Is BRAC the first international NGO from the South?

March 5, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Thinking Big, Going Global is a new IDS working paper on what is arguably the first fully fledged international NGO from the South. Since 2002, BRAC, a Bangladeshi NGO, has gone global, expanding its programme of ‘microfinance plus’ (education, health, enterprise support, etc) to Afghanistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Southern Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Pakistan, formally establishing BRAC International in mid 2009. It also set up BRAC UK and BRAC USA, mainly to raise funds. According to Brac International’s Imran Matin, BRAC’s total budget is about $500mn, about the same size as Oxfam GB, and it’s got there in half the time, being founded in the newly independent Bangladesh in 1972.

Going global does not appear to have been part of some grand strategy as much as a series of experiences in new country contexts, starting with Afghanistan in 2002. By 2006, BRAC was reportedly one of the largest NGOs in the country. BRAC drew four key lessons from this experience:

1. South-South collaboration worked, and motivated, experienced Bangladeshi development

BRAC Afghanistan Training and Resource Centre

BRAC Afghanistan Training and Resource Centre

professionals could work successfully with trained local staff to deliver a rapid programme expansion.

2. The basic elements of the BRAC development model worked and could be replicated, once adapted to local conditions. In Afghanistan, schools had to be for girls only, and the costs of delivering services were higher.

3. The value assigned to a philosophy of scale, to ‘serve as many people as possible’, has been important for staff motivation.

4. Resource constraints can be overcome. BRAC Afghanistan initially received a small grant from BRAC Bangladesh and donor funding followed once results were demonstrated.

The only comparable Southern-based organisations are microfinance institutions like Grameen Bank, but BRAC is pretty much the only ‘microfinance plus’ organization to achieve this kind of scale. And scale is central to its philosophy – for BRAC, small is stupid. Or as its founder/CEO F.H. Abed more diplomatically puts it, ‘small is beautiful, but big is necessary.’ The organization has 115,000 staff in Bangladesh, and 6,000 in the international programme.

BRAC Liberia

BRAC Liberia

So how is BRAC different from Oxfam or other northern-based international NGOs? According to the IDS paper, written by Naomi Hossain and Anasuya Sengupta:

BRAC’s strategy is to create entire new frontline organisations in the new countries, rather than to act as brokers for international aid.

A second difference between BRAC and other international NGOs is that many of the latter have moved away from direct service delivery towards ‘strategic’ high-end policy or rights-based advocacy work since the 1990s. BRAC on the other hand, is quite happy to do service delivery, and doesn’t seem to share other INGOs’ worries about undermining state systems.

BRAC staff do not receive high international NGO salaries. They are paid twice what they would earn in Bangladesh, as well as modest expenses, a total which probably comes to half the salary of a UK-based international NGO. Nor does BRAC follow the stringent and costly security rules of other international actors.

It all reminded me of the discussions on China’s role in Africa. BRAC arrives, does service delivery at scale and low cost, free of the colonial baggage and expat culture of northern-based international NGOs. In countries like Afghanistan, it is seen as less alien, more muslim. But it seems to pay scant attention to the wider political and social impact of its work (although to be fair, it did set up a relatively small BRAC Advocacy and Human Rights Unit in 2002, along with a BRAC University and research institutes).

The IDS paper ends with a question, which it doesn’t attempt to finally settle: ‘Is
BRAC an ‘alternative’ development approach? Or merely the hand-maiden to
neoliberal development policy?’ Whatever the answer, watching BRAC’s progress will be fascinating (and educational for more northern, and perhaps more sluggish, INGOs).

March 5, 2010
Duncan Green