An interview with Babar Kabir on the BRAC WASH programme

February 25, 2013
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This article was posted on IRC International Water and Sanitation Center blog by Joep Verhagen, Manager, South Asia & Latin America Team, IRC.

Sitting opposite to me is Babar Kabir – Senior Director at BRAC and programme director of the BRAC WASH programme.

This article was posted on IRC International Water and Sanitation Center blog by Joep Verhagen, Manager, South Asia & Latin America Team, IRC.

http://blog.brac.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Babar-Kabir5Portrait.jpgSitting opposite to me is Babar Kabir – Senior Director at BRAC and programme director of the BRAC WASH programme.  I am happy that I that I managed to find some time to sit down with Babar for a short interview about the programme.

Could you briefly describe the BRAC WASH programme? 

BRAC WASH II aims for a sustained change —a measurable leap – in personal/family hygiene, sanitation and water safety for all.  We aim to create a sanitation and hygiene movement in Bangladesh that is lasting and will benefit everybody.  However, such changes in practices (such as hand washing with soap, continued use and maintenance of latrines, using safe water sources or keeping water safe from source to mouth) take time to root. Behaviour change takes time and does not move at the same speed everywhere.

The first BRAC WASH programme was funded by the Government of the Netherlands (DGIS) and over a period of around 5 years in 150 Upazillas we managed to ensure that around 25 million people were using hygienic and safe latrines, we reached more than 38 million people with our hygiene promotion programme and about 1.8 million people were assured of access to safe drinking water.  The BRAC WASH II programme is jointly funded by Embassy of the Kingdom of The Netherlands (EKN)/DGIS and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).  This programme seeks to sustain the outcomes of the BRAC WASH I programme in the 150 Upazillas of the BRAC WASH programmes and we will be covering the last mile in these Upazillas.  In addition, it targets 25 new hard-to-reach Upazillas.  In these new Upazillas, we aim that 2 million people will be using a safe latrine and 0.5 million people at the end of the programme. In addition, our hygiene promotion programme will promote safe behaviour to 4.2 million people.  Recently, work has started in 73 Upazillas with support from DFID.  So in  total, BRAC is implementing its WASH programmes in 248 Upazillas and reaching out to 55 million people. That is about half the rural population of Bangladesh. During the last 2 years we are collaborating intensively with IRC who are providing inputs in various areas, including monitoring and documentation.  It is a partnership that is based on mutual trust and respect for each other’s roles and inputs.

Who is implementing this huge programme?

We have a small core team that is based in Dhaka but the majority – about 99% – of our staff is field based.  The BRAC WASH programme has around 9,000 staff. They are supported by BRAC’s 80,000 health volunteers and 46,000 Village WASH Committees.  It is this huge army of WASH foot soldiers that is driving the programme.  BRAC’s health volunteers work as community volunteers for the different BRAC programmes; the BRAC WASH programme is one of them.  In return for their work and support they are allowed to keep a margin on the various health products that they are selling in the community. They are also supported in hygiene promotion by over 30,000 BRAC primary school teachers.

How important is the Village WASH Committee? 

The VWC is crucial.  Though they are called Village WASH Committees, there is a committee for each cluster of around 200 households.  Experience has taught us that 200 households is the right number that can be supported by one committee.  The committee itself consists of 11 members, six women and five men. They make annual plans to improve sanitation in the village, and meet every two months to assess progress and to identify emerging problems. VWC members select sites for community water sources, mobilise funds from local people and organisations to invest in improving the village’s sanitation, and identify households to receive sanitation grants from BRAC and the government’s Annual Development Programme.

One of the first things that we do when BRAC first starts to work in a village is identifying members for the VWC.  This is done through a series of meetings that BRAC staff hold with different groups of people in the community – women, men, adolescent boys and girls, and children. BRAC offers three-day leadership training sessions to two members of each committee, one woman and one man. The BRAC programme organizers and programme assistants provide continuous support to the VWCs.  They visit each VWC in a 45-to-60 day cycle.  They oversee the bimonthly meetings and hold their own meetings to encourage behavioural change among girls, boys and women. The second phase of the project will see more attention to reaching out to men, through tea stall sessions.

In our annual monitoring cycled we learned that (let me quote): “Most participation in VWC is about being there and being part of the decision making process. It is less about speaking-up. Lack of communication skills is the most common reason for not speaking up. VWC members improve their confidence and their skills. (Personal) reputation increases for only a few and power is rarely a benefit of being a VWC member. Despite this VWC members get (greater) respect from others and especially women. The strength of the VWCs are its teamwork and wide community representation. There is  little resistance to people’s participation in the VWC, but when there is resistance it comes from villagers in the stories of non-poor and poor female members of the VWC. Stories of hardcore poor rarely involve resistance to participation with VWC”.   We also found that 99% of the sampled committees meet the administrative qualifications such as regular meetings and keeping minutes. However, we need to support the VWCs more in accessing government funds as we found that part of the sampled VWCs is not yet doing this.

The Kadigor VWC examines its village map. Photo: IRC/Dick de Jong, 2013.

I know that you could talk much longer about the BRAC WASH programme but what kind of innovations have emerged from it?

Many people associate innovations with large radical change but at BRAC we have learnt that innovation often happens in small incremental steps based on lessons that emerge from implementing at scale.  That is the other thing that we have learnt at BRAC too; often new things are tried at a small scale with the purpose to gradually scale them up. Too often this does not work as there are totally different factors at play once you start implementing at scale. Sir Abed – founder and chairperson of BRAC – once said that small is beautiful but scale is necessary. However, to get to your question. There are many lessons that we have learnt that we intend to share with sector in the coming years.  The  overall implementation strategy would be one of them but also various innovative improvements to current sanitation and drinking water supply technologies are emerging.  We are working on different solutions for the productive use of faecal sludge from the pit latrines and with support of DGIS we are initiating an action research programme that will look into issues such as low-cost sanitation technologies for areas with high water tables, low-cost treatment methods for the sludge from single pit latrines, etc.

What has the future in stock? 

As a country Bangladesh is doing progressing well towards proving safe and sustainable sanitation for everybody.  However, providing sanitation in the hard to reach areas will require innovative solutions.  Moreover, all these pits are filling up and as a sector we have not found a solution that is environmentally and financially sustainable and works at a large scale.  However, globally sanitation and hygiene needs a huge concerted effort as sanitation is not only a matter of health but also of human rights and human dignity.

This is the second in a series of blog posts on IRC’s work on scaling up sanitation and hygiene services that last. The first was on sanitation monitoring in Bangladesh.

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” We have learnt that innovation often happens in small incremental steps based on lessons that emerge from implementing at scale.” A pearl of wisdom – suggesting that patience is needed as well as perseverence. Peter McIntyre