Fazle Hasan Abed passed away on Friday, December 20. On this solemn occasion, we republish this 2010 interview where Dr Abed (FHA) talked extensively with Shayan S. Khan (SSK) about the work of Brac, the small-scale ‘relief and rehabilitation project’ he started in the wake of the November 1970 cyclone that has now grown into the world’s largest NGO, working to eradicate poverty in 8 countries across 3 continents:
SSK: BRAC has been said to have pioneered a model of poverty alleviation whereby it would identify a space in need of intervention, then identify a chain of needs within it, before placing itself at strategic points along that chain. How has that evolved over the years?
FHA: As you say, we pick up or identify a problem, and then try and create programmes to solve the problem. But while we do that, we also try to see whether other opportunities to improve the situation further. For example, when we started our microfinance programme, and had reached around a million borrowers, we found that of them, around 100,000 women raised vegetables with the money that they borrowed.
Now how do you improve productivity in such a situation, or the quality of vegetables? We found that there is one problem which impedes higher productivity, and that is that high-quality vegetable seeds are not available in the market. So we went into vegetable seed production, in order for the women to have the requisite quality of vegetable seed.
In the same way, many buy cows and produce milk, but they couldn’t sell their milk in the remotest corners of Bangladesh at a fair price, as no market exists in those areas. Those who could would be selling at Tk 7 per litre, whereas here we were in the capital buying milk at Tk 25. So I thought, why not buy the milk from them at Tk 15, then bring it here, pasteurise it and all, and sell it at Tk 25? A bit of business for me, and the woman whose milk I’m buying gains too!
Once that was done, we looked at why the cows would be producing only 2 litres a day of milk. Why not 15 litres? So we are now breaking into things like breeding, with an artificial insemination programme throughout the country. We already have around 2000 artificial inseminators all around Bangladesh, and we are trying to inseminate local cows with higher breed variety, such as Holstein-Friesian cows. Different breeds that can provide more milk, or more meat.
So we are not only helping poor women to market their milk, we are also looking to improve their entire flock so that they are more productive.
SSK: One of your most important programmes right now is aimed at reducing maternal mortality. Could you expand upon how you’re going about it?
You can say we always bring all kinds of things into the frame in order to improve the situation. Right now we are running a maternal and also a neonatal health programme, aimed at reducing not only maternal mortality, but also neonatal mortality, which means death within the first one month of life. See our under-1 year mortality rate is 54, and our under 1 month mortality rate is 37. So more than half of our children who die in their first year actually die in the very first month. If we can reduce that 37, we can bring down our infant mortality rate significantly. That is what we’re working on right now.
We’re working on putting up the infrastructure for it at the moment. We also have 80,000 rural women working as shasthya shebikas, these are women who work voluntarily, and they are all being trained so that they can look after these children under 1 month, and provide the right kind of advice and support to the mother. Also, looking at reducing maternal mortality, we found that there is a great need in Bangladesh for midwives. We don’t have any trained midwives. So we thought, how about setting up a hospital and also a training centre for midwives that can produce maybe four or five thousand midwives over a period of say, the next 10 years. Then every Bangladeshi village will have access to a trained midwife.
The programme we are running currently covers a third of the country, but then ultimately we are also looking to go nationwide with it, and put in place the human infrastructure that is need to produce the right kind of results.
So what you say about our programmes is quite right, and our programmes do evolve from addressing a certain problem in a certain area to going on to a national level. One thing people must realise is that BRAC has always thought nationally. Even when we work in a small area, we think of solving a problem nationally. I wouldn’t be thinking in terms of creating a stable of four or five thousand midwives if I wasn’t thinking nationally. If I thought of only the initial project area, I would just train a number that would be enough for the project area and then say that I’ve done a good job. So whenever we do something, we think in terms of the nation showing results, not just BRAC.
SSK: You say that you have the maternal mortality and neo-natal health programme going in a third of the nation right now. What is the potential of it being implemented at a national level?
FHA: We may not get enough money to expand the programme to a national level, but we’ll certainly develop the human infrastructure for it. We are going to do that. We would like to help the government to respond to the needs of the people. That is very important because ultimately I think the government has to do many of the things we are doing, and we would like to help the government to develop the infrastructure to make it all happen.
SSK: You have said in the past that a strong local governance structure is one condition which may allow BRAC to withdraw from providing certain services at least, like Primary Education. How do you view the evolution of local government in Bangladesh?
