Category Archives: Insights from International Development

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

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:


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.


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.


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.

Rare Insight into Solutions for Afghanistan

In 2007, Clare Lockhart gave an amazing talk at the Aspen Ideas festival. You can view the talk from the festival website. (Clare starts her talk at 4:45 of the video.)

I first saw this video several years ago, when I knew a lot less about international development, and I was duly impressed. I have to tell you that even now I still reflect on and return to this talk regularly.

Lockhart speaks with extraordinary clarity about her experiences in Afghanistan, and skillfully relates several surprising stories of success—and failure—of international development efforts.

They include:

  • How they efficiently switched Afghanistan to a new currency, in a very creative way, much more quickly and cost-effectively than if it had been done using a traditional UN frame.
  • How they got mobile phone service, for somewhat less than the originally quoted corporate price of $1M, PER PHONE.
  • How $100M of aid money literally went up in smoke.

The talk is related to the book Fixing Failed States. Although the book has a lot of good ideas, I found it to be a dense read. The video is fantastic, though–check it out.

De Soto on how and why institution building works

Photograph of Hernando de Soto, which he had t...

Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto is a very intelligent economist from Peru who has had a great positive impact on development in Peru, and around the world. Building from his cornerstone book The Other Path (to contrast with The Shining Path), he advised the government of Peru on over 178 institutional reforms related property rights, democracy, and constitutional reforms for freedom.

In this nicely produced video interview with de Soto, he eloquently describes his major ideas about how to best support the healthy growth of a developing country.

Early in the interview de Soto shares an interesting “metric” of how he knew he was having an impact on Peru, saying “If we hadn’t been shot at, it would have been an indication that we weren’t having an impact. We had an impact.” Talk about standing by your ideas.

Was it worth it? Consider that Peru’s GNI per capita PPP grew 37% between 2005 and 2009, compared to 6% growth for the United States. I bet institutions played a key role in Peru’s rapid growth. Watch the interview to learn more about de Soto’s ideas—definitely food for thought.

Egypt: Democracy is interesting, but ownership is critical

Egypt: Register your land in just 14 years and 77 easy steps!

Don’t get me wrong—I’m excited and optimistic about the historic events of the past several weeks in Egypt, and the potential for the country to get onto a real path of renewal. And furthermore, I think that democracy can be an important force for bringing about citizen engagement, transparency, and hope to the people.

However as many people have pointed out, history tells us that Egypt’s success is far from certain. The book At War’s End by Roland Paris makes a strong argument for first investing in strong state institutions, before rushing to hold elections. He makes the point that democracy and freedom of speech are often held out as a panacea for transforming a society, although too often historically such an approach hasn’t worked.

And so it was with great interest that as I watched online as the government of Egypt fell, I happened to be reading Hernando de Soto’s classic book The Mystery of Capital. Much of De Soto’s work revolves around the power of capital, and shows how in many developing countries people are hamstrung by how difficult it is to officially register their land. As a result of this lack of official ownership, they are not able to use their land as leverage for investing in business or education. His work has led to reforms—and progress—in Peru, among other places.

In Egypt, however his team found that it takes anywhere from 6 to 14 years to officially register a piece of land for building purposes, navigating 31 agencies and 77 procedures. Wow.  Furthermore an Egyptian who goes ahead and builds a house, and then tries to register it after the fact, faces large fines and even demolition of the house. Not surprisingly, a lot of Egyptians live on “illegal” land, and are left with property that they can’t leverage. De Soto calls such land “dead capital.”

Consider that in many countries, home ownership is a common path to not just building wealth, but also to “dealing people in” to society. In fact in Lee Kuan Yew’s book From Third World to First he talks about how in the 1960’s Singapore decided that it was critical to bring home ownership to as many people as possible, as he put it “to give every citizen a stake in the country and its future.”

Incidentally, Singapore’s per capita income as a percentage of the USA’s per capita income has gone from 18% in 1965 to 82% in 2010. Apparently they are doing something right.

And thus it’s fascinating to note that the protesters in Egypt have taken pains to clean Tahrir Square, saying things like “For the first time, we feel now that this homeland is ours.” There is clearly something powerful about ownership.

Democracy is interesting, but feeling like a true stakeholder of your country? Now that’s powerful. And remaking Egypt’s institutions, such as land registry, is a critical step towards progress.

International Development — Where do you want to plug in?

While at SOCAP 10 I had the good fortune to meet a gentleman who specializes in scenario planning. Naturally I asked him about his favorite projections for population growth, and he mentioned the TED videos of Hans Rosling.

In the following video, Hans Rosling offers an intriguing way of visualizing the “bigger picture” of international development, using colored IKEA storage boxes to make his point.

I wanted to share this video because I saw two very different places for development efforts to plug-in.

On the one hand there is the “bottom billion” that he represents on the very left of the table. These are the places where levels of poverty are largely unchanged over the last 50 years of development efforts. I offer that there is important work to do here in building long-overdue momentum towards improvement.

On the other hand there are the countries in the middle, where there is already momentum and where improvement is happening. I offer here that the work is helping to develop even stronger infrastructure and governance so that these countries can grow in a healthy way.

Both of these challenges are very worthwhile, yet the challenges between them are very different. I think it’s worth asking ourselves as individuals “where do I want to fit in?”

Successful statebuilding? IBL

There is a fascinating chapter towards the end of  Roland Paris’s book At War’s End which talks about the Institutionalization Before Liberalization (IBL) peacebuilding strategy. Chapter 10 is particularly interesting because several of the elements are counter to what seems to be prevailing wisdom. It challenges common notions like “hold elections quickly, encourage free speech, privatize ASAP.”

To me this is a very productive and healthy dialog to have, especially given the mixed record of such policies in peacebuildling, as outlined in the cases cited in the book. It’s also of great interest to me that Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew embraced several (although clearly not all) of these ideas in successful economic development of Singapore, as described in From Third World to First.

Here are the main points of IBL as described by Paris, with my notes below.

1. Wait Until Conditions are Ripe for Elections

There’s often a rush to elections, but then the results aren’t meaningful because the process and buildup to the election has been under strained conditions.

2. Design Electoral Systems that Reward Moderation

There are certain ways of choosing a winner that require bipartisan support, so that a candidate can’t win by just playing up religious or racial differences.

3. Promote Good Civil Society

p. 195, counter to the idea of complete freedom to organize:
“Peacebuilders must also be prepared to shut down organizations that openly and repeatedly advocate violence against other groups in the society.”

4. Control Hate Speech

Total “freedom of the press” can be very harmful. Lee Kuan Yew has strenuously made this point in Singapore, and clearly in the early days it was important.

But in the case of a foreign intervention, who decides on what speech is allowed—the locals or the externals? One way is to have tight control at first, but then building up the local societal infrastructure to the point where they can regulate.

5. Adopt Conflict-Reducing Economic Policies

The classic policies have the effect of causing much pain to the common people, hurting small businesses, and leading to a consolidation of business interests in big hands. So in fact the “rich get richer,” further exacerbating the rich/poor divide.

In addition, “shock therapy” for an economy can be too shocking, and leave a lot of the “little people” bitter and out of work. Not a good start for a new way of doing things.

6. The Common Denominator: Rebuild Effective State Institutions

p. 205, counter to the idea of raw libertarianism:
“Democratic politics and capitalist economies are not self-organizing: they depend on public institutions to uphold basic rules, to maintain order, to resolve disputes impartially, and to regulate behavior incompatible with the preservation of market democracy itself.”