach, which is why they started a school for public health and for governance. Better management of government ministries is hoped for in the future. They are coordinating with the Kennedy School of Government and with Singapore University to provide a one-year masters course in governance and public policy. Collaborations with Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities are helping to develop the public health school and to create health leaders.
For his efforts, Abed was named a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur in 2002, has received numerous awards both nationally and internationally, and is a member of the Ashoka Global Academy for Social Entrepreneurship.
By Janet Roberts