Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Destination Ghazipur

Nothing takes it out of you quite like an 11-hour workday spent under the sun. At 95 degrees, I managed to drink four liters of water and did not get sunburned (applause). The interns had a tight schedule today in Ghazipur, about 40 miles away from Dhaka. Here houses one of BRAC's regional offices which oversees five different upazilas (counties) and 59 branch offices. We drove all around the Ghazipur region to learn more about BRAC’s programs and enterprises.

To make a little more sense of BRAC, I think about it as a three-pronged business. Underneath the BRAC umbrella are Development Programs, Social Enterprises, and Investments. Today, we visited a village in Ghazipur and observed the Community Empowerment Program and the Health Program.

Heath Volunteer Presentation
The Community Empowerment Program was established to give women in villages a podium to speak out. Many times, women feel stifled by their husbands or uncomfortable addressing taboo issues they face. Under the BRAC model, a main speaker is elected to present topic issues and moderate the conversation. The village we visited meets twice monthly for what BRAC calls a “Social Capital” meeting. Today the women addressed food safety issues. They discussed why not to leave food out because bugs which carry diseases can infect these foods. Besides contamination, the hot sun can also cause foods to rot more quickly. It was really great seeing all the women sitting together, and many voicing their experiences and opinions. Their children also crowded around the meetings, certainly interested in all the guests in their village, but also learning the importance of community engagement.

Health Volunteer Presentation

In Ghazipur, BRAC’s Regional Office houses one Health Program Organizer who oversees four health workers. Each of these health workers organizes a monthly health forum in the villages and trains health volunteers on how to monitor diseases and ailments. The ten health volunteers report to the health workers and visit about 250 households each to monitor health in the village.  Today, we witnessed a health forum in the village. The woman sitting at the front of the circle presented from a book which illustrates “The Essential Health Program.” Under this program, there are “ten basic diseases” which the health workers and health volunteers help cure.

One of the diseases, for example, is TB. If a volunteer found that a member of one of their 250 households has experienced a long lasting cold, they will prescribe them the TB treatment. Many times, the symptoms of TB go away after a few weeks of taking the medicine. The health volunteers make sure that the family member continues to take their medicine for eight months. The TB patient has incentive to be treated for TB because of the health education their volunteers give and its contagious nature. The patients must make a deposit when they begin taking their medicine. They have an incentive to take the medicine for the full eight months because at the end of this period, they can receive their deposit, and only when they finish the prescription.

BRAC Nursery
After this visit, we spent the rest of the day exploring a few BRAC Social Enterprises: BRAC Nurseries, BRAC Feeding Mills, and BRAC Dairy. Interestingly, BRAC Nurseries exists at every BRAC Social Enterprise and Regional Office that has enough space to grow a marketable share of plants. This particular site had the seed processing center which packages and distributes various plant seeds such as pumpkin, rice, and squash. The seeds provide high quality seeds to farmers, including hybrid seeds which many environmentalists would frown upon. BRAC’s nurseries do not grow crops, but these plants are either donated to areas which have experienced a natural disaster, or they can be sold on the market. The nurseries are one of the three Green Enterprises that BRAC touts.

BRAC Feeding Mills creates and packages feed for chickens, cows and fish. It was created because BRAC Poultry had trouble meeting its demand for affordable and nutritious seed. The BRAC Feeding Mills created a market linkage for BRAC Poultry and serve this demand.
Got mango milk?

Finally, BRAC Dairy formed because farmers neither received fair nor consistent prices for their milk. They also struggled getting their milk to a market without it spoiling. BRAC Dairy picks up milk from farmers and pasteurizes the milk on site. More recently, BRAC founded BRAC Cold Storage, where the milk can stay cold and marketable. Today, BRAC Dairy has 22% of the market share of milk. I tried some of their chocolate milk and mango flavored milk. I have to say, the mango was surprisingly delicious, and I would probably choose it over the chocolate.

Going to Ghazipur was an incredible experience. I especially enjoyed going into the village and seeing the communities: families, children, men, women, animals. This is yet another experience which makes me appreciate living in Dhaka. The city life is much more hospitable than the rural life. What BRAC does for these rural villages really helps empower the people. The women proudly participated in their meetings, eager to positively impact their communities. The children seemed intellectually curious and eager to learn. I admired the work ethic of these people. In fact, one of the men in the village showed me his business card and told me how he travels to Dhaka every day. He tried to offer me some tea, but I was already forty paces behind the intern group. The people were kind and seemed to understand that they were part of something very special.

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