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.