“BRAC” is not exactly a household name, and although it is one of the world’s largest, most diverse and successful NGOs, the organization is not well known outside of Bangladesh. DDII Board Chair Ian Smillie is changing that with his new book “Freedom From Want.”
Smillie, a leading expert on international development, tells us more about BRAC and the incredible man behind it.
A lot of people gave me nice blurbs for the cover – Bill Clinton, Amartya Sen, Mary Robinson, George Soros, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. I’d like to think it is because they liked the book, and presumably they did. But I think it has something to do with BRAC, and the value of getting the BRAC story told to a wide audience. Bill Clinton became aware of BRAC when he was Governor of Arkansas and invited F.H. Abed, BRAC’s founder, to visit and advise on microenterprise development. He met Abed again when he went to Bangladesh as President, and told him, “When I retire, I want to do what you do.” In 2007 he gave Abed one of the first Clinton Global Initiative Awards, because he understood what BRAC has accomplished and what it means. Robert Chambers said, “This book has been crying out to be written,” which is true – it’s a story that is long overdue.
It is a leader because it is good at what it does. It also happens to be big, and there is an important correlation. A lot of good projects are never taken to scale. Pilot projects remain pilots because nobody picks them up. BRAC has found ways to take simple solutions to major health problems – such as diarrhea in children, a major killer – to every village in the country. It graduates half a million literate girls from its non-formal primary schools every year. Its dairy produces 90,000 litres of milk a day, all of it from people who have borrowed small amounts to buy one or two cows. BRAC is 80 percent self-financing, and it is now taking its work to other countries in Asia and Africa. This would be remarkable for a Canadian or a British NGO, but in a Bangladeshi NGO it is stunning.
The key is investment opportunities for the borrower. In many microfinance programs, borrowers simply join the “kiosk economy” – setting up a stall in the market and selling things that have been produced elsewhere. BRAC has always understood that the key to poverty reduction has to be based on production – new creative livelihood opportunities for poor people in rural areas. These are scarce, and they need more than a loan and a couple of workshops. BRAC has put huge efforts into researching what is required to make new poultry, dairy, farming and fishing opportunities work. Often it means providing assistance with inputs and with marketing, and developing a chain that can be operated by borrowers at different stages, and this takes time. For BRAC, microfinance as a stand-alone operation is not nearly so important as new productive enterprises. Microfinance is the beginning, the grease for enterprise development, not the end in itself.
I think there are lessons for DDII and for anyone who wants a better life for Africa’s 1.3 million artisanal diamond diggers. The first is that alternative livelihoods do not grow on trees. The second is that cooperatives and microfinance are not a panacea to development problems. A third is that solving deeply ingrained problems means the creation of real opportunities, and these must be tested and proven before they are offered to people who live on the edge of desperation. A fourth lesson might be that there is no substitute for trial and error, for learning, and for hard work.
I didn’t, I wanted to call it “The Third Freedom” which I thought would be more intriguing, with the right kind of subtitle of course. Publishers know best, however. Both titles refer to FDR’s “four freedoms” speech of 1942, when he said that freedom from want was achievable within a few years. Obviously it was not, but clearly, with the right kind of investments and support, BRAC is showing that huge numbers of people really can achieve freedom from want – or “the third freedom”.
There are so many things about Abed that are special, but I think perhaps the most intriguing thing is that he didn’t start this particular journey until he was 36. He gave up a good life as a Shell Oil executive – not in the way someone joins a religious order, but because he saw the development challenge and thought he might be able to make a difference. And what a difference it has been. That a man coming from such an unlikely background, almost middle aged when he began, can do this means that all of us have it in us to “make a difference” too.
“Freedom from Want: The Remarkable Success Story of BRAC, the Global Grassroots Organization That's Winning the Fight Against Poverty” is available online at Amazon.ca