Amid celebrations for the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence, international development organization Brac is set to observe its 49th founding anniversary on March 21. In an interview with Dhaka Tribune's Shohel Mamun, Brac Executive Director Asif Saleh discussed the organization's role in the development of Bangladesh over the past 50 years as well as in the upcoming decades
Although Bangladesh is turning into a developing nation from a least developed country, Asif Saleh thinks GDP (gross domestic product) growth alone is not enough to ensure graduation. He stressed the importance of ensuring the availability of quality health, education and transport services as well as equal rights and a safe environment for women to become a developed nation.
What was on Sir Fazle Hasan Abed's mind when Brac’s journey began?
In 1972, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed founded Brac with a dream of rebuilding Bangladesh. After vowing to help refugees who returned from India after the Liberation War, he started working for them from a small building in Sylhet. However, he soon realized that just giving people aid is not a solution, and that means of income generation for them is essential. As a result, Brac changed its focus to livelihood generation. Abed's vision of development was different as he thought that everybody has potential, but they can’t fulfill it for various reasons.Brac focused on generating livelihoods, financial inclusion, health and education to help people fulfill their potential.
How would you evaluate Bangladesh after 50 years? What has been Brac's contribution to the nation’s advancement?
In the 70s, child mortality was a big problem in Bangladesh and dehydration was a major cause, so Brac started an oral rehydration campaign across the country. The immunization rate was 2% in the early 80s, so Brac worked alongside the Bangladesh government to immunize children. By the end of the decade, the immunization rate was above 80%.
Schooling, especially for girls, was the main focus of Brac in the 90s. Around 12 million children have graduated after receiving quality education at 64,000 Brac schools. In the early 2000s, we wanted to reduce open defecation, so we built latrines in almost half of the country and mobilized people to use them.
Apart from this, two things have held a central position in our efforts over the past 50 years. First is financial inclusion for everyone, starting with the ultra-poor who cannot take microfinance. We gave them assets and brought them under a graduation model. Through the intervention, we graduated almost half a million people from ultra-poverty. We now have microfinance for SMEs (small and medium enterprises) with Brac Bank.
The second thing is focusing on creating livelihoods in the rural economy. A lot of social enterprises have been started. Aarong, for an example, created more than 65,000 artisans across rural Bangladesh as we thought women are a very integral part of our development. We built the capacity of women across the country as our volunteers, schoolteachers, and health workers are mostly women. Social indicators in Bangladesh are better than those of many other countries in South Asia, which is a result of work by Brac, other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the government.
It has been a year without Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. How was your journey? What challenges have you faced during the time, and how did you overcome them?
Fazle Hasan Abed spent a lot of time building the institution. If you don't have a strong institution, the legacy will not last. He always invested in building new leadership, and the institute benefited from this after he passed away.
Although there are no problems in leadership, we have sorely missed his wisdom. As an entrepreneur, he was a risk taker and this is very difficult to replicate. There is no direct replacement for him, and we need a collective effort.
The pandemic has led to a global economic crisis, and the raising of funds has been one of the major challenges since Sir Abed’s passing.
Brac aims to reach at least 250 million people living in poverty around the world, including in Bangladesh, by 2030. How will this be achieved?
Brac has already reached 125 million people. We want to double that in the next 10 years. We have a technical assistance model for graduating the ultra-poor. This is a very unique model that has now been recognized throughout the world. This is the model that Abhijit Banerjee researched and got the Nobel Prize on. This model is very popular for eradicating extreme poverty. We have expanded the implementation of the model in six countries, to meet the number one SDG (Sustainable Development Goal).
How would Brac serve the country in the next 50 years?
As development is not only denoted by GDP growth, we should improve other social indicators by taking measures to eradicate poverty completely and ensure the availability of quality services in health, education and transport. A country cannot be said to have developed if social indicators go down.
We need pro-poor planning in our development process. Changing perceptions, increasing the number of women in the workplace, and financial inclusion to eradicate extreme poverty are the issues Brac is going to continue to focus on. We will also focus on emerging challenges such as the employment of young people and skill building, and addressing unplanned urbanization.
There are still 20 million people under the poverty line. Disaster resilience and livelihoods for the coastal people are also going to be priorities in the future.