Global Development – An Exclusive Interview

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Shameran Abed, Executive Director of BRAC International illuminates his strategies for the organisation and how to mitigate the challenges of a post-COVID world
Congratulations on assuming the Executive Director position at BRAC International. How have your previous roles prepared you for the demands of this position?

I have been with the BRAC formally since 2009, and with BRAC International (BI) since 2012. During this time, I have had the privilege of working with and leading some of our largest programmes in Bangladesh and internationally, and bringing BRAC’s flagship programmes of microfinance and ultra-poor graduation to global scale. Since 2016, I have been overseeing a re-design of the programme in Bangladesh and setting up the Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative (UPGI) to spearhead global advocacy and provide technical assistance to governments and civil society organisations.

My previous experience at BRAC will help me oversee and guide BI’s strategies, programs and organisational development for scaled impact and sustainable growth, and contribute to BRAC’s Global Strategy to impact the lives of 250 million people by 2030.

We are a year and eight months into a pandemic, can you tell us what are the challenges awaiting us in a post-pandemic world?

The poorest countries are being left behind. Global extreme poverty rose in 2020 for the first time in over 20 years due to the disruption caused by the pandemic. In 2021, the estimated COVID-19 induced poverty is set to rise between 143 and 163 million.

As we confront unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic, we are reminded once again of the urgent need to build resilience and create sustainable pathways out of poverty for the world’s most marginalized.

BRAC holds a truly unique position, as an organisation from and for the Global South, to continue to demonstrate the same commitment and tenacity in designing and delivering practical, scalable, community-led solutions as we have done for almost 50 years.

BRAC testing booth and BRAC mass vaccination drive have been a boon for citizens during the ongoing pandemic – can you tell us about the other initiatives BRAC has undertaken?

In Bangladesh, BRAC has been comprehensively supporting the government to manage the pandemic. That support has ranged from collaborating at the policy level to ensuring that services get to the last mile on the ground in the most vulnerable communities. Testing kiosks, supply of protective equipment and mass awareness were some of our earliest activities. As the pandemic continued, those activities extended more broadly; into financial support, such as emergency cash distribution; mental health support; health services such as tracking and referrals and supplying doctors to the government’s dedicated telemedicine hotlines; door-to-door awareness to fight misinformation and supporting the government’s national mass vaccination campaign.

Our most recent project, which brings together a wide coalition of international and local partners to create ‘forts of resistance’ at the community level, is bringing support and services to 81 million people across 35 high-risk districts in the country, and is already seeing widespread reductions in positive cases in those districts. A significant reason behind that is the supplying of 21 million masks free of cost, to people who would otherwise not be able to afford them.

BRAC International has been supporting governments in Afghanistan, Uganda, Liberia, and Sierra Leone with a range of interventions including strengthening health service systems, managing health facilities and programmes on behalf of provincial governments, and the provisioning of handwashing materials and COVID-19 related communication materials.

With the unprecedented impact of the pandemic, we are moving forward with more innovative and complementary projects and reaching out to vulnerable people in hard-to-reach communities. We have been strengthening our ability to work more intensively with community stakeholders and governments to create healthy communities.

BRAC in collaboration with SCB have announced the launch of a Covid-19 response initiative that will work with returnee migrant workers to ensure economic self-reliance through skills and entrepreneurship development – can you elaborate on this initiative?

BRAC, in partnership with Standard Chartered Bangladesh, has launched a COVID-19 response initiative that will work with returnee migrant workers to ensure economic self-reliance through skills training and entrepreneurship development. A recent BRAC survey suggests half of the migrant workers who returned to Bangladesh in the last year due to the pandemic could not find gainful employment. Establishing three Reintegration Support Centres, the project will provide emergency arrival assistance at the airport, counselling, and entrepreneurship training followed by financial assistance so that the returnees can start new businesses.

We have also seen the rise of a new vulnerable group in Bangladesh in the last year – the ‘new poor’. These are people who were living just above the poverty line before the pandemic, and the secondary impacts of the pandemic, such as lockdowns, pushed them into poverty. This group comprised 14% of the population in March 2021. There also has been significant reverse migration – data suggests 9.8% of people living in poverty in urban settlements before the pandemic moved back to rural areas due to sudden income loss and increased burden on non-food expenditure items.

The ultra-poor graduation programme has started a new intervention to work with this group, to restart income generating activities by providing credit and technical coaching. Once the participants receive the credit, programme staff work with them to select enterprises that match their skills and encourage them to diversify their income by investing in more than one enterprise and involving other family members in the process. This helps them in building both short and long term resilience to shocks. Over 150,000 households are expected to be reached through this intervention in 2021 and 2022.

