Aidex Voices

Bangladesh-based BRAC is the world’s largest non-governmental organization, dedicated to empowering people living in poverty.

We spoke to BRAC’s executive director, Dr. Muhammad Musa, to find out how localization shapes the organisation’s approach to aid. 

How does BRAC’s roots in Bangladesh shape its approach to development and humanitarian aid? 

I have been working with international NGOs for quite some time and knew about BRAC for a long time before I started working here. As I see it, one of BRAC’s main advantages is that, as a Bangladeshi organization, local communities feel a real sense of ownership. They see the organization as their own, rather than as something that’s come from the outside, meaning that people collaborate and interact together to design programs. 

Another advantage is that when we present opportunities to donors, we can use this to reshape their thinking – a lot of donors are interested in funding programs that focus on the engagement and participation of local communities, but might not have thought about it or have a lot of information. And with the aid itself, we see local communities engaging a lot more wholeheartedly with their development. This makes it a lot easier to build relationships, which in turn means that we already know the people we are working with and their particular vulnerabilities. Because the knowledge is already there, we can assess and respond more quickly in humanitarian aid situations. 

BRAC is the world’s largest NGO. How does such a large organization ensure that its vision is fully translated into positive change at a local level? 

We reach more than 120 million people, and have over 100,000 employees, both direct employees and volunteers. Most of them come from the villages we are helping, so they know the communities in which they are working and they’ve built relationships there over a long time. Over the last 45 years we have built very concrete relationships with individual villages. Sometimes there are local government leaders who received some kind of humanitarian aid from BRAC when they were a child, some people went to a BRAC school, many people we develop projects with were BRAC aid beneficiaries in the past. So we’ve really formed a community. 

What does localization mean to an organization like BRAC? How do you incorporate local knowledge and insight into your decision making? 

We base all our projects on the local knowledge that we already have about the community. In our program and strategy development, we build with the community. We work with a number of local organisations, like farmers’ groups and women’s associations, so from them we get crucial information that helps inform our program design and our strategy development. 

Can you give us an example of a project in which the local community played an important role? 

One example of this is our Targeting the Ultra-Poor program, which aims to help families move out of extreme poverty. For this program, we go to communities and do social mapping, looking at the income and assets of each individual household to understand their situation. We aim to target the ultra-poor – those living in the most abject poverty, who are not only poor but are also neglected by other social programs and suffer from social isolation. 

We then build a 2-year ‘graduation’ program. This offers families a package of services, including free healthcare and education, and we teach them how to manage their assets – when I say ‘assets’ here, this could be something as simple as a goat, a chicken or the land on which their house is built. We invite local leaders and members of the community to form a support group, so both during and after the process, these vulnerable people have a network around them and have people to turn to if they have problems. But these support groups also play another role, in that they can alert us if they see signs of a family slipping back into ultra-poverty. 

In the ten years since the program started, 1.7 million families have ‘graduated’ out of ultra-poverty. The success of the program has been evaluated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and London School of Economics and they found that after completing the program, over 95% of families are no longer ultra-poor. They still have problems of course, and their lives are still difficult, but they are obtaining goals and improving their lives. We’re very proud of this project, and local communities have really driven it with us. 

Looking forward, what trends do you think will shape the future of development? 

I think we will see countries moving away from addressing outcomes of poverty and social inequality to addressing the structures and underlying causes of poverty – like gender inequality, or weak governments and institutions. To do this, organisations must become more local and stop thinking about poverty just in terms of the effects on things like income, health or education. Of course these are important, but we need to identify structural issues. This is dependent on knowledge, relationships and influence on the ground; we need partnerships and evidence from communities themselves. Aid organisations need local legitimacy. I also think we will see a lot of young people taking more ownership of local programs in their own countries and building different kinds of solutions and opportunities.