SINCE 1759

Free alert to Candide's Notebooks
Your email:


Helping Hand for Bangladesh's Poor

''I am the leader,'' 9-year-old Reena Akthar said in singsong Bangla in a one-room schoolhouse of corrugated iron. ''I have seven in my group. All are present. All are clean. All brought their materials.''

Materials neatly arrayed before them, 33 students, ages 8 to 10, sit around the room. All are new to school, all are poor, and 20 are girls.

There are 34,000 such schools across Bangladesh, with 1.1 million students. They are run not by the government, but by a nongovernmental organization, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, or BRAC. Together, its schools represent one of the largest private education systems in the world.

The same organization is providing 3.5 million women with microcredit loans, more than any other organization in Bangladesh, including the better known Grameen Bank. BRAC also runs a commercial bank, a dairy, a hatchery, a poultry feed factory, a plant-tissue culture laboratory, seed processing centers, an Internet service provider, a chain of clothing and craft shops, a university and more. It provides health care at some 90 clinics and more than 2,000 prenatal clinics.

It does, in short, much of what a government should do, and what in many countries, the private sector would do. That is BRAC's strength -- but, many say, Bangladesh's weakness.

The country has the largest nongovernmental sector in the world; more than 20,000 groups are registered with the government. They arise, said Debapriya Bhattacharya, the executive director of the Center for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka, because of ''the failure of government to provide public goods and look after the poor, and the failure of the private sector to provide enough gainful employment opportunities.''

Groups like BRAC cannot effectively, or at least single-handedly, remedy these failures, he said.

BRAC and many other organizations were founded in the years after the 1971 war of independence, when Bangladesh was famously derided as a ''basket case.''

As successive governments, burdened by inefficiency and corruption, have struggled to fulfill basic needs, the organizations have stepped into breach after breach, taking on a transitional role that looks increasingly permanent.

''We have gone into activities that essentially belong to government primary education, health care, microcredit,'' said BRAC's founder, Fazle Hazan Abed. ''Willy-nilly we have become a national organization trying to solve national problems.''

BRAC's education programs started with 22 schools in 1985, for example, but they have multiplied. Aiming to address the high dropout rate -- 30 percent by fifth grade -- BRAC's schools are open only to the poorest children, who have left or never attended school.

Their reputation has quickly outstripped that of the 55,000 or so government schools. One mother interviewed here said she had deliberately kept her daughter home until she was old enough for a BRAC school.

BRAC went into commercial enterprises over the past decade, meanwhile, both to reduce its dependency on donors and to link its borrowers to the market.

When farmers raising cows were having trouble getting a fair price, BRAC started a dairy, now the country's second largest. It opened a chicken hatchery to supply chicken farmers with two million chicks a month -- a demand the public and private sector could not meet.

Founded by Mr. Abed, a former executive of Shell Oil, in 1972, BRAC today resembles a corporation as much as a development organization. It claims to be 80 percent self-supporting, with a budget this year of $174 million. It has 28,000 permanent employees -- plus its 34,000 schoolteachers -- and a 21-story headquarters in Dhaka, the capital. It may be the world's largest national nongovernmental organization.

BRAC and other groups have become national institutions, but along the way they have also become lightning rods. Businesspeople have accused BRAC of elbowing in on their fields, especially banking. The government has accused another large group, Proshika, of political partisanship and, Proshika says, has held up $40 million in donor funds while it investigates.

Islamic fundamentalists in this Muslim-majority country have attacked both organizations for their work with girls and women.

But other Bangladeshis proudly talk without prompting about how much the country's women have changed in the last decade or two. On visits to villages like this one, their confidence was palpable.

Other factors, of course, have played a role. Garment factories employ 1.2 million women. The government, in conjunction with the World Bank, has also kept girls in school by paying poor families a small stipend.

But groups like BRAC and Proshika also have explicitly concentrated on women by the millions. Seventy percent of the students in BRAC schools are girls, in a country where female literacy is 29 percent. Eighty-five percent of its microcredit borrowers are women.

At BRAC's plant-tissue culture laboratory, which tries to replicate disease-free and high-yield plant specimens, 32 of 34 employees are women. Many, like Naseema Akhtar, 18, left school after sixth grade because of poverty. The job has eased her parents' pressure on her to marry, she said.

Such social benefits -- delayed marriage and childbirth, declining fertility rates, increased assets and household power for women -- all appear to have been collateral benefits of the nongovernment groups' work. ''We revolutionized the rural Bangladesh family structure,'' Mr. Abed said. Harder to gauge is how much actual economic progress there has been thanks to BRAC's efforts at microfinance, which involves providing small loans to poor people who would not ordinarily be considered credit-worthy.

BRAC and other groups point to the overall drop in Bangladesh's poverty rate, to 43 percent from over 70 percent just after the country's founding. A recent World Bank study found that extreme poverty among borrowers dropped 18 percent over seven years.

But it has also become evident that microfinance cannot substitute for growth, which has remained under 5 percent for the past decade. The rural poverty rate, 53 percent about a 20 years ago, is at 45 percent now. The country's average per capita income is less than $400.

Imran Matin, a BRAC economist, said he believed that 10 to 15 percent of borrowers had ''done really well'' with microfinance, 10 to 15 percent had done poorly, or even been harmed by the debt burden, and the rest had used the money for consumption or as an economic cushion.

Research has now shown that microcredit can benefit only those with the capacity, economic foundation and entrepreneurial fortitude to work for themselves. Others will need more cost-intensive help, like the 25 to 30 million Bangladeshis who are considered the ''ultrapoor.''

BRAC is starting a program to provide the poorest Bengladeshis with assets, skills training and more to bring them into a position to begin borrowing money. Mr. Matin said it would cost about $300 a person.

Bookmark and Share


Read Pierre’s Latest

The Latest Comments

Add to Google Reader or Homepage Subscribe in NewsGator Online Subscribe in Rojo   Add to My AOL Subscribe in FeedLounge Add to netvibes Subscribe in Bloglines Add to The Free Dictionary