Interview – Fazle Hasan Abed

Founded in 1972 to provide relief and rehabilitation to returning refugees after the war of independence from Pakistan, BRAC is now probably the world’s largest NGO, providing education, health services, microcredit and livelihood creation programmes for a significant part of the population of Bangladesh. What lies behind this huge success, Caroline Hartnell asked Fazle Abed, founder of BRAC and still very much at the helm. Questioning everything they do and being prepared to tackle whatever is needed to make their programmes successful are certainly part of the secret behind the success of this extraordinarily entrepreneurial organization.

The secret of success?

Asked what lies behind BRAC’s phenomenal success, the first thing Fazle Abed mentions is determination: ‘We were determined to bring about changes in the lives of poor people.’ The second thing is thinking in national terms: ‘We always had a national goal; we never thought in terms of working in a small area. We thought, all right, if we work with the poorest people in this community, who’s going to work with the poorest people in that other community? So we felt that whatever we do, we should try and replicate it throughout the nation if we can.’

The third thing he mentions is inspiration. ‘We always thought nationally, worked locally, and looked for inspiration globally. We were inspired by Paolo Freire’s work on the pedagogy of the oppressed, which he came out with in 1972. It was wonderful to have a thinker who was thinking about poor people and how they can become actors in history and not just passive recipients of other people’s aid. He made us realize that poor people are human beings and can do things for themselves, and it’s our duty to empower them so they can analyse their own situation, see how exploitation works in society, and see what they need to do to escape these exploitative processes.’

Finally, he says, ‘one needs to have not only ambition but also the ability to do the work. The organization must be competent to take on national tasks. That confidence we got from the campaign for oral rehydration, to cut down diarrhoeal mortality, in the 1980s. That involved going to every household in rural Bangladesh, 13 million households, and it took ten years to do it. Then we became a little more ambitious. We thought that if we can go to every household, then we can cover the whole country with everything we do.’

An expanding organization

BRAC now has 31,638 staff, but at the end of 1973 it had just 120. In 1979, before the start of the oral rehydration programme, the number was 300. When the programme started, 1,700 people were added, bringing the total up to 2,000. ‘And then we grew incrementally,’ says Abed. ‘By 1990 we were about 3,000 staff. But between 1990 and 2000 we really grew very fast, and we became 25,000 by the end of 2000.’

The oral rehydration programme was a huge achievement. It cut down infant and child mortality dramatically – from 258 per thousand to 75 per thousand – by teaching mothers how to make oral rehydration fluid at home. It was in 1990, after the success of the programme, that BRAC went to donors in a big way. The programme had cost about $15 million, but in 1990 BRAC was looking for $100 million. But no one donor was able to meet this kind of demand.

At this stage the type of donor changed. ‘It used to be NGOs that funded us,’ explains Abed, ‘Oxfam, Novib, and so on, the Ford Foundation. But then came the governments – the British, the Dutch, the Germans, Swedish SIDA, Canadian CIDA, the Norwegians. So we had all these governments forming a consortium to fund BRAC.’ After that, says Abed, ‘we grew very fast’.

While the Bangladesh Government was not one of the donor governments, Abed regards their role as a ‘benign’ one. ‘The Bangladesh Government didn’t support us, but they didn’t stop us receiving funding. In other countries like India or Kenya, I think the government would have stopped it, they wouldn’t like an NGO to become so large and powerful. Though the Bangladesh Government didn’t actually admit that they weren’t providing the services, they didn’t create any particular impediments to our growth.’

If something needs doing …

The way BRAC grew seems to have been very much a case of one thing leading to another. Take the microfinance programme. ‘We were providing money to village women to help them start businesses, but there were limitations on that.’ For example, if the aim was to get a million women into poultry farming, the lack of a poultry vaccination programme was a problem. ‘So we decided we would need to get a poultry vaccination programme going in every village.’ This involved training one woman in every village to be a vaccinator, and linking her with the government livestock department. BRAC trained about 70,000 women in as many villages.

