“Fundamentally what shaped the organization in the early days was the vision to deal with the long-term task of improving the lives of the rural poor.”
Photograph by Kazi Mukul
Asif Saleh oversees strategy, communications, advocacy, ICT and social innovation labs at BRAC. He is in charge of the empowerment cluster, which includes gender justice and diversity, migration and human rights and legal aid services. Prior to joining BRAC, he was an executive director at Goldman Sachs and also worked for Glaxo Wellcome, NorTel and IBM. Upon his return to Bangladesh in 2008, he worked as a policy specialist for the UNDP-funded project access to information (a2i) programme at the Prime Minister’s office. Saleh is the founder of Drishtipat, a global organization with chapters across the world focusing on human and economic rights of Bangladeshi people. He contributes regularly to local and international dailies. Saleh was recognized for his work by Asia Society’s Asia 21 program in 2008, the Bangladeshi American Foundation in 2007, and was selected as an Asia 21 Fellow in 2012. He holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science and an MBA in management from NYU Stern School of Business. He is currently a mentor of the Unreasonable Institute, a member of the advisory board of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) and a board member of Institute of Informatics and Development (IID). He was also named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders in 2013. Recently he was caught up with IBT and here are the excerpts.
Akhter Hamid Khan the doyen of social thinking has put forth a model of microcredit and socioeconomic development which was earlier taken by BRAC. However, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed’s one is a unique and holistic model. Now it is a the largest NGO in the world whose globalization started with civil strife ridden Afghanistan. What is your take on this?
BRAC started in a war-torn Bangladesh as a relief organization. Fundamentally what shaped the organisation in the early days was the vision to deal with the long-term task of improving the lives of the rural poor. We started with adult literacy programme and training rural women and men on income generating activities. Soon however, we realized that in order to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, education for children is essential. This led to the birth of the non-formal primary education programme.
With our education intervention in Afghanistan, we were able to build on what we had learned in Bangladesh. There was room to expand into other sectors in the post-war Afghanistan. That is when, in 2002, BRAC took its solutions beyond Bangladesh, and BRAC International came into being. Thirteen years into our journey in international development, we have expanded into 11 countries. We have affiliated organizations in the USA and UK.
BRAC goes where there is an urgent need for development and not many organizations are willing to go. It includes post-conflict countries as well as countries that have faced large-scale disaster. The Muslim Mindanao is a remote region in Philippines where BRAC works with some of the most marginalized groups. It is the largest NGO in Uganda with a strong manpower of 2600 . It is also one of the largest NGOs in Tanzania. In Afghanistan, we had to stop our microfinance operations due to security reasons.
In 2013, BRAC was ranked the number one NGO in the world by The Global Journal, beating 500 global NGOs like CARE and Oxfam. The criteria were innovation, scale and sustainability. The unique thing about BRAC is it raises 75% of its programming costs through its own funds. It is mostly a self-sustaining organization with an annual budget of over a billion dollar. It has helped drive change by providing the poor with the right tools, whether it is through education, health or microfinance. Its various programmes and investments like BRAC Bank, which was initiated with the goal to serve small and medium enterprises (SME), along with its subsidiaries like bKash together form an aggressive tool for empowerment.
Fundamentally what ties this all together is that BRAC’s large scale system thinking. Wherever there was a gap in the system for the poor to get a support and government or private sector was unwilling or unable to step in, BRAC stepped in and played a role. Such holistic way of looking at a problem and the subsequent execution and operational excellence is what makes BRAC stand apart from other traditional development organizations.
Unlike other NGOs, BRAC is known to have non-traditional approaches. like the unique bottom-up approach. It started in remote Sulla, and now it has a global reach where you are working in different continents with different cultures and languages.
I believe that change has to come from within; it needs to be initiated by the people themselves. An organization can only provide them with the right tools. The BRAC model worked in Bangladesh because community is such an integral part of its solution. Our programmes were designed in a way where the community played a very strong part. Capacity building of a community is absolutely a must. For example, the teachers in our schools are all from the respective communities. We train these secondary graduate housewives as teachers, and today there are over 4 million students who have graduated out of BRAC’s primary schools. It is a similar case with Aarong where we train artisans from villages all over Bangladesh. Some go on to become producers, employing groups of artisans. Even if Aarong ever stops existing, the capacity of these people would have already been built. That is a example of the sustainable impact of the organization.
Poverty and certain socio-economic challenges are universal. It is the approach to these solutions that have to be contextualized. What worked in Afghanistan may not work in Uganda. To talk about a simple innovation that we fostered in our schools in Afghanistan to increase girls’ attendance, we recruited and trained elderly women from the community called khala (meaning ‘aunt’ in Bangla) to act as their stewards. We were dealing with young Afghan girls who cannot come to school due to distance and security issues. We now have 200,000 girls in our schools there. The innovative project ensures girl’s safety while also creating employment for these guardians. This was an innovation exported to Afghanistan from Bangladesh and it worked. We are utilizing the community for the best results. There are various approaches we follow to prevent dropouts in schools and it varies from country to country. The Bangladesh economy is quite unique that in our GDP there are 3.25% contribution is from Community , Social and personal services where BRAC is the single largest operator .
There is no organisation whose scale is as wide as BRAC’s. BRAC is quite unique in the sense that it is a combination of social enterprises, grant based development programmes and its various social investments. In the recent history, we haven’t measured BRAC’s contribution to national economy but with such wide scale operations for its various activities in such large scale it has gotten be very large.
BRAC is been underatking projects in African nations like Tanzania. Is running an operation there comparable to what is being done in Bangladesh?
Comparing Bangladesh with Tanzania is quite interesting. In Bangladesh one of the reasons for its success is the government gives a lot of space for NGO’s to operate and is not as restricitve as in other countries and that’s where social innovation takes place. In Tanzania we were told that you cannot work in the health sector at all as it is restricted to non-govt players. We started with microfinance because access to financial services is essential for the poor. We then started education for girls, followed by livelihood projects and other income generating activities. One of our successful projects is Adolescent Clubs for young girls where they are given safe spaces to learn and play. These clubs also provide financial education, giving out small scale loans for their own needs. This has been a very unique model in East Africa. Unlike BRAC in Bangladesh, our International operations have less resources. BRAC international generates its own resources, mostly by fundraising activities.