What Makes One of Bangladesh's Largest Aid Organizations Work?
Fazle Abed, founder of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, describes its approach to development.
DHAKA, Bangladesh | From its blood-soaked war of independence from Pakistan 42 years ago to disasters -- natural and industrial -- Bangladesh has long been known for epic human suffering and poverty.
Yet this crowded South Asian nation also has come to be known for social innovations that have attacked its myriad problems with some impressive successes. Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he founded were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for disbursing millions of micro loans to help poor women start businesses.
"Professor Yunus has got the Nobel Prize not because Grameen is the best microfinance organization in the world but because of the advocacy role he has played throughout the world," said Fazle Abed, founder of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee or BRAC. "I give him all kudos for doing that."
But while Yunus enjoys rock star status from college campuses to Capitol Hill, in development circles, it is the quiet-spoken Abed who commands just as much awe for the spectacular growth of BRAC, whose diverse enterprises and services directly touch 80 percent of Bangladesh's 160 million people. It is the largest nongovernmental organization in the world measured by the number of employees and people served. To many experts, the real miracle of BRAC is that it remains nimble and responsive despite its size.
"From the perspective of our ranking criteria -- impact, innovation and sustainability -- BRAC ticks every box," wrote the development magazine Global Journal in awarding BRAC its No. 1 rank in the world in 2013.
Like Grameen, BRAC has a sizeable portfolio of microloans ($9 billion) but it has erected various building blocks on that grassroots foundation.
"Just microfinance is not going to alleviate poverty totally so we had to come (at it) from many different sides," Abed said in an interview conducted from the top floor of BRAC's high-rise Dhaka headquarters.
A volunteer health worker from the Bangladesh Rural Affairs Committee checks a pregnant woman in the village of Nabagram in Manikganj, Bangladesh on Jan. 29, 2009. Photo by Majority World/UIG via Getty Images.
"We collect milk from all the women that bought cows with microfinance," said Abed. "We pasteurize milk, produce butter and all kinds of dairy products and sell them in the urban area."
Similarly, BRAC lends enough money to small and medium size businesses ("they're the job creators of Bangladesh") to rank as the country's fifth largest commercial bank. It runs a chain of retail stores selling rural handicrafts. BRAC is the largest retailer and brand of seeds sold to farmers and has been in the vanguard of significant gains in food security. Despite chronic flooding and climate vagaries, production of the staple rice crop has more than tripled over the past two decades, for example, and Bangladesh is a net exporter of this commodity.
Perhaps the most impressive gains that BRAC helped engineer are in public health, where it has trained some 100,000 village health workers. Their work has brought a near eradication of the scourge of tuberculosis in a country where conditions would seem ideal for such infectious diseases, as we reported in 2008.
Abed cites several other improvements in areas where BRAC has led the effort: maternal mortality down from 800 per 100,000 childbirths to less than 200. Literacy (BRAC runs 38,000 schools) more than doubled to 65 percent today. The total fertility rate, perhaps the most critical statistic in a country the size of Wisconsin (population: 5.7 million) with a population of 160 million has dropped from more than six children per woman in 1971 to 2.3 today, barely above replacement.
"Our social indicators are in fact better than India's or our neighbors Nepal or Pakistan," said Abed, whose recognitions include a knighthood from Britain's Queen Elizabeth. Today, many BRAC methods have been adopted across the developing world and the group itself has expanded to 10 other developing countries, including Afghanistan.
Watch for special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro's report on Bangladesh on Wednesday's PBS NewsHour. View all of our World coverage.