Category Archives: South Asia

Another hidden gem: The BRAC Rural Studies

I’ve found several gems in searching for great resources to understand how to have impact in social enterprise. Previously I wrote about the Ashoka Video Series, and now I’ve found another great resource:  The BRAC Rural Study Series, mostly published in the 90’s.

The preamble to the first study describes the creation of the series:

In the course of its activities over the last seven years BRAC  has developed certain capacities within the organisation and gained some perceptions of the rural scene through experience at the grassroots. It was, however, felt that more systematic investigation and analysis of the structure and dynamics of society was essential for formulating appropriate development strategies. Moreover, insights gained through experience needed to be analysed and documented if they were to be of use to others.

In typical BRAC style the preamble humbly understates the significance of these studies in beginning to understand key on-the-ground dynamics in rural poverty situations.

I have thus far had a chance to read the first two studies, and was impressed by the care taken to give a holistic, neutral view of what was observed, and to describe the history that preceded the observations.

While nothing is quite like going on site and experiencing with your own senses, my sense is that this series can bring one’s awareness and attention to many of the key underlying dynamics of poverty in the developing world, and efforts to reduce poverty.

The series covers a range of topics and is available as a series of free PDF downloads from BRAC Research and Evaluation (RED) website. Highly recommended for students of poverty alleviation.

Study 1: Who Gets What and Why—Resource Allocation in a Bangladesh Village

Study 2: The Net—Power Structure in 10 Villages

Study 3: Peasant Perceptions—Famine, Credit Needs, Sanitation

Study 4: Peasant Perceptions—Law

Study 5: Ashram Village: An analysis of resource flows

Study 6: A Tale of Two Wings—Health and Family Planning Programmes in an

Upazila in Northern Bangladesh

Study 7: Rural Women in Poverty Alleviation—Six Case Studies

Study 8: Continuation of Education of BRAC’s Non-Formal Primary School Graduates in Formal Schools

Study 9: Evaluation of Community Participation in a Maternal and Child Health Programme Setting in Rural Bangladesh

Study 10: Antenatal Care Service Coverage Through Village Based Centres—A Close Observation

In 1998 the series changed to be called the “Research Monograph Series,” including this intriguing title:

Series No. 11: Women, workload and the women’s health and development programme: are women overburdened?

To find the rest of the series, which by now numbers into the 40s, search for the keyword “series” at http://www.bracresearch.org/

The Magic of BRAC—Amazing Social Impact

Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC

Fazle Abed of BRAC

Many people have heard of Grameen and Muhammad Yunus, but who knows about BRAC and Fazle Abed? Outside of the development world, hardly anyone, and it’s a shame because BRAC does amazing, transformative, unique work. I just finished reading a fantastic book about BRAC, Freedom from Want, which gives an engaging overview of how several of BRAC’s major initiatives have developed through the years.

What strikes me as particularly interesting about BRAC isn’t so much the areas that they have entered, such as primary education, tuberculosis treatment, and poultry farming, but rather the organizational habits that allowed them to experiment, learn, adjust and ultimately succeed in these areas.

A good idea and the initiative to enter is a good start, but to actually succeed it takes the ability to adapt, and from “Freedom from Want” I’ve learned that BRAC is excellent at adapting. Not surprisingly, this core strength at adaptation has enabled BRAC to enter several other countries such as Afghanistan and Tanzania, and have an unusual degree of success.

So what is the magic of BRAC, and how do they do it? It’s hard to know from reading a book, but here are my guesses at some of the key factors:

Leadership

Mr. Abed started BRAC in his late 30’s, well into his career. If you watch him in action on video, he comes across as extremely grounded while at the same time being very intellectually nimble. Combine this with humility and a deep desire to find solutions, and you get the key ingredients to seed the DNA of an organization with the ability to learn.

Persistence

Related to this ability to learn is having the stamina to stick with a challenging idea, and be able to see it through. For example BRAC over 10 years to start its bank, and the idea for the bank inevitably changed over time as BRAC dealt with the bureaucratic challenges in Bangladesh. But the organization seems to have had a powerful enough vision for the bank that they stuck with it, resulting in what today is a bank that helps a tremendous number of people start small enterprises.

Humility

The flip side of persistence is knowing when to pull out. BRAC has had its share of areas, such as silk cultivation, where it spent many years trying to get in, but ultimately determined that it couldn’t make it work. For an organization that emphasizes impact and learning, and means it, an unsuccessful venture can be canceled without it needing to “mean anything” about the organization itself. But for an organization that “is never wrong” and “can never fail”, an unsuccessful venture can become a black hole that pulls in more and more resources.

If you don’t know anything about Fazle Abed, I highly recommend watching one of the Ashoka videos about BRAC, which reveals much about Mr. Abed as a person, and about the ways of BRAC.

Whatever the reasons for BRAC’s success, the point is that this is an organization to watch. BRAC’s organizational culture has created an amazing track record of success, and looks poised to continue presenting and refining new ways of having scalable social impact.