Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) was established by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed with the idea of changing systems of inequality. In five decades, it has entrenched itself as arguably the largest and most successful Non-Government Organisation (NGO) in the world. However, at the very beginning of the new decade, a pandemic is threatening to eliminate all the progress it has helped to make.
Asif Saleh on BRAC
A FOUR PRONGED APPROACH
Our first approach was to ensure that our staff and our program participants are protected. It resulted in a massive orientation campaign for our staff about the virus and mass awareness campaign among our participants. We went into a very big communication campaign across various platforms. Essentially making people aware of the necessary health habits in terms of hygiene, washing, and also social distancing. I think it was very important for us to stay on the ground. I am proud of the way our field workers have responded over the past few months.
The focus then started shifting towards the support needed when virus cases increased and so we went into supporting the government in terms of various health care initiatives. One of the big areas at that time was expanding the testing facilities. Asif Saleh on BRAC & The Future of Bangladesh
We set up Kerala style Kiosk across Dhaka because it had 85% of the identified cases at the time. More than ninety-seven kiosks were set up across Dhaka over the period and we hired lab technicians to ensure that testing is widely available. We also assisted the government through providing 20 doctors in their emergency health line 333 line as it was struggling to cope with the number of incoming calls.
Concurrently, we forged a very good partnership with A2i (Access to information in Bangladesh), we designed this initiative called community support team which helped identify the patients who were in COVID-19 households from both the phone calls that were coming in and also from word of mouth in terms of our visits to various households, so the idea was to keep people in their homes if they are COVID-19 positive and also ensure that they get support from telemedicine and have a referral if there’s a need to go to the hospital for more serious cases. Asif Saleh on BRAC & The Future of Bangladesh
The community support team in partnership with Dhaka North City Corporation and Dhaka South City Corporation is now widely available across Dhaka City. Now we are expanding it in Gazipur and other places where there is a higher infection rate.
Addressing the ultra-poor segment who had lost their livelihoods in the pandemic was the third pillar of our response. A large segment of the urban ultra-poor who lost their livelihoods because of the lockdown they were suffering so we started a fundraising campaign and we also contributed about 15 crore taka from our fund, it inspired others to come and join us, through BRAC, Grameenphone supported additional hundred thousand families.
We provided about two weeks of cash support to three hundred and sixty thousand families, so initially, we started with food support before shifting to cash support after realising the markets were still functioning efficiently. Over four weeks, we were able to mobilize to support the 360,000 ultra-poor households who were facing starvation at the time. Collectively, if each household has about four to five people so that’s roughly 1.3 million people who got economic support from us at a crucial time. Asif Saleh on BRAC & The Future of Bangladesh
The fourth pillar of our response will focus on supporting the recovery process. We strategize the process of addressing the “New Poor”. The pandemic has pushed the poverty level from 18.5% to 39%. So it’s almost 25 to 30 million people who are considered to be in this category and are in dire need of various support. It includes the garments workers who have been laid off, migrant workers who have returned from abroad without any jobs without any savings. We also have a lot of urban poor like restaurant workers and office staff who have lost their jobs and they’re not likely to find other jobs any time soon. We are creating a customized plan for them. We are not just looking at BRAC’s perspective, all the supporting organizations like BRAC Bank and other enterprises are formulating an aggregated approach to expand our support.
Our response has been multidimensional and we supported the government as much as possible in terms of the health response and we supported also in the economic side as well as humanitarian support that was needed. However, I still think there’s a lot of work to do as people are increasingly getting more relaxed about the disease the mask-wearing is going down. So, we need to very actively continue that focus because the disease is very much here.
We need to protect ourselves and most importantly protect our elders who are particularly vulnerable in this case and the best way to do that is by wearing masks. So what we are doing going forward continuing the very public campaign around wearing masks from both local as well as national levels.
ADVOCATING MASK MANDATE
BRAC has actively advocated with the government from the very onset. One of the first articles that I wrote with Dr. Richard Cash at the end of March, we discussed how to minimise the disruption on livelihoods while saving lives. We pondered the use of masks and frequent hand washing as a substitute for having a countrywide lockdown. I was quite vocal about its implementation as the data from the field suggested the success of the strategy.
Unfortunately, there was no model for the World Health Organisation (WHO) could claim with certainty that mask-wearing and handwashing could substitute lockdowns. Later, in May a more robust data analysis suggested that if everybody wore masks, it would be as good as if there was a lockdown in place. We strongly advocated mask-wearing with the government along with our development partners at the end of May which had a role to play in terms of government making it mandatory.
The prolonged lockdown has affected BRAC and its social enterprises considerably and the implications have been multidimensional. Having missed two big festivals (Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha), Aarong is facing loss this year and a backlog of inventories which means it will not be able to place new orders to the artisans. To mitigate the effects of loss in income, we provided cash and loan support and facilitated the supply of cloth masks to refugee camps made by our artisans. This initiative has not only provided the artisans with a source of income but also facilitated a better health outcome for a vulnerable community.
Concurrently, the situation has forced school closures across the country which includes all the educational institutions run by BRAC across the country. The resulting disruptions exacerbate already existing disparities within the education system but also in other aspects of their lives. We are anticipating high dropouts as our students come from poor families who no longer can afford to continue under the new economic reality. This poses a risk of having a domino effect of the improvised segment of our population resulting in the rise of child marriage.
BRAC is addressing this predicament by introducing a unique phone-based school model. It is essentially homeschooling through telecommunication where a teacher would call a student for half an hour two days a week. Asif Saleh on BRAC & The Future of Bangladesh
VISION 2030: AN EQUAL SOCIETY THROUGH GENDER EQUALITY
The pandemic is proving fatal to the gains made in various development indicators. It has made the road to achieving the SDG(s) even more difficult; however, at the same time, incentivising public health and well-being.
As a nation, we have fought many disasters in the past and this one is no different but we need to address the systemic issues this pandemic has demonstrated us. Public health must be prioritised in budget allocation while ensuring transparency and accountability.
The economic disruption coupled with the closure of educational institutions due to the could raise dropout at schools since many families, mostly lower-income groups, have been sending their children out for work. Therefore, a significant amount of resources must be allocated to ensure support for the “New Poor” to prevent dropouts.
Government services and facilities have to be made more accessible to the general public. It can be achieved by creating a universal identity system for all citizens.It will help streamline the process of accessing social security schemes, loans, savings, and insurance through public-private partnerships.
During this time of economic uncertainty, inequality is going to rise exponentially which may have massive implications in terms of peace and stability. So there is a lot of work to be done both in terms of addressing the systemic challenges and also providing economic support to reduce inequality.
Looking forward to the next decade, our focus would firmly be on the SDG goals that are more relevant for Bangladesh. Reducing inequality from the economic perspective would be a priority. It will be followed by improving the quality of services in areas like health care and education. We have to ensure that access to quality education does not depend on one’s financial ability.
Thirdly, we are going to address the rising youth unemployment rate by improving their skill levels through vocational training. Finally, we have to focus on resilience building, as the start of the new decade indicates that frequent disasters will be part of the “New Normal”. Helping people to adapt to a world of shifting dynamics will be a big focus. Above all, our vision of an equal society will continue to be focused on ensuring gender equality.