The year 2012 marks forty years of BRAC’s existence. In these four decades since its inception in February 1972 as a small relief and rehabilitation project in a remote corner of Bangladesh, BRAC has grown to become the largest and one of the most successful development organisations in the world. This watershed moment therefore provides an opportunity for us to reflect on these last 40 years and look ahead to the challenges that will confront us in the years ahead.
Having come into formal existence within months of each other, BRAC’s story is inextricably linked to Bangladesh’s story. When BRAC started its journey in the immediate aftermath of our War of Liberation, Bangladesh was a country in ruin. Whatever little infrastructure there was had been destroyed during the nine month war, and the economy was left in shambles. Although the odds were many, and seemingly insurmountable, we felt that if we could tap into the palpable sense of optimism in those early days of our nation, and effectively channel the amazing resilience of our people, we would be able to overcome those challenges. We understood that if we could help people to realize their potential, that they would be their own actors in history, and write their own stories of triumph over adversity.
Over the last forty years, the people of this country have written those stories over and over again. In almost every major indicator of human development, Bangladesh’s progress has been remarkable. Let me highlight just a few.
At the time of our independence, our health indicators were some of the worst in the world. Today, the progress we have made is the envy of most of the developing nations in South Asia and beyond. In these last 40 years, infant mortality in Bangladesh has come down from 200 to less than 50, maternal mortality from 800 to less than 200, and average life expectancy at birth has risen from 40 to 65. Fertility, which was as high as 6.5 in 1972, has fallen to 2.7. While it is true that no single organization can take credit for this amazing turnaround, BRAC can nevertheless take great pride in the role that it has played in support of governmental efforts to bringing about these successes. From immunizing children to popularizing the use of oral rehydration therapy, from providing essential healthcare through a cadre of 80,000 barefoot health volunteers to providing safe places for mothers to give birth, from curing Tuberculosis to improving sanitation, BRAC’s work in public health has contributed to each of our country’s achievements in the health sector.
In the last 40 years, Bangladesh has gone from having a literacy rate of just 25% to over 65%. We are also one of the first countries in the developing world to have achieved gender parity in primary school completion, the second of the Millennium Development Goals. In the education sector, as in health, BRAC’s role in Bangladesh’s progress is significant. To date, over 5 million children, more than 60% of them girls, have graduated from BRAC primary schools and an overwhelming majority have gone into the public school system, performing, on average, better than their mainstream peers. BRAC today operates the largest secular non-formal education system in the world, with 30,000 primary and 15,000 pre-primary schools. In addition, BRAC University, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2011 and will hold its 7th convocation next week, is fast building a reputation as a centre of excellence for higher education and research in the country.
At the time of our independence, Bangladesh’s total labour force, formal and informal sectors combined, stood at 22 million. Four decades on, although our population has doubled, total labour force has increased by more than 3 times. A large portion of this increase can be attributed to the increased participation of women in the paid labour market. Once again, BRAC can take immense pride in the work it has done in facilitating employment generation for millions of the poor, through providing access to credit, access to training and inputs, and access to markets. In our efforts to create jobs for the poor, BRAC has pioneered several industries in Bangladesh and provided the base for private sector investment. These industries include, among others, handicrafts, poultry, dairy and seeds.
At BRAC, we have never shied away from doing business whenever we have seen prospects for job creation and improving access and opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged. Our social enterprises and investments have created thousands of jobs and provided market linkages for hundreds of thousands of rural entrepreneurs. Surpluses earned from these social enterprises and investments have also reduced BRAC’s dependence on donor funding. Today, donor funding accounts for less than 30 percent of BRAC’s annual budget of over USD 1 billion.
