Size is not necessarily a reflection of quality. To focus on the fact that BRAC (formerly the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) has grown into the world’s ‘largest development organization’, therefore, is to miss the real story of this enterprise’s remarkable leadership in the fight against global poverty.
Established by former Shell Oil executive Sir Fazle Hasan Abed in 1972 soon after the independence of Bangladesh, BRAC was part of an influential wave of organizations – alongside the Grameen Bank and ASA – that went on to revolutionize development strategies not only in their home countries, but across the world. Unlike its counterparts, however, which focused on refining and expanding their pioneering micro-credit and micro-finance models, BRAC also added a range of social programs to the mix and has continued to diversify and leverage its unique ability to achieve economies of scale over time.
While still involved in micro-finance activities – indeed, having issued approximately $5 billion in micro-loans to date – BRAC reaches more than 110 million people with its holistic, sustainable approach to poverty reduction that uses these micro-finance groups as a social platform to deliver scaled-up services in health, education, business development and livelihood support. Moreover, the organization has expanded its model into nine other countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.
Currently doing everything from training door-to-door health volunteers, to implementing a mobile health project whereby volunteers can share real-time information about their patients, to running 32,000 informal ‘BRAC Schools’, and giving almost 7 million people access to sanitary latrines, BRAC is in many ways a microcosm of the entire international development sector in one organization. Unlike most of its overseas counterparts, however, BRAC covers almost 80 percent of its $485 million budget through a number of social enterprises, including a dairy project, a chain of retail handicraft stores, a pioneering poultry venture and commercial fish farming.
At the same time – realizing that massive scale also means ample scope for inefficiencies and wastage – BRAC has emerged as a leader in program monitoring and evaluation. The organization has established a standalone Research and Evaluation Division that collaborates with academic and research institutions and other development organizations to gauge the effectiveness of its interventions.
Looking ahead, BRAC is preparing to shift its focus towards city-based schemes in anticipation of the projected one-third growth in Bangladesh’s population over the next five years.