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Innovate frugally, scale up, and remain a learning organization: Those are the three lessons BRAC founder Sir Fazle Hasan Abed delivered to an audience at the World Affairs Council of Northern California last night, as part of a speaking tour sponsored by the Asia Foundation.
The Asia Foundation is hosting Sir Fazle as the current Chang-Lin Tien Distinguished Fellow. Named for the late former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, the fellowship fosters exchanges for leaders to interact with their counterparts in Asia and the US.
In “Poverty Alleviation in Bangladesh: Lessons for Africa and Asia,” a speech and discussion moderated by Suzanne Siskel, the Foundation’s executive vice-president and chief operating officer, on Monday, Sir Fazle highlighted three lessons BRAC can share with developing nations based on its experience in Bangladesh:
BRAC is renowned for creating low-cost, high-impact solutions. “Frugal innovation, we call it – innovation which doesn’t cost very much, but which is very effective,” Sir Fazle said.
Sir Fazle gave the example of BRAC’s work with community health promoters, an army of women trained to offer basic curative and preventative services to their neighbours. It is a model that BRAC pioneered in the 1970s, and many other development organisations now consider local community health workers or frontline health workers to be among the most effective ways to deliver basic health services to poor communities.
Several US universities, including Stanford, are now offering coursework on frugal innovation or “extreme affordability,” and many scholars have looked to BRAC as a model.
The problem of poverty is too urgent too stay small, says Sir Fazle. Be effective, be efficient – and then scale up, as BRAC has done massively.
“Most programmes remain small and beautiful and never impactful,” says Sir Fazle. “When you have millions of people in poverty, you can’t remain small and beautiful. You have to be effective and large, even if large means ugly – and I don’t really think large necessarily means ugly.”
He cited his experience working as an accountant at Shell Oil prior to founding BRAC in 1972. He said he found that company to be highly efficient rather than large and ugly. “I would urge that solutions be scaled up to cover as many people as possible,” he said.
“Find new ways of responding to the needs of the people you serve,” said Sir Fazle, and always remain a “learning organisation.”
Constant self-evaluation has been one of BRAC’s hallmarks, having started its own internal Research and Evaluation Division in 1975, shortly after its foundation. This division is charged with rigorous assessment of all aspects of its programmes.
Sir Fazle has kicked off a series of speaking engagements in American cities on Monday with support from the Asia Foundation. Sir Fazle founded BRAC in 1972 and remains the organisation’s chairperson.