Tell us about the Hope Festival.
Shameran Abed: The purpose of the Hope Festival was to celebrate the power of hope and the potential of young people in the Global South. We wanted to share stories, insights and knowledge from real heroes with lived experiences, those closest to the solutions for the world’s toughest challenges — the people who we have the honour and privilege of working with every day. This festival also takes forward the legacy of Sir Fazle, who believed that everyone should have the opportunity to appreciate works of art and literature, and be creators themselves.
How has Bangladesh’s approach to microfinance through BRAC helped uplift poor communities across the globe?
Following decades of experience and insight in delivering financial solutions to populations living in poverty in Bangladesh, BRAC first expanded its microfinance operations internationally in 2002 and now operates in six countries outside of Bangladesh — Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Myanmar. (BRAC Liberia Microfinance Company Limited is the largest microfinance provider in Liberia. BRAC Tanzania Finance Limited is the largest microfinance institution in the country. We have the third largest network of microfinance operations in Myanmar.)
Microfinance has been an integral part of BRAC’s holistic approach to development, equipping people who would otherwise be excluded from formal financial systems with the tools to invest in themselves, their families, and their communities. We currently have more than 713,000 borrowers and 576,000 savers. More than 96% of our clients are women.
Women have always been at the centre of our interventions. Our group-based microloans are designed and offered exclusively for women to invest in income-generating activities, become financially resilient, and improve their quality of life.
Our annual Lean Data impact surveys and the 60 Decibels Microfinance Index shows how our work is adding value to the lives of our clients and their families, and creating impact at scale – with a majority of our clients reporting improved quality of life, earning higher incomes and saving more money. Our clients also contribute more to important household decision-making and spend more on their children’s education.
How do you feel when you see Bangladesh’s success in poverty reduction being replicated in other countries through BRAC International?
There is reason to be hopeful that these holistic approaches that we’ve seen at work in Bangladesh can be successful elsewhere when they are contextualised to the local realities. That being said, the challenges of inequality are compounded in a time of overlapping crises, climate change, and global uncertainty, so these approaches must be adaptable to fit the changing needs, relevant to the communities we serve, and scalable to reach those who need the support the most.
The most significant challenges that continue to hinder economic growth and social empowerment, particularly for women and youth living in poverty, include lack of sustainable livelihood opportunities, market linkages, and access to essential services such as quality education, healthcare and access to finance. BRAC International is working across Asia and Africa to ensure that communities have access to such tools and are engaged in productive employment.
We’ve been working internationally since 2002 with programs like microcredit and education. Those interventions had worked well when we started out in Afghanistan, which indicated that they could work well in other countries with similar circumstances. However, while the approaches have shown promising results, the need is always there to maximise the effectiveness of programs designed to tackle poverty, especially as global forces continue to widen inequalities.
Can you also tell us about the ultra poor graduation program that works to alleviate poverty and has been recognised worldwide?
What it means to be ultra-poor goes beyond the monetary definition that we’re all familiar with: living on less than two dollars a day. To be ultra-poor means to be stripped of your dignity, purpose and self-worth. It means being unable to imagine a better future for yourself and your family.
BRAC went on to pioneer the Graduation approach, a solution to ultra-poverty that addresses both income poverty and the poverty of hope. The approach works primarily with women, because women are not only the most affected by ultra-poverty, but also the ones most likely to pull themselves and their families out of it.
Over a two-year period, we essentially do four things. One, we meet a woman’s basic needs by giving her food or cash, ensuring the minimum to survive. Two, we move her towards a decent livelihood by giving her an asset, like livestock, and training her to earn money from it. Three, we train her to save, budget and invest her new wealth. And four, we help to integrate her socially, first into groups of women like her and then into her community. Each of these elements is key to the success of the others, but the real magic is the hope and sense of possibility the women develop through the close mentorship they receive.
We are working to engage governments to help them to adopt and scale Graduation programs themselves, maximising the impact of the billions of dollars they already allocate to fight ultra-poverty. Our plan is to help another 21 million people lift themselves out of ultra-poverty in eight countries over the next six years with BRAC teams on-site and embedded in each country.
Tell us about BRAC’s successes in African countries.
