Elevate Difference

Freedom From Want: The Remarkable Success Story of BRAC, the Global Grassroots Organization That's Winning the Fight Against Poverty

The truism tells us that if you give a woman a fish, she’ll eat for a day, but if you teach her to fish, she’ll eat for a lifetime. This philosophy undergirds the work of Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC), an international NGO located in Bangladesh. The group began in 1972 as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, but quickly outgrew the moniker. When staff realized this, they abandoned the name and began to popularize what Canadian academic and NGO expert Ian Smillie calls “a motto: Building Resources Across Communities.”

By all accounts, BRAC’s achievements are stunning. First, the fiscal: In 1980, BRAC’s $780,000 annual budget was entirely donor-generated. A quarter century later, in 2006, the budget skyrocketed to $495 million with eighty percent raised through microfinance and other community-controlled enterprises. Chicken rearing, cattle breeding, fruit and vegetable farming, silkworm production, and craft workshops form the crux of their work. BRAC also sponsors health centers, financial institutions, and literacy programs, and has created a world-class university for people who might otherwise not have a shot at higher education. Their endeavors are continually expanding and have moved beyond Bangladesh’ borders into Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tanzania, Uganda, and the southern Sudan.

It’s an exciting story—or should be. Unfortunately, Smillie’s account is as dry as burnt bread. Part of the problem is stylistic. Too few BRAC staffers are interviewed and the voices of BRAC’s beneficiaries are also largely absent.

What’s more, Smillie dances around the most difficult issues, mentioning but never exploring them. He writes of Muslim fundamentalists who object to BRAC’s work with women, but Smillie never tells us how the group deals with such conflicts. Questions about a more general backlash also come to the fore. Since BRAC’s goal is to end poverty, not simply to dull its most dastardly edges, one can’t help but wonder about the reaction of large landowners and the business elite to BRAC’s anti-penury campaigns. Smillie’s account sidesteps politics and class conflicts altogether, making them so vague that they seem irrelevant. And the central conflict over power—who has it and how they can be forced to cede some of it to marginalized groups—gets nary a mention.

This leaves readers with more questions than answers. I was particularly interested in learning whether BRAC believes revolutionary shifts can be achieved through the types of nonviolent community organizing the group champions. Mention of left-wing theorists Paulo Freire and Karl Marx not withstanding, strategies for long-term change are, for the most, part missing from Freedom from Want.

Smillie presents BRAC as highly effective in helping select individuals lift themselves out of poverty. Even if this were completely accurate, the 2008 World Bank estimate of 1.4 billion people worldwide living on less than $1.25 day—including one quarter of those residing in the so-called developing world—suggests that there are limits to NGO activity. Without a global commitment to ending prevalent economic and social disparities—that is, massive social reorganization—NGOs can do little to change the world order.

In the end, the truth is clear: despite significant victories by BRAC and groups like it, the challenge of winning universal social justice requires more than one organization, no matter how stellar.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, June 2nd 2009