Data from World Bank’s rapid phone surveys launched in April 2020 across all developing regions reports that more than 60% of households lost some income – how is BRAC International looking to offer policy and programme support in these regions?

In 2021, the estimated COVID-19-induced poverty is set to rise to between 143 and 163 million. BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation (UPG) approach is a globally recognised model for its innovative and holistic solution to ultra-poverty. It is a comprehensive, time-bound, integrated and sequenced set of interventions that aim to enable extreme and ultra-poor households to achieve key milestones towards sustainable livelihoods and socio-economic resilience, in order to progress along a pathway out of extreme poverty.

BRAC International’s UPG approach is currently being applied in Liberia, Uganda, and the Philippines. In Liberia, for instance, last year we supported over 750 women-headed households to achieve economic self-reliance through training on enterprise management, life skills, financial literacy, and saving.

How is BRAC’s selection into The Audacious Project going to facilitate this?

Last year BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative (UPGI) was selected as an Audacious Project, one of eight organisations selected. With the Audacious award, we raised significant resources, more than $60 million, to finance an ambitious plan to help 21 million people lift themselves out of extreme poverty in the next five years.

With this investment, we will scale BRAC’s Graduation approach through governments and their existing social protection programmes in countries where we see the greatest potential impact. This new grant will leverage approximately $5.8 billion in existing government and donor funding and channel those funds toward well-executed, government-led Graduation programmes.
This Audacious grant underscores BRAC’s transformative role in developing innovative initiatives in the Global South, proving their effectiveness, and scaling them for greatest impact.

With the recent withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan the country has witnessed a surge in Taliban activities. How is BRAC International devising their organisational strategies in the region in light of this recent development?

BRAC International is implementing mitigation measures to minimise the risks to the safety and security of our staff and the communities we serve, which is our highest concern.
We are relocating our expatriate staff to secure locations outside the country amidst the escalating violence and volatile environment in Afghanistan.

There are about 3,000 national staff engaged with BRAC projects in 10 Afghan provinces, and we are doing our utmost to ensure the safety and security of our staff in the country.

As the current crisis intensifies, BRAC remains committed to reaching and delivering to the most vulnerable in Afghanistan, particularly women and children. Our team of more than 3000 Afghans is already on the ground. Our first priority is to address the needs of female-headed households as they are extremely vulnerable in the current context. We are also identifying the best means for providing urgently needed support to women and girls, and displaced families.

Our ability to respond with urgency and continue working with women and girls depends on the generosity of our donors. We welcome online donations on our website:

Can you share with us your expansion plans for BRAC’s international portfolio?

Over the coming years we are looking to expand geographically into new countries, but just as importantly, we are also focused on deepening our presence and impact in the ten countries where we already work.

My focus is to guide BRAC International’s strategies, programmes and organisational development for scaled impact and sustainable growth, to realise our ambitious global strategy to impact the lives of 250 million people by 2030.

We will continue with our holistic approach to address the complex nature of extreme poverty, and work across all the sectors – health, education, financial inclusion, food security, livelihoods, climate and agriculture. A good deal of work remains to be done, but both BRAC and BRAC International are committed to aggressively pursuing our impact goals and ensuring BRAC remains courageous and tenacious in tackling the world’s most difficult challenges.

What are the leadership strategies we can expect to see from you?

As we move forward with our ambitious strategy to impact the lives of 250 million people by 2030, I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep the people that we serve, and in particular women and girls, central to our thinking.

In my past role as the head of BRAC’s microfinance programmes, whenever there were discussions in team meetings or boardrooms of double and triple bottom lines, I would always remind everyone that at BRAC we have a single bottom line, and that is impact. Every single thing that we do must ultimately have an impact on the lives of the people we serve. Impact at scale is the only KPI that ultimately matters. It is not about how much money we raise, or how many programmes we run. If we cannot show clear impact, we will have failed entirely. Therefore, all the money we raise and each and every programme that we deliver must have impact at scale.

I am confident that as long as we stay true to our core values – integrity, inclusiveness, effectiveness and innovation – and our way of work, as a Global South organisation that can scale practical solutions from the ground up, we will continue to have the impact that we want to see. In the days, months and years ahead, I will focus our work singularly on our core mission, live by our values and ensure that all our efforts ultimately lead to the desired impact.

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