Life is incredible. The past few weeks were absolute madness as I juggled preparing for this trip, shooting a wedding and jewelry line, babysitting, and relishing the time I had with Ethan. Hence why no blogging occurred before I left. But I sit here now, on a slow but steady computer in the BRAC center, on my first morning in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I will be here for 65 days until August 9th, interning with the organization BRAC. Together with my partner Patricia (who I will go pick up from the airport in a few minutes), I will be creating a web-based storytelling platform for several deparatments in BRAC, all based around Social and Legal Empowerment . This will highlight the stories of hopefully ten women whose lives have been impacted by their programming. The more I learn about BRAC, the more amazed I am that I have the opportunity to work with them.
BRAC is the largest NGO in the world, created by a Bangladeshi man named Fazle Hasan Abed in 1972. They are a development organization that has combined a grassroots mentality while at the same time achieving scalability at an incredible level. They have shown that the leaders of development in poor countries must not inevitably come from abroad. The facts are unbelievable: Four million children (70% girls) have graduated from BRAC's primary and preprimary schools. Millions have benefited from their health centers and workers, including 70,000 community health volunteers. Perhaps what they are most known for are their microfinance initiatives, which in 2008, loaned more than ONE BILLION DOLLARS. What really makes BRAC unique in their approach to microfinance is their belief that credit alone is not enough, especially where physical and economic infrastructure is weak. BRAC creates forward and backward supply chain linkages to support the enterprises created through microfinance. This means creating the infrastructure to ensure that enterprises succeed.
For example, to assist village chicken rearers, BRAC developed a system for poulty vaccination, chick rearing, feed production and chains of feed sellers and egg collectors (creating jobs for village women). BRAC has replicated this idea of linkages in social forestry, silk production, fisheries and prawn cultivation. BRAC operates a stunning range of institutions/enterprises including a bank, a university, a housing finance corporation, tea companies and feed mills. BRAC is even installing a wireless broadband technology which will transform education and communication by trasmitting wireless data over long distances. Through this approach, BRAC has created millions of jobs around the world, and uses earnings to support their other programs. Because of this, only 20% of BRAC's budget comes from donor funds, making it an incredible example of financial sustainability. Yet because their model is so self-sustaining, they have had little need to invest large amounts in international fundraising efforts. The resulting disconnect is unfortunate- they are making a huge impact around the world, yet the story of the work that they are doing (and perhaps more importantly, the way that they are doing it) is not well known. I want to change that.
Let me be clear, BRAC is not Grameen. BRAC is about the development of the whole person. Their rights based approach, looks at both supply and demand of rights. They create demand among the rural poor for their rights by making them aware of their rights and entitlements and building leadership & institutional capacity. They help increase the supply of rights by making the government more responsive to the needs of the poor and marginalized, developing capacity of local govt representatives, and creating direct linkages between the rural poor and local government.There is no hierarchy of rights (economic over social etc), they are all intimately interlinked. They have several departments making a huge impact. I really appreciate that they look at the systems of structural violence that deny the poor their rights and entitlements. They are working to enhance the social and human capital of poor women and marginalized people so they are aware of their rights, empowered to claim entitlements and able to resist exploitation. The Social Development Program is working to promote social mobilization and collective action as well as strengthening local governance to make it more pro-poor, accountable and transparent. One way they do this is through the creation of community based institutions called Polli Shomaj, which are a meeting place for members of the community (mostly women) to gain strength from collective processes and articulate and address the problems of their communities. With 9,324 groups all over the country, they are having a tremendous impact.
Their Human Rights and Legal services program has 9,000 shebikas, or 'barefoot lawyers', who are the frontline soldiers for human rights around the country. The shebikas teach legal education classes and refer human rights abuses to BRAC's free legal aid clinics, where survivors receive free resources (like housing, treatment and other social services) in addition to free legal representation. I am honored to work with them, and I cannot wait to see their impact in the flesh.
Running out of time now... so much more to say, got to run to the airport. more later!