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March 5, 2010

Is BRAC the first international NGO from the South?

March 5, 2010
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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).


  1. Duncan, in Latin America we have our own international NGO, but still operating within our region. It’s the chilean “Un Techo para mi País”, that has already started operations in 15 countries and has also started to gain support an to raise funds in US territory.
    If it were a company, we would call it a “multilatina”.

  2. Very interesting post. The big difference to me is that number of staff. Oxfam has a similar budget to BRAC and employs under 6000 people in total , about 1/20 of Brac. An International NGO needs to act like a “distributor” of aid and not have a large internal payroll. So I’m not sure what can be learned from the comparison. It would make for an interesting set of accounts to show the UK donating public such staff figures !

  3. It is fascinating to see brac is working in asia and africa and probably moving to other continents.I disagree with Ken where he said international NGOs need to act as aid distributor as this is the main problem why despite lot of support from so many INGOs, poverty is not reducing at the level it was expected in developing countries and ramping corruption.As the article mentioned about salary level of brac staff, we need to see how much other INGOs spend on their staff salary and benefits and how much goes to the actual beneficiaries.Only then we can compare the cost effectiveness of the programs implemented by BRAC and other INGOs.

  4. BRAC is a sincere organisation and is giving its best to do good in Bangladesh and beyond.

    However I disagree with Ariful that “…despite lot of support from so many INGOs, poverty is not reducing at the level it was expected in developing countries and ramping corruption.”

    BRAC is the largest NGO in Bangladesh and yet the country is still one of the poorest and ranked only a few positions above the last on corruption index.

    There are black sheeps, but many NGOs are doing good works around the world. We live in a complex world and poverty is not 3-2=1.

  5. I’m fascinated by some of the implications of this article.

    When Chinese workers from the interior of China go to Africa, they impose less of a financial overhead as the conditions are somewhat similar to what they may have been used to.

    I think it opens up some possibilities for greater effectiveness when you have workers from developing countries working in developing countries. From a sensibility standpoint. As long as their training is to world-class standards.

  6. BRAC’s growth beyond Bangladesh is an interesting development. As with China’s rise, it challenges and undermines the principles and practices of longer-established actors. Northern INGOs mostly gave up on direct service delivery work years ago in favour of capacity building and advocacy, in part because they felt this work was more strategic and in part because they were keen to avoid undermining government accountability.

    These hard earned lessons about what not to do are worth protecting, though there are also aspects of BRAC’s different approach that Northern INGOs could usefully learn from. A bit of competition in public service delivery is probably no bad thing, for example, though achieving this without undermining public accountability is tricky.

    It seems to me that as with China, the best answer is to get BRAC engaged in the wider INGO and donor debates around accountability, capacity, good governance. And BRAC should be more inclined to engage in this than China has proved to be, since BRAC at least shares the same overall goals as the INGO community.

  7. I was interested to hear at the BOND AGM that BRAC UK feels it hasn’t had an entirely positive “welcome” from UK NGOs, shame on us or a reasonable response in a “competitive collaboration” field?

    One side hasn’t come up yet in this discussion. Oxfam has the ability to push the development debate in the UK and globally and as a global organisation, to make it as representative of the south as possible. I’m sure some of this is a factor of its size.

    However, is it “right” that a GB-based organisation has oversight of half a billion dollars of development spending?

    I’m not saying there’s a simple answer as international development needs friends in the UK as much as in Bangladesh. But perhaps its a question that can properly be raised now we can start to talk of NGOs from the South of similar size.

  8. BRAC International specializes in the business of development service delivery, and this article accurately highlights their success in the decade of the 00’s.

    As you correctly point out, BRAC personnel costs are lower than western based International NGO’s and the development systems BRAC honed in Bangladesh have proven to be transportable to other countries.

    BRAC’s efficiency and effectiveness is critical in countries where service providers compete for donor funds through government supervised competitive bidding (such as in Afghanistan).

    Training is a key element of BRAC’s success.
    They don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Inexperienced local employees, largely female, are trained to execute proven business models from Bangladesh. For these women it’s “the BRAC way or the highway”.

    The results are positive. When BRAC entered Uganda there were over a hundred microfinance institutions active there. BRAC is now one of the largest MFI’s in that country.

    In Afghanistan, BRAC operates two full time training centers where the ultimate goal is “Afghanistization”; to replace Bangladeshi employees with well trained Afghans capable of delivering development services.

    In my opinion, BRAC’s international success is less of a new development paradigm than an example of old fashioned attention to detail. Like many successful businesses, BRAC breaks down the task into component parts, optimizes performance of each part, standardizes the process, trains employees, and measures performance.

    In the development business you have to be good to do good…and BRAC is very good.

  9. …Thanks for the article… we are an national NGO based in Juba, Southern Sudan focussed on reducing incidences of injuries(violence and Road safety) sustainable agriculture and Environmental conservation. We are re-aligned ourselves the BRAC WAY because it works!

  10. thanks for this article – currently approaching BRAC re: opportunities for collaboration. although a “southern” NGO ourselves (our HQ has recently moved to the Comoros), we do like our implementing partners “local”, fashionable and paying low salaries. we’ll team up for the next USAID RFA.

    Duncan: Please note this comment is supposed to be a satirical take on the aid industry!

  11. This article makes for an interesting read. There are lessons to learn from BRAC’s success story. How for example does the model create more transparency in alleviating poverty by circumventing environments prone to corruption? With a focus on service-delivery, it will be interesting to see how the BRAC model works in country-settings that have less decentralised policies and increased state controls over any development activity. It is great to see that the BRAC model is finding new wings and is keen on being tested in different global settings. This is precisely what development should do in order to share innovation and test best-practice. Perhaps even more best-practice and new lessons will emerge from this new “look-elsewhere” move. The value-for-money delivery of poverty alleviation solutions will always be of interest to any tax-payer from the donor country. Comparing BRAC with other INGOs may add some value to the debate on how NGOs should approach certain issues, but going forward, it is equally important that specific targets of deliverables are outlined before the projects commence. It is easy to measure for example training programmes delivered by a small capacity of say 15 staff and hundreds of trainees attending in addition to the money leveraged in a savings and lending society…this is good for M&E, but another type of INGO might be focused on soft copy developmental issues like democracy and seem to be spending more on changing mindsets of political dinosaurs who will not leave office soon. Maybe the Bangladesh society (rural in particular) is more accepting to less red-tape and want to get along with development (Kick me for saying this!) compared to societies elsewhere. Either way, there will always be a debate about approach, efficiencies and settings. I just want to thank all the INGOs, NGOs, CBOs, development actors including governments (local and Central) in their transparent efforts in ensuring the face of poverty is changed for the better in their communities. I also thank you all for your responses to this informative article.

  12. Brac is largely self-financing in Bangladesh! Its involved in a number of businesses which help it to cross-finance various initiatives. I cannot see western NGO’s doing the same thing, they are too dependent on charity!

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