Making a Bundle: the Way Forward for Scaling Impact at BRAC

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.

The Equality Promise

As an avid social media user, I can confidently say that Twitter offers the best opportunities for connection. Through my four years of tweeting, one can only imagine the variety of people (and accounts) that I have interacted. One of my favorite pastimes has been looking out for irrational 140-character soundbytes related to feminism and women rights and seeking to dismantle these. And yeah, I’ve had my share of tweefs and blocks.

So when someone familiar with my Twitter timeline will watch a video of myself and a dozen colleagues taking the promise for gender equality, it will be understandable if they take it with a dose of skepticism. But no, this post is no sarcasm.

Earlier last month, I attended my first training in gender issues as they  relate with development (during which the video above was shot). At the start of the training, a careful discussion of the differences in the roles of men and women in four sectors of the economy revealed that inequalities still exist in many areas despite gains made. Following the course, I can confidently say I have a clearer understanding of the gender issues and can contribute in an informed manner to gender debates and advancing equality of access to opportunities for both men and women.

At the end of the training, I committed to the cause of gender equality through spreading awareness, writing on the status of CEDAW implementation in Uganda and being gender sensitive in all aspects of my work. Obviously there’ll be people with a flawed understanding of gender equality and feminism and obviously I will not tolerate this on my timeline, so I’ll debate these but with empathy and from an informed standpoint.

Taking on the Development Challenge: Reflections on the first week of #YPP2017

The first week of the BRAC Young Professionals Programme promised (and delivered) an unforgettable experience with a packed line up of top management from both BRAC Bangladesh and BRAC International. The program provided a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet seasoned development experts and career professionals at the helm of the world’s biggest development organisation. It was inspiring to interact with the founder members of BRAC from the early years of the organisation who shared with us the original philosophy of the organisation.

The gains that BRAC Bangladesh has made in tackling nationwide challenges across all sectors are impressive if not mind-blowing. A major example is the Integrated Development Programme which was able to achieve better outcomes in hard-to-reach areas especially in Water and Sanitation, Health and Legal Aid sub-sectors than most of Uganda in record time. However, while the challenges might be similar, I realise that the differences in country conditions, culture and population characteristics require customising the approaches and solutions here to the individual country contexts.

Realising that ‘we can’t do all this on our own’ necessitates evidence based advocacy for governments to abandon development approaches that do not work for low cost innovative interventions that can be scaled sustainably. Specifically, one area where governments can learn from BRAC’s experience is the quality of services delivered. A case in point is infant mortality, which stands at 37.7/1000[1] live births for Uganda with institutional delivery at 58% (2011) compared to 30.7/1000 for Bangladesh with a low institutional delivery of 39% (2011), thanks, in part, to the BRAC health programme.

In summary, the three key lessons learnt from the orientation session were: the need for scalable low-cost innovations, continuous learning and the need for evidence based decision making and advocacy. As the organisation starts to implement its new strategy 2016-2020, it remains true to the BRAC spirit of learning and innovation by focussing on new models of service delivery across its programmes.

The first week has taught me to be committed to the cause of development, adopt a can-do mindset, learn from the field and reflect on the lessons learnt for improvement. This was the perfect recipe to get myself ready for the challenge which was best put in words by the Director of Asia Region, Mr. Jalal Udin Ahmed: “There is a lot you can do in your country. Learn from here and apply in your country.”

My country has great challenges. I have seen that it can be done. I have realised my potential. Now it’s time to get to work.

“Don’t bring up a problem without thinking about the solution” – Dr. Kaosar Afsana, Director BRAC Health Programme