In 1972, shortly after the Liberation War, I was sent by CARE to Bangladesh -- "a thumbprint of a country in a vast continent," as Tahmina Anam has so eloquently described it. I was to work on a self-help housing cooperative project. We provided plans, material, and technical assistance to help people build their own low-cost, cyclone-resistant houses. We imported thousands of tons of cement and enough corrugated tin sheets to cover a dozen football fields. The project was massive, but failed. The houses were constructed, but the cooperatives -- which were arguably the most important component, because they aimed to generate funds for longer-term agricultural development and employment -- failed miserably. We had a large office in Dhaka (then known as Dacca), lots of jeeps and trucks and speedboats, and many international staff with energy and commitment to spare. Our only problem was that we had almost no idea what we were doing.In two paragraphs Smillie basically sums up Easterly's two great books and moves onto new ground. This is not just a criticism of foreign aid and of "planners," in Easterly's terminology, it is the positive story of how "searchers" or more accurately, social entrepreneurs, can improve conditions on the ground with local knowledge and the proper incentives. Phil sums it up best: "Think Muhammad Yunus & Grameen are something? Wait til you read about Fazle Abed & BRAC." The book is available through Amazon, but while you're waiting for it you can read this piece by Fazle Abed in Innovations.
While I was in Dhaka ordering freighters full of cement from Thailand, a tiny organization was forming on the other side of town and in the rural areas of faraway Sylhet to the north. I recall meeting Fazle Hasan Abed at least once in 1972 or 1973, and I remember people speaking about BRAC with a kind of awe. Their attitude did not flow from anything remarkable BRAC was doing at the time, everything was remarkable in those terrible postwar years. What caugh people's attention was the fact that BRAC was a Bangladeshi development organization -- something few outsiders had ever heard of, much less conceived.
Here is the author, Ian Smillie, discussing his work: