some notes from netherland journal the fat blue
european students wanting to study fazle abed's life work may well find his college partnership central european university vienna optimal- sir fazle's last world ranked visitor in dhaka ban ki-moon came to dhaka also to linkin brac university with vienna's world leading curricula - global climate adaptability and empowering youth's local to global civic engagement
Fazle Hasan Abed: architect of poverty reduction
Ecosystem for businessAbed provides an example: “In the 1990s BRAC started investing in maize seed in Bangladesh. The goal was to help smaller, often female poultry farmers with a higher quality animal feed. At the time, the maize market was nearly non-existent: we even had to give smaller poultry farmers a buy-back guarantee to convince them to plant the new seeds. The ultimate goal was to create an ecosystem for business. The maize market in Bangladesh is now up and running, with a large number of private companies – including ours, which is called BRAC Seed – competing for the favour of the farmers. We have thus created our own competition, but in our view, that’s a great success!”
Having an impactAbed laughs when making that statement. He is familiar with the criticism of BRAC, which in Bangladesh only depends on donations for around 20%, generating the other 80% of income via its own social enterprises and micro-financing. This has become a business model and the development organisation is said to have become too commercial and focused on profit; a concept in line with the image of an out of control aid industry. Abed responds coolly: “All income from our enterprises is returned to our projects. And I personally believe that you must always aim to have an impact, socially and/or financially.”
Blurring boundariesChinese walls between pure for profits and NGOs – if they ever existed – are no longer applicable. Abed: “The boundaries between big business and social impact are blurring, partly due to the pressure from corporate shareholders of listed companies to look at sustainability and corporate social responsibility. On the other hand, NGOs and civil society organisations have turned a few pages of the business book themselves, and sometimes function as normal companies with a triple bottom mentality: focus on people, profit and planet.”
It begins with business“Look, when young people ask me for advice about starting development work, I often say – to their surprise – that they should first work in business for a year or so. It didn’t do me any harm. I was tried and tested as an accountant and employee at Shell, and am still grateful for that today. I learned valuable lessons on how to realise plans in an operationally efficient and large-scale way.”
Income from own activitiesThe development of various hybrid organisation types, in which business and social impact are linked, is a hopeful one Abed says: “Because you want to generate sustainable impact and not always depend on donors. And let’s be clear: while BRAC is eternally and deeply grateful to its donors, I have always emphasised that we should try to be as self-sufficient as possible. It is no coincidence that the majority of BRAC’s income in Bangladesh comes from our own activities, such as various social enterprises and micro-financing, and companies for textile, seeds and dairy products.”
Revenue models lead to dilemmasThis more entrepreneurial approach also generates intense debates on the course of the organisation within BRAC itself. Revenue models lead to dilemmas, because they often introduce the same perverse stimuli that may easily result in creeping corruption of the initial goals. Abed: “We are currently looking at ways to recover our schooling costs. Our education programmes are self-financed for 35%. Public education in Bangladesh is not especially high-quality and it is mainly the middle class that is willing to contribute to private schooling. Four-fifths of this group is willing to spend a small amount – around 20 dollars a month – on access to our BRAC schools, which have an excellent reputation in the field of primary education. The 20 percent with the lowest income who cannot afford it are admitted for free.”
Dinner with Steve and Laurene JobsThe success of the BRAC methods developed over the decades and measured independently by prestigious universities in the US and UK. Catching the attention of leaders and businessmen abroad, the UN and World Bank approached Abed with a request to implement the BRAC programmes in Afghanistan after the military invention by the West there. And so he did.
Abed: “And then I met Apple’s Steve Jobs in 2002 after being on a discussion panel with his wife Laurene. During a dinner at his house, Steve asked me: “How come it took you 30 years to bring BRAC to different countries?” My response: “Bangladesh was my universe for 30 years. I never considered that it could be an export product.” But now I think it might be, partly based on our experiences in Afghanistan. Although we’d obviously have to incorporate changes related to culture and traditions, I believe the basic elements, such as health, nutrition, education, family planning, women’s empowerment and the like are globally applicable.”
BRAC as an export productSince the start of the century, BRAC has become an ‘export product’. The organisation is currently active in 11 countries in Asia and Africa with social development programmes in the field of education and health, and is working on economic enhancements via micro-credit, savings programmes and social enterprises that should eventually help BRAC become (more) independent of donors.
Abed: “We are not yet well-known in these export countries and still have to prove ourselves. We now primarily depend on donors, but here too we will establish and support small social enterprises – which we initially call programme-supported enterprises – to become self-sufficient.”
Donors remain crucialAbed suddenly seems concerned that his enthusiasm for these entrepreneurial ambitions of BRAC may give the wrong impression. “I want to underline that the role of donors was and remains crucial. The family planning programme is fully financed by donors, and wouldn’t have been possible without a consortium of donors, led by UNICEF. And UNICEF is also funded by the Dutch!”
Dutch flavourThe (as yet) modest BRAC International satellite in The Hague also has the task of making the methods of the organisation – which doesn’t have a clear image in our region except among development aid connoisseurs and could be characterised as a ‘sleeping giant’ – better known and to attract potential donors and social investors. The ‘Dutch flavour’ is represented in BRAC’s international Supervisory Board, which includes Sylvia Borren (Director of Greenpeace until September 2016).
Playing the long gameSir Abed hopes his organisation can interest donors who are triggered by the results – which are independently checked by three prestigious universities – but not the instant results: “We are playing the long game. We hope to convince donors to see our main ambition: banishing poverty worldwide. For the first time in the history of humanity we have a realistic chance to remove extreme poverty from our planet. I probably won’t live to see it, but I believe it’s possible in 30 to 40 years, in line with the ambition of the SDGs. The primary goal is: ‘no poverty’.”
►More information: www.brac.net and www.bracinternational.nl
The Research and Evaluation Division (RED) of BRAC was established in 1975 and has since developed into a multidisciplinary, independent research unit within the BRAC organisation. The studies and evaluations it performs play an integral role in the development of BRAC activities, monitoring progress, documenting performances and realising impact studies. The findings provide an analytical basis for the programme decisions by BRAC, the option of fine-tuning to enhance performance, and ensure that development aid is evidence-based and effective, as well as aligned to the needs of the target group.
RED carries out research into agriculture, health care, (non-)communicable diseases, education, environment, extreme poverty, food security and nutrition, micro-financing, social development and human rights. Independently and together with renowned academic institutions and international organisations, it also focuses on issues of (inter)national importance. REDs research is used to support the programmes of BRAC International in Asia and Africa.