Sunday, May 17, 2009

Freedom From Want

The subtitle is: The Remarkable Success Story of BRAC, the Global Grassroots Organization That's Winning the Fight Against Poverty. I just started reading but already would recommend this book to anyone interested in development and social entrepreneurship. I was hooked from the first paragraph in the preface:
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.

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.
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.

Here is the author, Ian Smillie, discussing his work:


  1. Thanks for the post! I work at BRAC, and we've been wondering when we're going to start getting the same exposure as Grameen and Kiva.

    Unsure about how accurate the Easterly comparison is, since we (and I think Mr. Smillie) certainly agree with his emphasis on utilizing searchers over planners, but not so much on his assertion that foreign aid and planners are useless. I realize that's a bit of a caricature, but unfortunately that's what he represents. We must keep in mind that BRAC and Grameen would not be where they are today if it hadn't been for the generous support of foreign aid, one of the few cases where the planners got it right.

    Would love to hear what people think about this, and if you haven't already, please do check out our blog at and let us know what you think about BRAC, social entrepreneurship, and development in general.


  2. Thanks for the comment. I actually met a woman who had heard of BRAC but not of Yunus or the Grameen Bank. And she was in the Peace Corps. I was surprised but clearly BRAC's story should get out to a wider audience. To that end, your blog is an excellent resource as well as your presence on Twitter and I will recommend both in a separate post.

    As you say, planners do sometimes get it right and I think even Easterly would admit as much. More generally, government funding is a big source of financing for non-profit organizations and for social entrepreneurs (> 35%) and you are certainly right to point out that this is an important role. Thanks again for the comment.