Dhaka is a flat city in a flat country. Sitting smack dab in the middle of the Ganges Delta which makes up much of Bangladesh, there are no hills or other natural geographic features to orient the visitor. Even Singapore with its 163.63 meter tall Bukit Timah has more geographic variety.
More tellingly, other than a couple of large hotels with familiarly generic names, the capital city of the world’s eighth most populous country is almost completely lacking in the corporate skyscrapers which are almost synonymous with East Asia’s modern metropolises. Forty years after becoming an independent country, this country of 142 million still has difficulty attracting large scale foreign investment.
Fittingly, one of the few tall buildings that manages to rise above the perpetual chaos of Dhaka’s street life belongs to BRAC, generally considered to be the world’s largest, and possibly most businesslike, NGO. In the developed world NGOs usually exist in the background, occupying a few square meters wherever they can find the cheapest office space. In Bangladesh they can occupy an entire office complex, complete with hotel, several restaurants, and an adjacent university.
A visitor entering BRAC’s headquarters can easily feel like they have journeyed from one world to another in the space of a few meters. The heat, smells, noise, and confusion that are synonymous with Dhaka quickly disappear and are replaced with air conditioning and an atmosphere of order and professionalism that would not be out of place in any corporate headquarters in New York City or Hong Kong. BRAC employees take ID cards from around their neck and tap security monitor to open doors before entering rooms full of cubicles and glowing computers. In conversations employees echo the same message: “we are lucky to be here, BRAC has accomplished so much, but there is still so much more to do…”
It is often said that one should never waste a good crisis. Whether or not this was his intention, Fazle Hasan Abed put this theory into action when he formed the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee in 1972. After suffering the double tragedies of a powerful typhoon and a bloody war for independence that left hundreds of thousands dead and millions homeless, there was no shortage of work to be done.
As Ian Smillie documents in his history of BRAC, Freedom From Want, Abed had a fortuitous background for putting together a large relief organization. Born and raised in what was then East Pakistan, Abed moved to London to further his education and studied accounting. He then returned home to work for Shell Oil Company and headed its regional finance division. As a result he understood both the local environment and was familiar with the intricacies of running a large organization and getting results in a cost effective manner. Perhaps most importantly, witnessing the plight of the Bangladeshi people first hand galvanized his determination to do whatever he could to further the country’s development.
Once BRAC completed its initial efforts to help the survivors of the twin disasters, Abed realized that the organization need to evolve into something more complex. This led to BRAC’s second name, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. Instead of just providing immediate relief, BRAC would now try to help villagers lift themselves out of poverty. From the start BRAC developed a reputation for getting results and using its scarce funding effectively. After one of its first projects, it shocked a western donor by attempting to return tens of thousands of dollars that were left unspent.
While BRAC suffered numerous setbacks in some of its early projects, it quickly developed a reputation as a “learning organization” that not only accepted feedback, but actively promoted it. In 1975, while it was still very much in its infancy, it created an internal Research and Evaluation Division which was tasked with monitoring its activities using the latest evidence-based and statistical techniques. When BRAC programs did not live up to their promise, Abed and his team made sure the difficult decision was made to shut them down so that precious resources could be channeled elsewhere.
Above all, BRAC worked to respond to the tremendous need for services in Bangladesh by putting an emphasis on growing as quickly as it was feasible to do so. Responding to concerns that the organization is sacrificing quality for quantity, BRAC employees respond that it is better to set up ten good schools than one perfect school. As a result the organization now operates over 37,000 one room primary schools, provides microfinance loans to 5 million members, and has over 80,000 health volunteers. Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that while it still uses foreign funding, on the whole it is now 70% self supporting.
Today BRAC has changed its name again, this time to Building Resources Across Communities. This reflects the fact that it now works in at least eight countries outside of Bangladesh and provides a wider range of services than its founders could have ever dreamed of four decades ago.
In future posts we will travel outside of Dhaka and take a closer look at some of BRAC’s specific programs including education, sanitation, and microfinance.
Reuben Hintz is a PhD Student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He interned with BRAC during the summer of 2011