But the livestock departments sometimes didn’t have the vaccines, and there was also a problem of cold chain maintenance: you have to keep vaccines at a particular temperature or they go off. The solution was to have six or seven BRAC staff maintaining cold chain for the vaccines from the government in Dhaka to the districts. There was also a group to repair the refrigerators in the district livestock departments. ‘So we saw to it that the village women got the vaccines they needed.’

But this was by no means the end of it: the next issue was the variety of hens. While the normal local variety of hens give about 60 eggs a year, some hybrid varieties will lay 280 eggs a year. ‘So we decided to replace the local variety with hybrids. To do this, we needed poultry farms, hatcheries, so that we could provide day-old chicks to the women. So we went into business. We set up poultry farms, producing 2 million day-old chicks a month. We therefore not only provided women with microfinance to buy the poultry but also supplied the day-old chicks.’

At this stage this wasn’t a money-earning venture. The government had poultry farms too, so BRAC charged exactly the same price as the government and in fact made some losses initially. When the government raised prices, it became cost-effective.

But this still isn’t the end of the poultry story. The next problem was feed. The best feed is maize, but Bangladesh didn’t grow any maize. ‘So we went into feed.’ For maize-growing, BRAC had to go into a joint venture with an Australian farm. ‘In everything that we did, we went into the details of every stage of development.’

… we’ll do it ourselves

The same was true of BRAC’s cow-rearing programme. ‘Many women didn’t want to go outside the house,’ says Abed. ‘They wanted a cow so they could just look after it and get milk and sell it.’ But it was not that simple, they discovered. ‘I went to one of the remotest areas in the north of Bangladesh,’ Abed remembers, ‘and interviewed a woman who had bought a cow for about $100. She was getting 2 litres of milk a day. So I said, “You must be doing very well.” And she said, “No, I’m not doing well because I can’t sell my milk, and if I do sell people only pay me 7 taka, which is about a third of the normal price.”

‘So this made me think that maybe we should set up a milk plant. Collect milk from villages where there’s no demand, chill it and bring it back to Dhaka by tanker, pasteurize it, make butter, yoghurt and milk, and sell it in the market. So we did that. Most of the women who were getting very little money for their milk now get double the amount. In order to ensure that women’s income went up, we had to get into different kinds of businesses, which did not exist before in Bangladesh.’

Producing iodized salt is another BRAC business. ‘I was so mad at the salt-makers,’ says Abed. ‘Iodine is provided by government, but they wouldn’t mix it with the salt because mixing is another operation and it costs money, so they were just throwing it away. We need iodized salt in our country because there are a lot of goitres and so on.’ So BRAC hired about ten people to visit salt plants and check whether they were putting iodine into the salt. ‘But many of them found that they were not welcome and they were thrown out. In anger I said, I am going to produce salt myself with iodine in it. So we went into the salt business.’

Apart from providing iodized salt themselves, BRAC’s move seems to have forced other salt-makers to follow suit. ‘Our competitors are now coming back with iodized salt. I suppose in a way we have spurred them into action.’

This attitude – if something needs doing, we’ll do it ourselves – must surely be one of the key reasons why BRAC has been able to do so much.

These BRAC enterprises now provide 80 per cent of the organization’s operating costs, with the rest coming from external donors. Although BRAC’s annual report distinguishes ‘programme support enterprises’ from ‘commercial enterprises’, in fact all serve the same dual purpose of producing income for BRAC and supporting poor people.

From local to national

But although expansion has been so rapid and so dramatic, it is always carefully planned, Abed insists. ‘Everything that we do, we always try out in a small area first. We try to become effective – ie we’re delivering the service we want to deliver and people are getting what they need – and then we try to become efficient, discarding non-essential tasks. So you are basically looking at what activities you do that are essential and what could be cut out with not much impact on effectiveness. When you are effective and efficient in a small area, you are ready to expand. This is the model for franchising, though in our case this is within the organization.’

