BRAC in business
Fazle Hasan Abed has built one of the world's most commercially-minded and successful NGOs;
Smiling and dapper, Fazle Hasan Abed hardly seems like a revolutionary. A Bangladeshi educated in Britain, an admirer of Shakespeare and Joyce, and a former accountant at Shell, he is the son of a distinguished family: his maternal grandfather was a minister in the colonial government of Bengal; a great-uncle was the first Bengali to serve in the governor of Bengal's executive council. This week he received a very traditional distinction of his own: a knighthood. Yet the organisation he founded, and for which his knighthood is a gong of respect, has probably done more than any single body to upend the traditions of misery and poverty in Bangladesh. Called BRAC, it is by most measures the largest, fastest-growing non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the world—and one of the most businesslike.
Although Mohammed Yunus won the Nobel peace prize in 2006 for helping the poor, his Grameen Bank was neither the first nor the largest microfinance lender in his native Bangladesh; BRAC was. Its microfinance operation disburses about $1 billion a year. But this is only part of what it does: it is also an internet-service provider; it has a university; its primary schools educate 11% of Bangladesh's children. It runs feed mills, chicken farms, tea plantations and packaging factories. BRAC has shown that NGOs do not need to be small and that a little-known institution from a poor country can outgun famous Western charities. In a book on BRAC entitled “Freedom from Want”, Ian Smillie calls it “undoubtedly the largest and most variegated social experiment in the developing world. The spread of its work dwarfs any other private, government or non-profit enterprise in its impact on development.”
None of this seemed likely in 1970, when Sir Fazle turned Shell's offices in Chittagong into a refuge for victims of a deadly cyclone. BRAC—which started as an acronym, Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, and became a motto, “building resources across communities”—surmounted its early troubles by combining two things that rarely go together: running an NGO as a business and taking seriously the social context of poverty.
BRAC earns from its operations about 80% of the money it disburses to the poor (the remainder is aid, mostly from Western donors). It calls a halt to activities that require endless subsidies. At one point, it even tried financing itself from the tiny savings of the poor (ie, no aid at all), though this drastic form of self-help proved a step too far: hardly any lenders or borrowers put themselves forward. From the start, Sir Fazle insisted on brutal honesty about results. BRAC pays far more attention to research and “continuous learning” than do most NGOs. David Korten, author of “When Corporations Rule the World”, called it “as near to a pure example of a learning organisation as one is likely to find.”
What makes BRAC unique is its combination of business methods with a particular view of poverty. Poverty is often regarded primarily as an economic problem which can be alleviated by sending money. Influenced by three “liberation thinkers” fashionable in the 1960s—Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich—Sir Fazle recognised that poverty in Bangladeshi villages is also a result of rigid social stratification. In these circumstances, “community development” will help the rich more than the poor; to change the poverty, you have to change the society.
That view might have pointed Sir Fazle towards left-wing politics. Instead, the revolutionary impetus was channelled through BRAC into development. Women became the institution's focus because they are bottom of the heap and most in need of help: 70% of the children in BRAC schools are girls. Microfinance encourages the poor to save but, unlike the Grameen Bank, BRAC also lends a lot to small companies. Tiny loans may improve the lot of an individual or family but are usually invested in traditional village enterprises, like owning a cow. Sir Fazle's aim of social change requires not growth (in the sense of more of the same) but development (meaning new and different activities). Only businesses create jobs and new forms of productive enterprise.
After 30 years in Bangladesh, BRAC has more or less perfected its way of doing things and is spreading its wings round the developing world. It is already the biggest NGO in Afghanistan, Tanzania and Uganda, overtaking British charities which have been in the latter countries for decades. Coming from a poor country—and a Muslim one, to boot—means it is less likely to be resented or called condescending. Its costs are lower, too: it does not buy large white SUVs or employ large white men.
Its expansion overseas may, however, present BRAC with a new problem. Robert Kaplan, an American writer, says that NGOs fill the void between thousands of villages and a remote, often broken, government. BRAC does this triumphantly in Bangladesh—but it is a Bangladeshi organisation. Whether it can do the same elsewhere remains to be seen.