By Soraya Auer
Not so long ago I shared with close friends that I was about to start working for BRAC. I didn't think the name of the world's largest and recently top ranked development organization needed further introduction, but my announcement was met with blank faces and polite curiosity. Going with what they knew about me as a journalist, one stabbed in the dark: "Is that a magazine?" An awkward silence ensued.
Since settling into my new home, I've discovered the depth and breadth of what Nicholas Kristof calls the best aid group you've never heard of.
I discovered that BRAC -- which used to stand for Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee -- is one of the few large international NGOs from the global South; its methods are born, tested and perfected in a developing country before being scaled up and adapted to other developing nations. From humble beginnings in Bangladesh, we're now active in 11 countries, reaching close to 130 million people in rural areas as well as urban, so now it's known simply as BRAC.
More importantly, I learned that BRAC recognizes it doesn't have all the answers. It learns from the people as much, if not more, than it learns from the experts.
BRAC was born in 1972, in the wake of Bangladesh's independence war, as a small scale relief and rehabilitation project to help returning war refugees. I am, like many of my 100,000 BRAC colleagues who are often specialists in a single issue, still learning about how BRAC became a pioneer in recognizing and tackling the multiple realities of poverty.
I am coming to understand how BRAC's comprehensive and holistic approach organizes the poor, especially women, to realize their own potential and empower themselves.
But the real reason I think BRAC is special is because, from its earliest days, BRAC understood the solutions to many of the world's poverty-related injustices begin with changing how women view themselves. This change takes place along the same path as changing society's views on women.
We see the change with women and girls lifting themselves out of poverty: people like Khadija, a motorcycles repair girl, entering trades previously dominated by men after vocational training; mothers like Moyna, who bring health care to their communities; and women like Nusrat, who raise awareness through theatre. In addition to BRAC staff, these women -- of whom there an additional 110,000 or more, carrying the BRAC banner not as staff but as micro-entrepreneurs and community leaders -- make up the BRAC extended family.
Recently, Bangladesh came into the international limelight for not-so-happy reasons. A nine-story building housing five garment factories collapsed outside the capital Dhaka three weeks ago, and the death toll has reached more than 1,100. Within hours of the country's worst industrial disaster, people flocked to the site bringing food, water, oxygen cylinders, blood donations and inexperienced but helping hands.
The BRAC family felt compelled to do something. Collections for supplies went around the floors of our head office and medical teams went to support hospitals and the army medics on site.
There are victims and survivors who are members of our BRAC family. Of the dead, one was a BRAC school student, 18 were relatives of other students, two were members of BRAC's microfinance village organizations, six were their family members and three were related to some of our community health promoters. We know of at last count 23 more injured, and 19 still missing. It doesn't matter how global or big BRAC gets as an organization; individuals like these make us what we are.
So next time I mention BRAC to some friendly faces, rather than be mistaken for the Croatian island, a United States military base closure committee, or the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, I'm hoping for it to be recognized for what it is -- a growing family, always learning, today mourning its losses in Bangladesh, but always moving forward together.
Soraya Auer is a journalist and communications and global advocacy specialist for BRAC in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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