Not that a ‘small’ area here means very small. ‘It has to be large enough to have all kinds of problems in it,’ explains Abed. With BRAC’s tuberculosis control programme, for example, they worked in one area first and then went into ten different areas. When that worked, they were ready to cover the entire country. ‘But we have been waiting ten years to get the $100 million we need. We now have $44 million from the Global Fund for Tuberculosis, Malaria and AIDs to start off our tuberculosis control programme. But we were prepared, we had everything worked out. We had the methodology, the infrastructure, the ability to train people, we just needed money. Now we’ve got it and we’re on our way to implementing it.’

Ongoing research and monitoring

The oral rehydration programme provides a good example of the sort of tireless research and monitoring of its programmes that BRAC does. When they started to follow up to find out how many women actually used oral rehydration, they found only 6 per cent were doing so. ‘We found teachers themselves didn’t really believe in what they were teaching; they felt the method was second-rate. So we brought 100 workers to Dhaka and demonstrated the therapy to them and the teaching improved.’ (BRAC fully recognizes how vital it is to train people well, with 10 per cent of the salary budget set aside for training.)

The use rate now went up to 18 per cent, which Abed was still not happy with. ‘We then discovered you need to teach fathers too, in fact the entire family, the entire community. We started advertising on TV and radio. We went to mosques and marketplaces.’ The use rate then started rising, eventually reaching a much healthier 60 per cent. ‘Our original conception was just to teach the mother, but it didn’t work.’

Working with government

For a smaller social enterprise that works with government or other large donors, there can be a danger of getting swamped and not being able to do things in your own way. But working with governments doesn’t seem to have been a problem for BRAC.

‘By the time we came to larger donors,’ says Abed, ‘we were mature enough as an organization to deal with them. It was almost 20 years after we started, and we were prepared to meet all kinds of demands that they made of us in terms of reports and so on. They also sent out teams to look at our programmes. Consultants would come from a specific donor like the UK’s Department for International Development, or the donor consortium would send four people to come and look at various aspects of our organization and programme. But we came out fairly well in these reports; we were quite good at meeting the objectives and targets set.’

Was there pressure to do things differently from how they wanted to do them? ‘Not a great deal,’ says Abed. ‘There were certain things that we wanted to do that the donors said. “OK, you can do it but we can’t give you money for that.” But there was no great deal of difficulty with the donors.’

One problem they did have was with bureaucracy within donor organizations, particularly the European Community. ‘If they committed funding, it would take about a year to get the money, and by that time I had to borrow money from banks and so on.’

Learning from mistakes

What about mistakes? Did BRAC make mistakes along the way as they developed things? ‘Continuously,’ is Abed’s immediate answer. But mistakes were spotted fairly quickly. In fact, as with the other social entrepreneurs who talked to Alliance about learning from mistakes, many of these so-called mistakes are at the conceptual level.

To take a typical example. ‘Initially,’ says Abed, ‘we held dear in our hearts that we should work only for five to ten years in a community. After that poor people would take over and do things themselves.’ The idea that poor people, once empowered, should be able to demand services and get them, came from Paulo Freire. ‘Otherwise, how do I cover the entire country? But in the end we came to the conclusion that poor people, however much they are empowered, need certain services, and if the government is not providing them, basically we have to be there – providing antenatal care to women, children’s healthcare, immunization and so on. So the initial idea of withdrawing from an area had to be adjusted.’

Letting the government off the hook?

It seems slightly ironical that BRAC should have started off with the idea of empowering people to demand services from government and ended up providing them itself. In one sense this isn’t a problem at all because it works and BRAC is almost self-sustaining. But is BRAC letting the government off the hook?

‘In a way we are,’ Fazle Abed admits. But the problem as he sees it is that Bangladesh is still very much centrally governed: it doesn’t really have a local government structure. ‘BRAC could withdraw from rural areas if local government was empowered. So we are now basically demanding from the central government a strong local government structure so that poor people can get services that they now get from us. Putting pressure on central government is much more difficult than putting pressure on local government. Getting government to take responsibility will be possible once we get a local government structure.’

