Celebrating BRAC’s 50th anniversary, we interviewed Executive Director of BRAC Bangladesh—Mr Asif Saleh—to talk about their 50 years of impact in unmaking poverty and inequality.
BRAC is the world’s largest Southern-led development organization
Established by our 2019 Yidan Prize for Education Development Laureate Sir Fazle Hasan Abed KCMG, BRAC reaches over 100 million people in 11 countries with scalable, evidence-based programs powered by the efforts of 100,000 staff members, thousands of supporters, and hundreds of local partner organizations.
Prioritizing women, a human-centric approach, and community-led solutions
BRAC has helped transform Bangladesh into “a model for poverty reduction”, and is expected to become an upper middle-income country by 2031. We’re supporting them to expand their work in play-based early childhood development, delivering high-impact and scalable solutions in resource-constrained communities.
1. It’s been 51 years since Bangladesh’s independence. BRAC was founded the following year. What was Sir Fazle’s vision?
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed understood that poverty is a situation, not an identity. His vision was to work with people living in extreme poverty and see them—with the right resources, tools, and opportunities—become catalysts of change in their own lives.
Abed bhai said it best himself in a letter to all BRAC staff before he passed away:
“The inequalities that create divisions of rich and poor, powerful and powerless, are made by humans. So, change is also possible through human acts of compassion, courage, and conviction. I have spent my life watching optimism triumph over despair when the light of self-belief is sparked in people.”
2. What have been the key milestones over the past 50 years?
BRAC was founded in 1972 in Bangladesh, then one of the world’s poorest countries, in the aftermath of a civil war and a series of natural disasters. We’ve grown to be one of the largest, most effective, international nongovernmental organizations in the world—and the only one of its size to have originated in the South.
Our milestones over the past 50 years include:
- Graduating 14 million children from school through a low-cost, scalable education model prioritizing “drop-outs” as well as girls, children with disabilities, and those living in rural regions
- Founding BRAC University in 2001, which today is one of the top private universities in Bangladesh
- Establishing the BRAC Institute of Educational Development, which aims to improve education quality, equity, and efficiency through research and development, training, capacity-building, policy dialogue, and advocacy
- Enabling 10 million people to lift themselves out of poverty through BRAC’s signature Graduation approach
- Equipping 15 million clients with access to financial services through BRAC Microfinance, BRAC Bank, and other financial inclusion initiatives
- Bringing banking services to people with very limited access through BRAC Bank’s bKash—now processing 2 billion USD in transactions every day
- Launching 13 social enterprises, including Aarong and BRAC Dairy, that link people living in poverty with markets where they can sell their goods and sustain their livelihoods
- Reducing childhood deaths from diarrhea by 90% in Bangladesh—through door-to-door community health campaigns that reached every household in the country and trained 14 million mothers to make and administer a lifesaving oral rehydration solution
- Expanding the proportion of children vaccinated against deadly tuberculosis in Bangladesh from 4% to 91%
- Helping reduce the average number of births per woman in her lifetime in Bangladesh from seven to two
- Expanding beyond Bangladesh into Africa and across South Asia, with the launch of BRAC International in 2009
3. BRAC brought a new mindset to education, resulting in a radically different system of education. Why do you think your approach has been so successful?
When we started our work in education in 1985, mindsets were fixed on infrastructure: building enough schools, and training and hiring enough qualified teachers to meet the demand.
But building schools in every community was impossible, and highly trained teachers were scarce. Many children couldn’t travel to school was too far or unsafe. Children in ethnic minority groups faced additional obstacles, as did those with disabilities. During harvests, children were needed at home and in general, school interfered with vital chores. Most teachers were men, which made parents unwilling to send young girls to school.
We offered a new mindset.
For a start, we brought schools to students. Instead of investing millions in construction, we opened one-room schools in almost every community. And we trained local women to teach grades 1 through 5, with up to 30 children per classroom, instead of the traditional 50 to 60.
We also shaped class schedules around families by closing school during harvests and giving children free time during the school day to help with other household needs. Our schools gave students books and supplies and didn’t charge fees. And we integrated group learning, creative expression, and individual attention and accommodation for children with disabilities to help all learners thrive.
Training female teachers without formal qualifications from within the communities made scaling the program possible. Almost 100 percent of students completed fifth grade, and BRAC students consistently did better than public school students on government tests.
4. What skills, values, and capabilities will children need for the future? How do schools need to change to ensure children develop those capabilities? How is BRAC helping children prepare for the future?
We think “cradle to career”. We need to support children to learn and develop well in school, but also to grow into active, engaged, resilient adults capable of navigating shocks and adversity.
High-quality, low-cost, play-based early childhood education programs like our Play Labs support children’s physical development, language development, and critical socio-emotional skills—like self-regulation, empathy, and critical thinking. They prepare children for formal schooling, while play also helps children who have experienced trauma or stress to heal and develop resilience.
Getting learners ready for the world of work is also vital. We can unlock young people’s potential through skills development and vocational education programs in demand-driven trades.
5. How has the Yidan Prize funding supported BRAC’s work?
We’re using the Yidan Prize funding to expand, scale, and refine our play-based early childhood development (ECD) programs. This includes research and innovation, exploring the possibilities of integrating technology in low-resource settings, offering support to parents, and training play leaders.
We’ll also use prize funds to help support children and families in resource-constrained communities and humanitarian contexts and to keep developing the Play Lab model through partnerships.
6. What are your plans for BRAC in the future?
The global strategy for BRAC, which was endorsed by Sir Fazle before he passed away, sets an ambitious target of reaching 250 million people in and beyond Bangladesh by 2030 through our programs and services. To deliver on this commitment, we need effective partnerships, access to resources, and the means to scale up innovative solutions to deepen our impact.
The last 50 years of work have clearly positioned us well to meet that target. Our new programs and pilots in early childhood development, skills development, and youth employment get worldwide attention. While we are moving towards a more targeted approach, we’re not shying away from building stronger partnerships with governments to strengthen systems.
Our work now includes:
- Developing a holistic approach to climate change adaptation through innovative financing mechanisms and design
- Designing our programs for lifting people out of extreme poverty around key challenges like climate adaptation, urban poverty and disability inclusion.
- Using technology to change how we work and keep improving our approach to reducing poverty
- Investing in new social challenges; for example, embedding mental health screening and referrals into primary healthcare
- Through our impact fund, investing in new tech startups that will change the way we do business
- Planting the seeds for future social enterprises in affordable health care, quality education, and youth skills development
- Working to more effectively connect and design our humanitarian and development efforts in response to protracted crises for better outcomes