In 2002, exactly ten years ago, BRAC went international with the start of operations in Afghanistan. Then, as in Bangladesh in 1972, we found a country ravaged by war and struggling to cope with the many challenges of nation building. Also, as in Bangladesh in 1972, we saw millions of refugees returning to the country after the fall of the Taliban regime. We realized that our experience of working in similar circumstances and conditions made BRAC uniquely positioned to lend a hand. Our early successes in Afghanistan gave us the confidence to start programmes in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami, and then in Uganda and Tanzania from 2006. Today, BRAC operates in 9 countries in South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, adapting and replicating our models in education, health, microfinance and agricultural development. Although challenges remain, we are promise bound to do everything necessary to contribute to the development of the countries in which we operate.
Though our achievements are many, the challenges that we must now face are numerous and increasingly complex. It is therefore important that we identify priorities for the decades ahead. While it is true that Bangladesh has shown a magnificent capacity to overcome adversity, we will continue to face new sets of challenges arising out of overpopulation, urbanization and climate change. In Bangladesh and in the other countries in which we work, the challenges of the future will require new and innovative solutions. I believe that in order to meet these challenges of the future, we have to tap the tremendous potential of the younger generation. BRAC is in the process of developing a comprehensive strategy to help the vibrant, innovative and entrepreneurial younger generation of today to realize their potential, and be the agents of change within their communities.
Unfortunately, public education systems in most developing countries are unfit and unsuited to prepare our youth for the 21st century knowledge society that we must aspire to. Outdated approaches to teaching must give way to new techniques that teach our children not to memorize texts, but to think critically and solve problems creatively. We must give greater thought, and direct greater resources towards early childhood development, and social and emotional learning. We must also deploy technology to provide the highest quality of education to the remotest parts of the world. I am happy to report that BRAC has started to work on all of these fronts.
Despite the progress made in the health sector, a mother is still 30 times more likely to die at childbirth in Bangladesh than in Norway. The quality of healthcare professionals remain poor and the state of health infrastructure outside our main cities is deplorable. We must, therefore, invest heavily in human resources and infrastructure to ensure access to affordable, quality healthcare for our citizens. In addition to doctors, we need to train and deploy thousands of nurses and mid-wives to serve our people better.
I strongly believe that gender equality remains the greatest unfinished agenda not only of my life’s work but of our time. Although we have worked for the last 40 years to try to ensure that all citizens can live with dignity and respect and enjoy equal rights as human beings, I am sorry to say that patriarchy remains entrenched in our social and religious practices. Even today, women work more for less pay than men and are systematically excluded from certain professions and roles. The majority of girls in Bangladesh get married in their teens, and over a third of them become victims of domestic violence. I consider the subjugation of half of the world’s population to be the greatest injustice in the history of humankind. In order to right this wrong, we must fight patriarchy in all of its manifestations, and I hope that BRAC and all of us who are associated with it will continue to be at the forefront of this fight.
Over the course of my work, it has become increasingly clear to me that communities and nations develop only when everyone does their part. Particularly in a poor country like ours, we cannot always wait for the government to provide all the essential services, or for the private sector to create all the jobs. At the same time, development can never be achieved by the citizen sector alone in the absence of good governance and a robust private sector. Real, sustainable development is achieved only when the public, private and citizen sectors collaborate together and work in cohort. That is why we at BRAC have partnered with the government, other development organisations and the private sector on wide-ranging issues from immunization and Tuberculosis control to teachers’ training and human rights advocacy. Our experience in these speaks volumes about what can be achieved when such collaborations do take place. I hope that we will continue to make necessary linkages and work together with the public and private sectors in Bangladesh and beyond to improve opportunities for our peoples.
In these twilight years of my life, I feel a sense of comfort and satisfaction in knowing that we have an able and competent leadership team at BRAC. I am confident that this team will ensure BRAC achieves even greater success and impact when I call time on providing leadership to this organization that I have built. To them, I would like to say: BRAC should always pride itself in being a trailblazing organisation, so don’t ever slow down, don’t ever stop innovating, and most importantly, don’t ever lose sight of the mission to extend a hand to those who need it most.
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed is the founder and chairperson of BRAC.