If BRAC is successful in this, it will probably cease to offer certain services, for example primary education. ‘Why shouldn’t primary education be available to all children? It’s compulsory and it’s supposed to be provided by the state. We will certainly withdraw from primary education if we can. But that doesn’t mean that BRAC will get out of education altogether – we will then move on to secondary education. I’m not worried about losing a particular niche for our work. Needs are always evolving and BRAC will always have work to do.’

Moving into Afghanistan

Since June 2002, BRAC has also been working in Afghanistan. In fact, BRAC Afghanistan now has 2,000 staff members – 200 Bangladeshi staff and 1,800 Afghans – working in education, health and income generation. How did this come about?

‘Well,’ says Abed. ‘when I saw 2 million Afghans going back home, I remembered how in 1972 10 million Bangladeshis returned home to Bangladesh. So thought, we have got all the experience of relief and rehabilitation followed by nationwide development. Why don’t we send 50 of our staff to Afghanistan? So we sent 50 of our staff initially, and they hired Afghans. We found we had to adapt what we learned in Bangladesh a little, but not a great deal.’

Moving on as leader

Fazle Abed founded BRAC in 1972 and has headed the organization for 32 years. At some stage he will presumably want to step down. In fact, he has already taken a step back. For 30 years he was executive director of BRAC, but a couple of years ago he hired a new full-time executive director; he is now the chairperson. ‘I want to wean myself gradually out of BRAC,’ he says. ‘I think if I do it well, and the next leadership continues in the same entrepreneurial fashion, the organization will survive and flourish.’

As it turns out, it has not been that easy to find the right successor. The new executive director came from the government and is an interim appointment. ‘I wanted to retire but I couldn’t find anybody at that point to take over from me internally. Two or three BRAC people are now vying for the top post, and in the next couple of years we will make the change.’ He will stay on as chairman for the time being – ‘it’s not a big deal.’

Fazle Abed doesn’t appear to have too many anxieties about the culture of the organization changing when he does finally manage to leave. Having a long-term BRAC employee taking over the running of the organization will clearly help. ‘We have worked so hard on the BRAC culture,’ he says. ‘The way we operate is very entrepreneurial, we question everything, we’re continually learning to do things better. I hope that we will have the same culture in the organization when I am no longer there.’

Transmission of the unique BRAC culture throughout the whole organization is based partly on an extraordinary system of staff reporting. All BRAC’s 31,000 staff members report upwards once a month. ‘Groups of field workers meet with their immediate supervisor, and those supervisors then meet with their supervisors … and so it percolates upwards.’

This may be time-consuming but it’s very important, says Abed. ‘Other people in the organization get to understand what’s happening in the field; field workers know that what they say is going to percolate up. As a result, no one feels that decision-making is being done in isolation at the top; everybody knows their own views and assessment of the situation will feed into decisions.’

Decisions are in any case taken ‘at the lowest possible level rather than at the highest possible level. So if somebody makes a mistake, they can say they have made a mistake, but they must please report it back.’

Fazle Hasan Abed is Founder and Chairperson of BRAC, formerly known as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. An accountant by training and originally by profession, he founded BRAC in 1972 after the war of independence from Pakistan, initially to provide relief and rehabilitation to returning war refugees in a remote area of the country. A year later, the organization turned to long-term poverty alleviation and empowerment of the poor, especially women. BRAC works in health, education and microfinance. It is active in 68,408 villages in all the 64 districts of Bangladesh. It has 4.8 million group members, 4.2 million borrowers, and 31,000 one room, one-teacher schools. Eighty per cent of BRAC’s annual budget of US$235 million comes from its own enterprises, and 20 per cent from external sources. In June 2002 BRAC Afghanistan was founded. It now runs schools, health centres and credit operations in seven provinces out of twelve. Fazle Hasan Abed has received numerous awards, both nationally and internationally, most recently the Gates Award for Global Health 2004 and the UNDP Mahbub ul Huq Award for Outstanding Contribution in Human Development, 2004.
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