One of the major objections to the work of development agencies, especially in Uganda, has been that their interventions are rarely sustainable and instead create a dependency syndrome in the beneficiaries. From my observations in the past three weeks, I’ve seen that BRAC overcomes this by using an empowerment approach where beneficiaries are facilitated to take charge of their futures instead of being ‘spoon-fed’ hence securing the sustainability of the programs. Secondly, and specifically for the targeting the ultra-poor (TUP) program, I observed that BRAC has taken cognizance of the multi-pronged nature of poverty and designed the program to tackle poverty from all these angles. That is, in addition to increasing household incomes, the program also targets to improve outcomes in, among others, health, nutrition, resilience and social capital.
In addition to these two elements of program design, another unique thing about BRAC is the efficiency with which operating models are replicated within the program. The fact that the daily, weekly and monthly activities for all branches across the country for any particular program tend to be similar points to a focus on perfecting an operating model at its simplest and replicating this, effectively, making a bundle out of it. This makes it easy to monitor, detect operational inefficiencies and this facilitates scaling of programs rapidly. I believe this, combined with the program design, have contributed to BRAC being the number one NGO in the world, worthy to be promoted globally.
In BRAC’s new strategy, there is a shift from grant to fee-based services in many of its programs. This brings with it opportunities as well as challenges. A fee-based model will ensure that BRAC is able to extend services to a larger number of people which will contribute to ensuring that no one is left behind as the world seeks to achieve the sustainable development goals. Secondly, beneficiaries will have increased ownership of the products and services.
A key risk in this strategy is getting the delicate balance between charging fees that will enable the organization to operate sustainably while at the same time making sure that poor people are not being deterred by the cost of accessing these services. Lower fees might not fully cover the operating expenses while higher fees might exclude potential beneficiaries and lead to loss of goodwill.
A unique characteristic of BRAC’s operations is that the services are taken to the people themselves. As one beneficiary remarked, “the [legal aid] clinic comes to us”. This is even more pronounced with the TUP program where each beneficiary receives a bimonthly home visit. Such a model by its nature is expensive.
In light of these challenges, it is necessary for BRAC to re-engineer its operational processes to achieve the efficiency that is required to operate as a business. A specific example of the opportunity for this is experimenting with reducing the frequency of home visits in the TUP program over time, as the hand-holding needs of program beneficiaries reduce. From the field visits, I observed that the beneficiaries that had been in the program longer were more confident than those that had been in the program for a short period of time.
Lastly, as BRAC looks to scale its impact, technology will play a key role in providing opportunities for implementing its programs more efficiently and effectively, especially in digital (and faster) data collection, analysis, reporting and decision support as the digital collection of installments in the micro-finance program has demonstrated.