Welcome to our blog series for the 2012 World Innovation Summit for Education publication, which focuses on radical innovation at the education/work interface. As we travel the world checking out the most innovative examples of projects, programmes and people in this area we're blogging about our experiences.
June 10, 2012
I’ve been struggling for the past couple of days to start a blog about my experiences in Bangladesh – not because there is nothing to write, but because I couldn’t imagine how I would pick one story. So I’m throwing focus out the window because in fact, it is the breadth and ambition of BRAC’s work that is breathtaking and changing millions of lives. BRAC is the world’s largest NGO, founded in Bangladesh, and with 60,000 employees there alone (they are increasingly working internationally too). Their ambition is no less than to alleviate poverty in their country, and to empower all Bangladeshi citizens to build a better, more prosperous future together.
Needless to say, this mission cannot be served with one type of programme, or a single client group. BRAC’s major insight is that for all Bangladeshi citizens – especially the poorest – to pull themselves out of economic, social and political poverty, the support they are offered must address all elements of the personal context and collective history that are holding them back.
So I have met women in an urban slum who are being supported to build small businesses and improve their lives. They receive microfinance loans to kick start enterprises selling saris, cakes, fish and tea. But that is not enough to sustain a better life. BRAC also offers them training to manage their money and their accounts, to sign their own name and to get an identity card to protect their assets. They learn about basic health and hygiene so they can keep their businesses running, and their children safe.
Saira grew up in a rural village and moved to the city when she could no longer generate any income to support her family. On moving to the city, she struggled to find work and ended up brick-breaking like many others – hard, unreliable, physical work. She and her children had no more than one meal a day. Following support and a small loan from BRAC, she now runs a cake business that makes enough money to send her youngest daughters to school and to feed the whole family three times a day. Perhaps most importantly, BRAC has helped her to learn about her rights. This has had a major impact. Saira’s husband abandoned her eight years ago, with six daughters to support. When he heard about her flourishing business, he tried to come back to share in her success. And she would not take him back – unheard of in traditional communities.
I have also met young children at a BRAC primary school, desperate to show me the interactive games they use to learn Bengali, English and other subjects. They clamoured to tell me of their ambitions to be doctors, teachers, engineers and even a pilot – despite being too poor even to afford to go to a government school. They too learn a broader, rights-based curriculum that imbues them with far greater control over their own lives, and belief that they can achieve anything. The same is true of the teenagers in an ‘adolescents’ group’ just outside Dhaka, the women in a ‘social capital’ group in a rural village, and the volunteer teachers even further off the beaten track.
BRAC is not an education organization. It is not a micro finance organization and it is not a training organization even though it does all those things. It is a citizen-building organization. It is helping to build a new set of values, skills, aspirations and determination in millions of people by providing them with a platform to do more and better for themselves. I haven’t even mentioned one hundredth of what they do. But Saira’s final reflection on the impact of working with BRAC sums up what I heard over and over again. ‘Now, I am tension free’.