As a Global South organisation, I strongly believe that we need to follow the example of the communities we work with, particularly the women, who show amazing resilience and spirit in the face of incredible odds. It is their success that inspires our work. Women like Kumba, a 61-year-old grandmother to eight grandkids in Liberia, who fought to rebuild her life after Ebola and now owns multiple businesses, or 24-year-old Adama, a single mother of a baby boy in Sierra Leone, who found the courage to go back to school to learn to read and write for the first time.
Across our entire program portfolio, we are shifting away from fragmented, small, donor-led projects to large, impactful, long-term engagement with communities that lead to transformative change. The people and the communities we serve deserve nothing less.
We’re working to set the stage for a new generation of leaders across the countries we operate in. BRAC’s adolescent clubs in Africa combine social empowerment, economic empowerment and education, enabling young people to accelerate their skills development and reach their full potential. The clubs are safe spaces for girls who have dropped out of school, and are at risk of early marriage or pregnancy. They access life skills, financial literacy, vocational and entrepreneurial training, including in-kind startup capital, and are supported with linkages to work opportunities. In Uganda, more than 50,000 young people have been supported through the clubs.
How do you see the implementation of technology and innovation in countering poverty globally?
Technology is already playing a big role in creating more access in areas such as financial inclusion and emergency response. When appropriately designed and implemented, digital financial services are well placed to support communities, particularly women, to strengthen or diversify livelihood opportunities. As the progress on eliminating global poverty is threatened by climate change, leveraging technology can help sharpen the focus on client outcome management and emerging issues like building the climate resilience of people and communities.
In that context, can you give us some examples of innovative approaches to fighting poverty that the world can replicate following Bangladesh’s footsteps?
BRAC has many innovative programs, approaches and learnings that we believe can be adapted to other contexts in developing countries across the Global South, and we have been doing that for more than 20 years.
More than 100 partners across 50 countries have piloted or implemented our Ultra-Poor Graduation approach. BRAC International is implementing Graduation programs in some countries directly, but also providing technical assistance to governments and NGO partners to support replication, and drive policy change.
The Play Lab model, BRAC’s flagship model for early childhood development which was first piloted and scaled in Bangladesh, is now being replicated across Tanzania and Uganda. Our humanitarian play lab model was specifically designed for children living in emergency contexts. These have been operating in the Rohingya camps of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and are now operating in Uganda, adapted for children of refugee families. Play Labs are built with local resources and reusable materials and hold culture and language at the heart.
BRAC’s work in youth empowerment, particularly adolescent clubs that have provided safe spaces for girls across seven countries – to learn life skills, get mentorship and become confident. Our Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA) model has been reiterated and adapted into the youth programming of program partners and NGOs in different contexts.
What are some of the major challenges that must be overcome to uplift poverty in Bangladesh in the next five decades?
We are seeing other complex challenges emerge that transcend borders. The effects of the war in Ukraine, the global food and energy crises, high inflation, social and political unrest – all against the backdrop of a visibly changing climate – are already being felt in the places we work in. This will undoubtedly put further pressure on our teams to keep adapting to newer and more challenging conditions.
Bangladesh is already seeing the climate crisis unfold, not just in the southern regions experiencing rising salinity and sea level, but also in urban spaces, as more families decide to migrate to cities as a result of extreme weather. The influx of climate-induced migrants into cities and municipalities has serious implications for poverty as a whole – urban poverty is much more pronounced for migrants because they often don’t have their own homes, land and the social capital and safety that exists in their ancestral land.
What this means in terms of programming is that resilience to both climatic and financial shocks need to be built. Farmers need access to both flexible financial services for harvest affected by erratic weather, and the knowledge on how to adapt to them, which includes access to and acceptance of weather-resistant crops. At the same time, how we look at shelter needs to change; BRAC is already building climate-resilient housing in Bangladesh across climate-vulnerable regions like the coastal belt. These structures can withstand extreme weather conditions and provide shelter to nearby families, so people aren’t forced to leave their neighbourhood to go to faraway shelters.
Finally, looking ahead, what are BRAC’s plans for the next 50 years and how do you envision the organisation continuing to make a positive impact in Bangladesh and beyond?
BRAC will continue to do big, bold programs that are responsive to the evolving needs of the communities we work with at a scale that can have real impact for another 50 years or more. In the next four years more specifically, in addition to work that BRAC will do in Bangladesh, BRAC International will seek to empower 40 million people with a focus on women, children and youth across Asia and Africa, through both direct implementation of integrated programs and through our work with partners and governments to scale proven, effective models.