One of the more striking statistics associated with BRAC is that in Bangladesh alone they run over 24,000 primary schools and over 13,000 pre-primary schools. Five million children have graduated from these schools at a cost of only US$32 per child annually.
One of the main reasons that BRAC has been able to set and run more schools than many countries have, stems from their focus on keeping things simple. Faced with the realization that millions of children across Bangladesh were not receiving any formal education at all, BRAC has worked to provide a basic education to as many as possible.
BRAC primary schools only run from grades one to five. After graduating from BRAC schools fortunate students are able to shift into government-run schools and continue their education. Those who are not so fortunate have still learned valuable basic skills in reading, writing, and math. In many cases even this education is much more than anyone else in their family has received previously.
When BRAC sets up a school they follow a general routine. First they look for a village where there is no currently no access to formal education. Then they discuss the project with the local residents. If there is not sufficient interest in the project from the locals, BRAC cancels the project and moves on to another location.
Someone in the neighborhood must be prepared to rent out a small plot out of land to BRAC for the school site. BRAC has a policy of not buying land or building permanent school buildings since its philosophy is that the NGO is only temporarily providing a school until the government comes in and builds a permanent one. The rental fee paid by BRAC also finances the upkeep of the building.
Next, a teacher must be found. BRAC’s goal is to find a local woman who has at least a tenth grade education. After a candidate is selected, she is sent to one of BRAC’s regional Training And Resource Centre (TARC) where she receives several weeks of training annually. Besides teaching students the fundamentals, focus is also put on involving students in the learning process.
When you visit a BRAC school, one of the things that strikes you repeatedly is how everything is both very simple and highly organized. While many advocates of education in developing countries talk about providing handheld computers to every student, BRAC schools do not even have any electricity. All lessons are done with chalk or pencils. Instead the focus is on giving students useful lessons every day. When I asked BRAC staff about whether they had any issues with teacher absenteeism, a common problem in many rural school districts, I was told they had not heard of any issues. The teacher comes from the community, so she is already accountable to her students’ parents. BRAC disburses the teacher salaries and their staff visit the sites regularly, so any failure to teach would result in prompt penalties. Just as with microfinance, BRAC demonstrates running successful poverty reduction programs is often more about putting simple but effective accountability measures in place than any fancy new advances in technology.
Reuben Hintz is a PhD Student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He interned with BRAC during the summer of 2011.