Brac Programme Lifting ‘Ultra-poor’ Out of Poverty in Bangladesh
Monday, February 13, 2012
Even a cursory conversation with Maleka Begum, a 30-year-old Bangladeshi woman, quickly reveals that extreme poverty is as much about a lack of confidence as a lack of money. As she talks about her life, Maleka, a mother of three who looks much older than her age, barely makes eye contact and speaks softly.
Standing outside her corrugated one-room home in the village of Jagir on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka, she describes how she has been the sole breadwinner since her husband contracted jaundice two years ago, rendering him unable to work. “I have been doing manual labour, digging holes,” she says through an interpreter.
Maleka is among Bangladesh’s poorest; the bottom 10%, or “ultra poor”. Since the 1980s, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (Brac), which celebrated its 40th anniversary at the weekend, has been tackling extreme poverty through an asset-transfer programme that is being replicated in other poor countries.
The programme’s title is a mouthful – Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction/Targeting the Ultra Poor – but its basic outline is simple enough. Under the programme, Maleka was given a cow and a goat, along with a cash stipend of 600 taka (£3.50) a month, plus 100 taka, to be spent specifically on nutritious food such as lentils.
Maleka will receive the stipend for two years, by which time she should have enough money coming in to break out of the poverty trap. She will also receive visits from a Brac programme organiser every five days to check on her livestock, teach her about basic hygiene and give her family planning advice.
An important function of these weekly sessions is to build up her confidence and ensure that she knows she has certain rights. It is unclear, for example, whether Maleka knows her husband is entitled to hospital treatment for his jaundice. Learning how to take care of her cow and goat will be another confidence-builder.
Brac, which was founded by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed to provide relief after a devastating cyclone, started focusing its work on the poorest when it realised that its microfinance programmes were beyond those at the bottom of the ladder. It was a significant move away from Brac’s self-help ethic and faith in microfinance, Ian Smillie wrote in his book about Brac,Freedom from Want.
When Brac approached donors in 2001 to back its ultra-poor programme on a large scale, the biggest contributor was the UK Department for International Development (DfID), which came up with 40% of the five-year $53m programme. The programme is now being replicated in other countries, including Haiti, Peru, Yemen and Ethiopia.