FHA: Our local government structure has not been strengthened by successive governments at the centre. The present government too, they had the election of the upazila councils, but they haven’t been given any power or authority by the central government. I hope that the government gets its good sense back and provides the local governments the opportunities to function effectively. For that to happen, there are two things that are important.
One is of course that resources need to be channelled to them, and secondly, it is important to build their capacity in terms of being able to respond. Also, a most essential part of any democratic society is that you create the demand for them to respond to. The demand is being voiced by the people. These poor people have certain demands of the state, such as jobs or education. Now at the moment, there’s nobody there to listen to these demands as they’re too far away, at the centre. Effective local government can listen to these demands that are voiced, and then respond accordingly. Without demand, nobody performs.
Our job, as an NGO, when we organise mostly poor people, is to give a voice to these demands of the people. So we are also in the business of creating demand from the people, which can put pressure on the local government to perform, and then you help the whole government to respond to these demands. So we need to work in both directions- building a sustainable system with the local government, and then building a demand structure from the people by organising them.
SSK: This demand that you speak of, is it demand only for specific services, or does it involve a demand for effective local government itself, as well, since there is a lack of awareness on the benefits of local government?
FHA: Yes, absolutely. Suppose local government is given the responsibility of providing primary education for our people, and a primary school in some village is not functioning well. Here a child’s parents can actually go to the upazila chairman and complain that so-and-so school is not functioning, say because the teacher is not doing his job well, and his or her child’s education is being affected. The chances of more immediate action being taken increase. So the people need to be made aware of all the possibilities that open up, if the power actually devolves to the local government.
At the moment, if some teacher doesn’t come to school, even the upazila chairman can do very little about it, since the delinquent is a central government employee.
SSK: What about building the capacity of the upazila councils?
FHA: The capacity will be built, or they will think about building their capacity only when they are pressed to do so. And this pressure must come from the bottom, that unless they deliver, they’re not going to be elected.
SSK: Is there a role for BRAC in that?
FHA: Absolutely, from both sides. In creating that pressure from the bottom, as well as helping our local governments to respond. What I think happens is that when you create pressure, and the system doesn’t have the capacity to respond, you see outbreaks of violence, you see repressive measures being taken. That happens when the state cannot respond to the needs of the people. So I think we have a role to play from both sides.
In my experience, I have found local governments as responsive as they can be. They would like to help the people. But they have no resources, nothing, so they have been limited in their response. It is important for their success that certain sectors of the economy would be controlled by them, like education, healthcare and so on. That is a policy that has to come from the centre, but that hasn’t happened yet, as our members of parliament want to enact laws as well as run the upazila councils. That does not work. They should do only one thing, and that is enacting laws.
SSK: Do you feel that opportunities for synergy between the government and NGOs in Bangladesh have been reaped to their maximum?
FHA: There could be many synergies. Some government departments are very keen to have BRAC as a partner, for example the Primary and Secondary Education Directorate of the government. Although we haven’t worked together much in the area of primary education, we are working very closely with them to improve teaching and learning in secondary schools.
In the area of health and family planning as well, we have very good relations with the government. But in other areas like water resources management, we are not cooperating as much. So it’s not uniform. In some ministries we are perceived as a partner, in others we are perceived as a threat.
SSK:So you're saying there is a need for more uniform policy on the part of the government towards NGOs?
FHA: You see in each ministry, a minister or secretary or joint secretary has got a different perception, and that causes different relationships to develop, or in some cases not develop between each of them and us. A government policy doesn’t affect all its departments in the same way. Tomorrow if Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina says, “We have no problems with NGOs, the government should work together with them,” you will still find some of them will be more forthcoming, others will not be. So it’s like that.
SSK: BRAC, as well as organisations like Grameen are often regarded as shadow, or parallel governments in Bangladesh. Does that say more about the failures of government in this country, or overachievement on your part?
FHA: No, I don’t think it’s either. Firstly, I don’t think we can blame our governments for not having achieved much. Many of them have done well, although they could do better. I don’t see the need to blame them, as ours is a poor country, and our government is also poor.
Whatever we have done has been in an effort to help our people, providing services our government couldn’t. So we are adding to whatever the government has done, complementing whatever is being done. I really don’t think you can point to a failure of government. If in 1972, 50% of our children were going to school, now it is 90%. For BRAC, there is still the space then to take the 10% who are not going to school and providing them with education. So the government has improved its performance by taking the number up from 50% to 90%. What they have done must be recognised. So I don’t say there has been a failure, but yes, they have not improved it to the extent that every child goes to school. They have not been able to ensure that, so there is a scope for BRAC to work. There are needs in rural areas for healthcare, for children to be immunised, as maybe the government has failed to immunise 20% of the children. So I would like to immunise that 20% and take the rate of immunisation up to 100%.
