In 1970, a catastrophic cyclone ravaged Bhola, killing 300,000 people; what followed was even more devastating, a nine-month-long war for independence. This is how the story began for Bangladesh. 50 years later, the story continues as the country thrived on staying in the spotlight again.
Many well-wishers and stakeholders, including international aid agencies and NGOs, have accompanied this nation during its journey. Among these, a name that cannot be denied or unseen is Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee. As of now, the largest and number one NGO globally, was born in Bangladesh — now known as BRAC.
BRAC was established in 1972 to work towards relief and rehabilitation for the rural poor to cope with the devastation they had been going through. Soon, it started development activities for the alleviation of poverty. Today, it is a 50-year-old organization that has touched the lives of 120 million people around the world through its development interventions.
These interventions were aimed to eliminate extreme poverty, expand financial choices, provide employable skills for better-paid work, tackle climate change events, respond to emergencies, promote gender equality, ensure universal healthcare, develop urban settlements, and invest in the next generation in enterprises.
No one could have ever thought that a temporarily established relief organization would become the leading organization in its field. BRAC has been working to enhance the resilience of the most vulnerable and marginalized rural people of Bangladesh from its very beginning. Even though today, BRAC is a much more mature organization with powerful strategies, appropriate policies, flexible financing, and well-programd need-based actions, it still addresses the underlying challenges of society and not merely the symptoms.
One of the crucial features of BRAC is its well-timed delivery of tailored and target-oriented services to the community. During its early operational period, BRAC concentrated on village development programs that included agriculture, fisheries, cooperatives, rural crafts, adult literacy, health and family planning, vocational training for women, and construction of community centres. These programs essentially targeted the poorest of the poor — the landless, small farmers, artisans, and vulnerable women. This was a much-needed step towards the development of society back then.
In the second half of the ‘70s, it focused on working more closely with the poor to set an example of locally-led actions. The centre of this engagement became an organizational structure called the “Village Organization (VO).” Through the organized activities of VOs, more development efforts emerged, consisting of skills development, improvement of health and education, provision of capital, and opportunistic creation of income-generating activities.
BRAC worked closely to develop the socio-economic status of the people and pioneered Research and Development (R&D) activities in agriculture to achieve a long-term goal that focused on the fragile climatic conditions, considering the geographical location of Bangladesh.
BRAC and International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) launched to develop low-input and stress- (drought, submergence, and salinity) tolerant rice varieties. Meanwhile, in 1994, BRAC started promoting hybrid maize seeds in collaboration with the Integrated Maize Promotion Project (IMPP), funded by International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT).
In 2000, BRAC Agricultural Research Development Centre (BARDC) started to look at its research and discoveries in a problem-oriented, adaptive, and participatory manner. Usually, all its discoveries were disseminated through a participatory approach where farmers were invited to share their opinion on the performance of the crop.
Followed by BRAC’s success in agricultural R&D, BRAC initiated agricultural extension services by the Agriculture and Food Security Program (AFSP) through large block demonstrations that operated in climate-vulnerable zones — for instance, saline and drought-prone areas.
BRAC realized that frequent climate change-induced natural and man-made disasters have been affecting the lives of millions of Bangladeshis; this could threaten to hinder or even reverse the progress achieved so far in poverty alleviation.
Providing relief to disaster-affected populations was already one of BRAC’s very first goals. Upon realizing the additional threats, BRAC has been rapidly responding to the onset of climatic events by modifying many of its program designs. Right after cyclone Sidr in 2007 hit the coasts of Bangladesh, BRAC initiated the Disaster, Environment, and Climate Change (DECC) program to help the communities manage the devastation.
Some 10 years later, the DECC program was renamed as Disaster Management and Climate Change (DMCC); in 2018, the DMCC program was split into BRAC Humanitarian Program (BHP) and Climate Change Program (CCP) in alignment with BRAC’s Climate Change Strategy, 2016-2020.
BRAC Climate Change Program provides climate-vulnerable people with access to the tools and knowledge to adapt and respond to the adverse climatic changes and adopt various sustainable practices to combat the impending climatic impacts.
This program aims to motivate people to adapt and respond to climate change consequences while collaborating through sustainable development strategies to manage potential climate change impacts.
Apart from a program solely dedicated to addressing climate change impacts, BRAC also has six other programs that directly or indirectly reflect significant efforts to tackle climate change through locally-led adaptation actions. These programs are BRAC Education program (BEP), BRAC Disaster Risk Management program, Integrated Development program (IDP), Ultra Poor Graduation program (UPGP), Urban Development program (UDP) and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program.
At this moment, climate change has become an existential challenge for all living beings, as Sir Fazle Hasan Abed had so rightfully pointed out. Now the question is; how will BRAC continue to contribute to embracing climate actions through its remarkable adaptive management features?
BRAC understands the complexity of climate change and the many dimensions it involves — science, economics, society, politics, and moral and ethical questions. Not to mention this is a global problem, felt on local scales, that will be around for decades and centuries to come.
Therefore, BRAC continues to take all the possible efforts to cope with the changing climate and support the most vulnerable to identify their potential to thrive. The organization has opened new windows for channeling multiple financial solutions to facilitate a paradigm shift at the local level.
BRAC’s recent solution to financing local level actions, known as the “Climate Bridge Fund,” is currently aiming to bridge the gap between financing short term projects for urban adaptation measures and climate-induced migration, to provide finance over a longer period with a predictable timescale to ensure better access to funding by local actors.
BRAC also emphasizes creating linkages with the private sector to establish a timely support system to foster adaptation and locally-led actions. Moreover, BRAC is also trying to get accredited to Green Climate Fund (GCF) as a direct access entity (DAE), which has a window for getting funding for local-level adaptation actions.
Furthermore, BRAC Microfinance (MF) program aims to provide innovative and sustainable livelihood support to their clients, especially women, expected to lead to economic growth and eventually result in better living standards and resilience to climate change and natural disasters.
“Small is beautiful, but the scale is necessary.” A byword often heard at the NGO best known for its scale. Over the years, BRAC has grown to become the largest NGO globally. The entity is leaving behind its legacy in every aspect of its programmatic activities.
As the founder of BRAC, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, once said, “as time passed, we feel that we have not outlived our utility and need to do more and more.” In 2022, as BRAC will celebrate its 50th anniversary of being present as a catalyst and provider of opportunities for people living in poverty, here’s to hoping it can scale up, prioritize, innovate, and mainstream its effective climate resilience efforts in its all-programmatic approach, and design to facilitate the highest level of locally-led climate actions in future.
Originally this article was published on April 10, 2022 at Dhaka Tribune.
Dr Md Liakath Ali is the director of the Climate Change program (CCP) at BRAC and BRAC International, and Urban Development program (UDP) at BRAC.