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Emerging from Poverty to Aid the Poor in Other Lands

By Tom Watson on October 4, 2007No Comment

At the Clinton Global Initiative last week, BRAC announced a $271 million commitment to support education for girls in Africa and Asia. Founded in 1972 by Fazle Hasan Abed to provide small scale relief and rehabilitation for the poor in Bangladesh, BRAC has grown into one of the world’s largest nonprofits. Its dual emphasis on microfinance and empowerment of the poor has suffused health and education programs throughout Bangladesh, and extended into 10 more countries. The new initiative, which will expand programs into Afghanistan, Uganda, Tanzania and Southern Sudan, is expected to benefit 7.5 million young people, most of them girls, through the model of pre-primary education, secondary schooling and life skills training, as well as undergraduate and advanced degrees at BRAC University in Bangladesh.

Like many others announced at CGI, this new initiative is based on collaboration. A new entity, BRAC USA, backed by the NoVo Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will work with BRAC to mobilize resources in Bangladesh as well as the countries listed above. The governments of the UK, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Canada have pledged $130 million in aid for the Bangladesh and Afghanistan programs. For the programs in Uganda, Tanzania and Southern Sudan, the Nike Foundation and Oxfam NOVIB have pledged $3 million of the $30 million that will be needed over the five-year span of the commitment.

In an interview following CGI, BRAC USA president Susan Davis emphasized that despite the impressive scale of the new initiative, it represented a humble effort by poor people in Bangladesh to help not only their neighbors, but their counterparts in other developing countries. “Poor people’s realities are very similar,” she said, “despite differences in culture and context. BRAC responded to the needs in Sri Lanka after tsunami, which got their confidence up.”   When BRAC leaders were asked why they couldn’t just train NGOS in the other countries, they responded, Davis said, with “classic humility, saying how would we know we have something effective to offer? They felt they had to become operational in order to know what they’re accomplishing.”

Davis discussed the model that has worked so well in Bangladesh, to provide
healthcare prevention and outreach programs, engage young people in schools, and extend microcredit loans to enable women to lift themselves out of poverty.
Davis’ career reflects the history of social entrepreneurship, in some of its most outstanding initiatives. A founding member and former Chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Grameen Bank, she is also active in Ashoka and chairs its Global Academy for Social Entrepreneurship.

And while she is charged with raising and allocating millions of dollars to these education and empowerment programs, she brings them down to a human scale when discussing their impact on individuals.  When it comes to teaching, for example, she explains that a priority was “how to make learning fun.” In order to encourage students to discover the joy of learning, and “turn on the light bulb” to appreciate a meaningful education, she explained, BRAC chooses its teachers by personality type. “We don’t look for a disciplinarian, but a facilitator.”  One sign of success: their absentee rate is very low.

The continuing effectiveness of these village-level training programs, she explained, is based on intensive short term training for two weeks, followed by regular supervision 2-3 times a week. “The secret in the sauce comes down to these four things,” she said:

 Training
 Supervision
 Accountability
 Support

BRAC developed a non-formal primary education model as a high-impact, low-cost solution for areas where many children never enrolled in school or dropped out. It compresses primary school into 2-4 years, and 94% enroll in secondary school. For older girls who drop out of high school, BRAC offers special centers to help them maintain literacy and learn life and income-generating skills.

At the Clinton Global Initiative, former President Clinton pointed to education and good jobs for girls as powerful keys to economic development. And the microcredit programs that have helped millions of poor women improve their own lives and those of their families, are now reaching out to young people in Africa and Asia to help them do the same. Far from the Bangladesh villages where they first took root, the branches of education and empowerment are reaching around the world. In honoring Fazle Hasan Abed with one of the first Clinton Global Citizen Awards, Clinton praised BRAC’s simple but powerful model for enabling poor people to go “from being aid recipients to becoming empowered citizens in control of their own destinies.”

For more information about BRAC, visit http://www.brac.net/

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