With this kind of arrangement where the two parties complement each other, our performance as a nation improves. That’s what I am interested in. It doesn’t matter what the government has done or what BRAC has done. Together, we can achieve something, like beat poverty as fast as we can. What the government can’t do, BRAC can do, and vice versa. So I would say it’s all part of a national effort to achieve a certain level of prosperity, a certain level of welfare for our people, certain opportunities for our people. That’s what we’re after. Overachievement has nothing to do with it.
We have not overachieved anyway. We have not gotten rid of poverty, we have health problems, mortality is still very high, and many other problems. So the question of overachievement doesn’t even arise for me.
SSK: So you reject both those terms?
FHA: Oh yes, totally. They don’t describe the reality of the situation.
SSK: You say that you haven’t overachieved. When BRAC started out, was the vision as grand as the standards you now set yourselves make it sound, for example when you say you haven’t eradicated poverty yet?
FHA: Well, eradication of poverty is something that will happen in the future maybe. Even the United States has poverty. Their poverty line is slightly different, but it’s there. What we are looking to achieve in Bangladesh is that the people can get out of grinding poverty, which leads to a dehumanised life. Poverty eradication to the extent that everyone will have what they want will probably not happen.
SSK: Do you think that is something set to happen here?
FHA: Yes, I’m sure you will see us become a middle-income country in the next twenty years. We will do that, and you will see the percentage of our people living below the poverty line reduced drastically from the present 38% to around 10%.
SSK: We have seen BRAC expand overseas in recent years. Is the end of poverty in Bangladesh alone enough for you anymore?
FHA: No it isn’t. In Bangladesh, whatever we can do, we are doing. It’s not a zero-sum game in that if we go abroad, say to Afghanistan, it affects our work in Bangladesh. We found that we can continue to work in other countries as well, who can benefit from our experience of having worked on poverty reduction in Bangladesh over the last 35 years, during which we have worked on various dimensions of poverty.
Some of this could be extremely valuable for other societies. Especially because many of the international NGOs working in the countries we have gone to now come from the West, and their perception of the dynamics of poverty is quite different. That is an area where our experience has given us an edge. We are the only Southern NGO that has gone global.
SSK: What are your thoughts on the mushrooming of the NGO sector in Bangladesh, which many believe has come at the cost of the quality of services, even accountability in some cases?
FHA: I don’t see why you would say mushrooming. See nowadays, if you are an educated person, and you haven’t found a job in say two years, then someone comes up to you and suggests you set up two primary schools, and he or she will arrange a grant for that purpose. You will do it. This is typically how many educated, unemployed people have found a ‘niche’, which is starting an NGO by arranging a grant. That’s how NGOs have come up.
If all our educated people can find a job, you will see this phenomenon wither away. NGOs haven’t mushroomed, as you say, due to the goodness of people’s hearts that makes them want to do something for their country. Most of the time, it’s because people need something to do! Create enough jobs, like in China, and you will find that the growth of NGOs will be checked.
SSK: You have spoken in the past about the Indian government being reticent to allowing BRAC to operate inside India. Is that because BRAC is a foreign NGO, or something more fundamental?
FHA: But there are many NGOs in India! The whole Gandhian movement was an NGO movement. But they are very small, in accordance with the Gandhian philosophy that “small is beautiful.” There haven’t been institutions like BRAC because they haven’t been created by people like me, with experience working in one of the world’s largest companies, the Shell Oil Company, who believe that big can also be beautiful. Small is beautiful, but in my line of work, big can be more effective, big is necessary in Bangladesh. So I come from a different standpoint to the Gandhians in terms of serving our people. I tried to create a larger organisation in order to have an impact on Bangladesh’s socioeconomic scenario. And that is what I have done.
The Indian government probably feels that India has got enough of the expertise they require to serve their own people, and so they do not need any outsiders. That is probably one reason. But then I have found many Indian organisations are open to the idea that BRAC could do the job of poverty alleviation faster, and on a larger scale than some of their NGOs are capable of doing. So there have been some invitations, but what I find is that India has got so many organisations working for poverty alleviation, and the country is growing so fast, that BRAC’s expertise is not as necessary there as it is in say Nepal.
