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‘The primary areas of work for Brac now are youth, urban poverty and climate change’

  • Published at 01:00 am July 25th, 2018
Dr Md Musa Mahmud Hossain Opu
Dr Md Musa Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

On July 8, Brac’s Executive Director Dr Md Musa spoke to Dhaka Tribune’s Abu Naser Rayhan on the contribution of NGOs in building a better Bangladesh, and the challenges that lie ahead

Despite dysfunctional politics and a stunted private sector, Bangladesh has made significant progress in improving lives of the poor. 

Since its independence in 1971, the country has in the recent years become one of Asia’s success stories, turning from a “bottomless basket” country to a soaring economy, having outperformed the growth of the neighbouring “emerging superpower” India.

Non-governmental organizations, including Brac and Grameen Bank, have joined the government and ventured to empower women providing means of production, both in households and the public sphere and creating new windows of opportunities. Empowerment of women translated into improvements in the overall health, education and financial sectors. 

Over the past 20 years, Bangladesh has made some big gains in elevating the living standards of people. Having reached the lower-middle-income country status in 2014, Bangladesh is now poised to receive global recognition as an upper-middle-income country by 2021. 

The promises, however, have come coupled with a number of challenges, especially for NGOs in terms of subsidized donor funding and foreign aid. On July 8, Brac’s Executive Director Dr Md Musa spoke to Dhaka Tribune’s Abu Naser Rayhan on the contribution of NGOs in building a better Bangladesh, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Dr Musa is a veteran development practitioner and has experiences of working in Asia, Africa and North America in a span of 32 years. He was appointed as the new executive director of Brac, the largest development organization in the world, in 2015. 

What is the historical context behind the growth of NGOs in Bangladesh? 

The history of independent Bangladesh shows that NGOs have played a key role in rebuilding the war-torn Bangladesh. A year before achieving independence, Bangladesh witnessed the most catastrophic cyclone in its history.  This was shortly followed by the liberation war, leaving the socioeconomic condition of the country in a bad situation.

It became clear that neither the government, nor the NGOs could rebuild the nation alone. Aside from efforts by the government and private sector, social efforts - effort from the civil society was also needed - thus the birth and growth of NGOs in Bangladesh. 

The 1980s was a significant transition period for war-torn Bangladesh. Just Faaland, the first Country Representative of the World Bank in Bangladesh, in 1976 wrote in his book “The Test Case for Development” that Bangladesh possessed nothing that could lead her to the path of conventional development. 

Despite the naysayers’ gloomy predictions and widely shared pessimistic outlook, Bangladesh has made significant economic and social strides in the last few decades: it has become a role model of development. The NGOs take pride in it as we were there from the very beginning and put our best effort to bring Bangladesh to the place it is now and would prefer to call it a movement that worked alongside the government. 

How are things in the country changing for NGOs in the post-LDC scenario? How does Brac plan to approach the changing socioeconomic structure?

The efforts of the NGOs are really the efforts put in by the people; hence it is a complementary force to the government and the private sector. It is obvious that the role of NGOs will change with the country’s changing socioeconomic structure. There was a time when prime concerns of the NGOs operating in Bangladesh were poverty, illiteracy, maternal health and so on. We were lagging behind many countries in the indicators, but eventually we improved much over the last 30-40 years. 

Once, we had a soaring fertility rate, but have been successful in reducing it by a large margin. Challenges persist, as we are now witnessing an increase in the youth demographic. With it, there are new challenges in terms of creating job opportunities for the large number of employable youth, and providing them with an enabling social environment. We, the NGOs, are now becoming more youth oriented and working to resolve the crises hereby. 

With the growing economy, the number of rural to urban migration has risen, and so has urban poverty. We have to focus on reducing urban poverty too. Despite all the improvements, the poverty rate in the country is still a pressing issue, even to this day. About 23% of the total population lives in poverty, whereas around 9% are identified as “ultra-poor”. We are relentlessly working to find ways to address and reduce the rate of poverty, and improve people’s lives.

Climate change, on the other hand, is another big challenge in the path to development. We need to find ways to mitigate this threat; and we are indeed continuously working on it, joining hands with both the government and private sectors. Brac, as an NGO, is focusing primarily on three specific areas: youth, urban poverty and climate change. 

The beauty of organizations like Brac is that we identify evolving issues and find ways to solve them by adjusting and readjusting it as we go, further scaling it up if needed.

A ubiquitous criticism of the NGOs is that in building alternative structures for public services, NGOs are actually privatizing services that are supposed to be given by the government, under the influence of the neoliberal market economy. How do you respond to this? 

For a country to provide inclusive public services, it is a must to have a wide range of choices. As NGOs, our job is to partner with governments and help them strengthen their service delivery mechanisms, build their competency, modernize their training and develop the system as a whole. We partner up with the government so we can, together, improve the quality of the services the government is providing. At the same time, when you put parallel services, it provides people with more choices. 

Take immunization as an example. It is a basic service primarily provided by the government and by NGOs like Brac. We partner with the government to improve its service delivery mechanism along with quality, and in fact, make the service more accessible and efficient for the people, resulting in more people receiving the services. 

When it comes to maternal health care services, NGOs like Brac, work with the government’s maternal clinics to build their capacities. 

We do not work to stop government services - we strengthen them. Also, NGOs create competition. Market theory states when you bring competition to the market, the quality of service improves automatically. We just want to give people the freedom to make their choices. 

Another widespread criticism of NGOs is that they give technical solutions to social issues, rather than resolving the underlying causes. What is your opinion on this matter? 

It is a rather generalized statement about NGOs, I would say. 

I can talk about how Brac works. At Brac, we analyze poverty and social inequality and then we identify the immediate, intermediate and underlying root causes behind the problems. We address each of these levels. 

For example: as we do the analysis of poverty and inequality in both urban and rural areas, we find that access to basic services like health, education; income and finances are the immediate problem. These are mostly technical problems. 

At the intermediate level, we often find problems in the process and system that bar people from accessing these services. So, we work with the government to reduce the barriers and strengthen the system so that they (the poor) can have access to banks and the overall market. 

When it comes to the underlying issues, it is actually about the underlying power structures. One of the power structures that we often see is connected to gender, a structure so pervasive that it becomes the source of normative institutional imbalance. 

At Brac, we have strong gender and diversity programs by which we work with both genders in a way that influences these norms and create a balanced power structure starting within the household. It takes a long time to reach the goal. 

Another key underlying issue is governance. When we work in a school, for example, we form a committee where we ensure the representation of people from diverse social strata. It does not only let everyone’s voice be heard, it also establishes a democratic culture within the communities. 

Unless you can address all dimensions of the social issues, you cannot create a sustainable solution and we, at Brac, are very active about it. 

Brac has been declared as the number one NGO throughout the world for three consecutive years. What are the implications of this achievement for the people of Bangladesh? 

I think this is not just an achievement for Brac, but an achievement for the people of Bangladesh. The name Brac - Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee - says it all. It is a matter of great pride that we created a new leadership model here in Bangladesh.  Both Bangladesh and Brac became a model for development around the world.