Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The BRAC Education

View from the 18th Floor of the BRAC Tower
To prepare for the field work and more substantial assignments to come in the following weeks, my supervisors assigned me a hefty reading list of what I dare call "BRAC Kool-Aid." The more I read, the more I love BRAC. Coincidence? Maybe. But, to me, grassroots advocacy really does makes sense, particularly when the process has gradually taken place over the past 40 years. 

It may be hard to pitch grassroots advocacy to an American audience, and I think that's because our culture largely thrives on immediate gratification. That is why our country allots us so much freedom. For example, on the way to the airport last week, my mom and I debated what freedom in the context of public transportation means. Today, many Minnesotans regret the destruction of our streetcar system in the Twin Cities 60 years ago. But, my mother so astutely emphasized that destroying the streetcars symbolized freedom; no longer did Minnesotan city-dwellers have to rely on someone else to pick them up, get them to work on time, and drop them off at home safely. Driving ourselves allows us to leave our homes whenever we please and drop ourselves off exactly where we need to be. As the environment changes, many of us are beginning to realize that the freedom to use a personal vehicle doesn't make the most sense. Leaving your home ten minutes earlier to wait in a subway station for the next metro car is starting to look more appealing.

My point of that rather long digression is that grassroots activism is not a quick and dirty mechanism to solve social problems. When I hear complaints that grassroots advocacy simply doesn't work, what I am really hearing is that grassroots advocacy is not working quickly enough. Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of BRAC, laid its foundations just after Bangladesh won its independence from India four decades ago. Sir Abed spent these decades piloting, editing, and perfecting the BRAC poverty alleviation model. It was not until 30 years later that Sir Abed felt his model was good enough to export to Afghanistan, BRAC's first establishment outside of Bangladesh. So, maybe all this reading was not Kool-Aid after all. Maybe Sir Abed really does make a valid point. I mean, being knighted is no farce. 

Sir Abed Being Knighted
Over the last few days, I read BRAC's 2010 and 2011 Annual Reports, which were surprisingly engaging, but the half dozen articles I read today really brought the BRAC's mission to life for me. The manner in which Bangladesh defies all economic development standards truly tugged at my heartstrings. I am almost always one to root for the underdog, and Bangladesh is just this. The field of political economy has grown on the notion that solid political institutions are essential to economic growth, but corrupt leaders and political turmoil amidst a 4% annual growth rate for 15 years in Bangladesh challenges this argument. During this time between 1991 and 2006, Bangladesh also managed to cut its poverty rate by 15%. Today, Bangladesh is on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals and it leads South Asia in most social welfare indicators. Did I mention that Bangladesh did this with two of its national leaders behind bars?

As a rather mediocre economics student, I would like to quote Ian Smillie in his book Freedom from Want: the Remarkable Success Story of BRAC, the Global Grassroots Organization That's Winning the Fight Against Poverty: "[Sir Abed] did not know that, in the years ahead, he would confront and surmount some of the greatest development challenges on the planet and everything he knew about economics, health, and education would be turned on its head." As a Senior Executive Account at Shell Oil, Sir Abel probably got a better grade in microeconomics than me, but his ability to break the rules, not follow them, allowed him to touch the lives of 110 million people. This brings me back to an article I read the other morning, which I found in the college supplement of The Daily Star (Bangladesh's most accredited newspaper). The article was titled "The Nutty Professor." A student from a local university writes about his and his peers' general frustration with an economics professor who constantly challenges the well-accepted economic principles in their textbook. However, the student goes on to conclude the following:
"I have always been a big fan of teachers who went outside the textbooks. They would have their flares of madness, dance on tables and shave their heads to prove their theories. They would give unnecessary assignments, take us out on the field and challenge us to think differently. Maybe in an exam paper, we have to think accordingly but in life, it is just another perspective, and as students, our job is to make that distinction. These teachers are rarely popular, ridiculed by their colleagues and often scrutinized by the administration. Yet, they have every potential to change our lives, our thinking patters and show us the world as we would have never seen otherwise. Does that make them genius? Question remains, what is in fact, genius in our eyes?"
Judging by the way Sir Fazle Hasan Abed has invented a model inconceivable by a run-of-the-mill economist, I would have to say that in my eyes, Sir Abed is a genius, and he has changed millions of lives for the better because of his patience and ingenuity. 

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