SSK: In spite of that growth, in terms of sheer numbers at least, India is still home to the highest number of people in the world below the poverty line.
FHA: Oh yes, great opportunities exist in India. We have just registered BRAC in India. So if we want to go, we can go.
SSK: And in all likelihood the next doyen of the Gandhi family, Rahul Gandhi, has expressed a great interest in the BRAC model.
FHA: Yes, he has visited us on a number of occasions. They are very interested in BRAC’s primary education programme. We are happy to help any developing country that can learn from our experience.
SSK: That corporate experience that you mentioned, working for the Shell Oil Company, how important has that been for BRAC?
FHA: It has been important because I know how a large organisation runs. You can’t just wish that you will be large. You have to prepare for it. You need to develop the structure to be large. You need to have a human resources department which can recruit large numbers of people. You need to have an accounts department that can account for every penny that you spend. You need to have an audit department to make sure people aren’t stealing any money. You need to have a training department that can train large numbers of people. So all kinds of things are necessary before you become large.
SSK: You have often stressed the importance of self-sufficiency to BRAC. Are you almost self-sufficient now?
FHA: No we are not, not yet. I think we are largely self-sufficient, with three quarters of our money coming from our own coffers. But then the other quarter which is also very needed, comes from outside, and that means we can do many more things in terms of our different programmes.
I don’t think it is absolutely essential to be completely self-sufficient. In a way, seeking money from donors means you have to have the right kind of idea, and you have to have the appropriate implementation of the programme, because only then will the donor fund you. Why should they fund us if they think we are incapable. So they will want to see what we do with the money, and that means we have to produce definite results. This scrutiny by third parties is important, as it helps us to stay current, and relevant and effective.
But it is also important that some money should come from your own coffers. Especially because that means you can test out an idea on a small scale, and then if it is successful and you are ready to implement it on a larger scale, you can go to donors. So any idea that I have, I first test it out on a small scale, costing maybe Tk 1 crore per year, wait for the result, and then decide if I am ready to go nationwide with it. What I look for in the results is the 3 E’s: effectiveness, efficiency, and economy.
SSK: The social enterprise dimension to BRAC is something that has developed relatively recently, and BRAC’s work in that area has been defined elsewhere by Mr. Rumee Ali, executive director of BRAC Enterprises, as “commercially viable operations linked to poverty alleviation”. BRAC is possibly the first organisation that has tried to link commercial viability to poverty alleviation. What took you down this path?
FHA: The problem is you can do many things to alleviate poverty that are not profitable, but then you can only do it for a while, say three months, if it doesn’t make money for you. Once the donor money runs out, you have to wrap up your operation.
If on the other hand, you can be commercially viable, then you can not only survive, but also flourish and make a difference to more people’s lives. For BRAC Enterprises, we have the 3 P’s that form a triple bottom line: Planet, People and Profit. We want to make sure we don’t harm our planet, we want to help as many people as possible, and while we do this, we also want to be profitable. Normally, a business has only one bottom line: Profit, and they choose to ignore the other two.
SSK: Do you see this as the way of business in the future?
FHA: Yes, they are already. Just this March, many banks from around the world are coming together as part of a global alliance, the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV) that incorporates these principles. We had a meeting last year in the Netherlands to set it up, and in March we are having our second meeting in Dhaka. Three banks- BRAC Bank, Triodos Bank from the Netherlands, and Chicago-based ShoreBank -are the sponsors of this global alliance, and many banks from around the world are now applying to become members. You know of the troubles the banking sector faced during the global financial crisis, and this alliance recognises that a principal reason for the crisis was that they had only that one P, profit.
SSK: You have said in the past that as long as a need exists somewhere, if you have an opportunity to meet that need, you will go for it. Does that effectively mean, since needs are somewhat unlimited, that the potential scope of BRAC’s activities are also unlimited?
FHA: Absolutely. There are so many things that I believe we can do. Even improving government’s performance in Bangladesh. Already we have been training civil servants in Bangladesh. Through our JAATRI programme, we have been working on improving the quality of journalism in the country. We have a programme whereby we would like to gather all our members of parliament for seminars at BRAC University, as part of a programme aimed at improving the capacity of our parliamentarians. So we are doing all kinds of things. And I would like to do more. Train judges for example! Train lawyers!
In each sector, every sector there is room for improvement. And we believe we can play a role in this. A lot of things that I can’t do today, I plan to do in the future.
First published in Dhaka Courier, issue dated January 22, 2010 under the title 'There is scope for us in every sector.'