Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

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Bangladeshi Pioneer Invests in Women From the ‘Ultra-Poor’


Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC
Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of BRAC, a 40-year-old organization dedicated to helping the poorest of the poor in 11 countries, reaching 135 million people.

Fazle Hasan Abed runs the world’s largest nongovernmental development organization. He has garnered numerous international prizes, honorary degrees, very important friends and a British knighthood. Yet in the United States, Abed’s successes, won through a creative self-help program centered on mothers and their families, are virtually unknown.

So here is his story, and BRAC‘s.

The four-decade old organization Abed founded began work as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee in country villages in the early years of Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan in 1971. Now, having shortened its name to erase that small-scope image, BRAC has projects in 11 countries, reaching 135 million people.

It has evolved into much more than a rural development organization, with banks for the poor, 38,000 schools worldwide, a university, research projects in agriculture and aquaculture to meet the effects of climate change and a corps of nearly 100,000 community health workers who reach down to the small homes of  people with the fewest resources, material or human. On all fronts, BRAC invests in people too poor to benefit from most aid programs, even microfinance. Many stay alive on as little as 70 cents a day or less.

In 2007, a BRAC USA opened in New York to support the global work of its Bangladeshi parent. Its president and chief executive is Susan Davis, a widely respected advocate for women in development who encountered Abed and BRAC while based in Bangladesh for the Ford Foundation. She later served as head of WEDO, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, among other offices she has held.

In Bangladesh, BRAC supports silk production, traditional unique embroidery and other local crafts of high quality, sold through its Aarong stores. But unemployed women at the heart of family life are the main focus of the latest campaign to crack the wall of barriers that keep the “ultra-poor” trapped in bare-subsistence lives, however hard they work.

“The poverty of women is one of the most difficult questions, but one of the most important questions,” said Abed, who was born in 1936 in what was then British colonial East Bengal (later East Pakistan). Speaking in an interview during a visit to New York, he described how BRAC starts with a small cash grant, enough to buy a two-year breathing space for a mother and her children and access to basic public services, including a family planning program that has helped the country lower its fertility rate and raise the level of maternal health. It is, in reality, an investment in poor families.

“What we try to do over a couple of years is make an asset transfer, a small stipend so that they eat two meals a day, and provide education to the children and health care services,” said Abed, a graduate of Dhaka College and the University of Glasgow who trained as an accountant and became a senior executive of Shell Oil Company before giving up his business career to work on development in Bangladesh.

“Training and hand-holding are required,” he said. “We try to get the family out of extreme poverty to a level where they can then borrow money.” Social and emotional learning are involved in encouraging the poorest people to believe they can become involved in their own development and progress, he added.

“When women see that their life is changing, when someone is coming in, providing a stipend, so that they can eat two meals a day, they are saving a little money for the future, then the whole scenario changes for them,” Abed said. “These women work much harder to improve by themselves.

“We find that 8 to 10 percent of Bangladesh’s population are extremely poor, and they don’t really benefit from microfinance programs because they are too poor to use them effectively,” he said. “A woman with three children, no possibility of a job, half-fed half of the time — the children are going to be malnourished also, they won’t go to school, and so they will generate another group of poor families. Poverty flows to the next generation, and the next generation.

“In Bangladesh, we have worked with about 1.5 million families,” he continued. “Over a two-year period, our investment has been about $300 per family. What we are trying to measure is what happens to this family. How many graduate after two years to a growth path? After five years, we find that almost 80 percent of the families have improved their conditions.” The Economist magazine has described BRAC  as “the largest, fastest growing nongovernmental organization in the world — and one of the most businesslike.”

Bangladesh, a densely populated country of more than about 160 million people (though there are also lower and higher estimates), has proved it can work wonders despite its poverty. It is also a Muslim society with Islamist movements opposed to women’s rights and a history of political turmoil punctuated by military rule.

The most recent World Bank data tracking the Millennium Development Goals found that the per capita income for employed people in Bangladesh rose in purchasing power parity (a global comparison measure, not actual income) from $2,065 in 1990, the base year for measuring progress on the goals, to $3,972 in 2011. In human terms, malnutrition among children under 5 years old has fallen from 62 percent to 37 percent (a lower figure than in much-richer India). The literacy rate for girls and women between 15 and 24 years old has more than doubled, to 78 percent from 38 percent. Women hold 20 percent of the seats in Parliament and are on a par, if not higher, with boys and men in enrollment in educational institutions up to and including university levels.

For women, the gains since 1990 have been spectacular in the South Asian context, though still well behind the levels of the developed world. Teen pregnancies (between ages 15 and 19) have dropped from 164 per 1,000 girls to 82. The maternal mortality rate has plunged from 800 deaths among 100,000 live births to a current estimate of about 240 and falling fast. Childhood immunization rates are high.

The Population Reference Bureau, an independent research organization in New York, reports that the fertility rate (the number of live births per woman) is 2.3, only two-tenths of a percentage point above the population replacement level of 2.1. BRAC thinks that figure and others attributed internationally to Bangladesh are out of date already. “The fertility rate is 2.1,” Abed said. “It was 6.2 when I started.” He sees similar faster declines in other areas, particularly in maternal deaths.

Abed has big hopes; he said that Bangladesh can be among the next tier of countries to join the fastest-growing global economies. He is aware that the country’s garment manufacturers careless, if not criminal, safety standards have marked the nation as exploitative, though he argues that what Bangladesh needs is not a boycott by the West but support for unionizing the factory workers who are lifting many people, particularly women, out of poverty. The country could also use more attention from foreign buyers regarding the safety conditions of factories with which they do business.

He says he is confident that the problems are fixable with the right political and business leadership. “We will be in the ‘Next 11’ — one of the major economies of the world after the tigers,” he said.

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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