The world's largest NGO rethinks its future

Boda boda — motorcycle taxi — riders play pre-recorded COVID-19 awareness messages on megaphones provided by BRAC, aiming to reach over 2.7 million Ugandans on the immediate outskirts of Kampala. Photo by: BRAC

When COVID-19 started spreading, BRAC was able to play a major role in countries like Bangladesh, where it has its roots, and Afghanistan, where it set up COVID-19 screening centers and provided direct support to hospitals in Helmand province. But in places like the Philippines, where it wished to play a bigger role, its response was limited.

“Some of our friends will say, BRAC is [the] world's least known, No. 1 organization,” Muhammad Musa, executive director of BRAC International, told Devex.

BRAC, considered the world’s largest NGO, is aiming to expand its partnerships and engage more in advocacy work to scale its impact. If there’s one theme the pandemic has surfaced, it’s the importance of working together, says the executive director.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted a fact we already knew — that increased partnership is necessary to collectively solve the issues that we face,” Musa said.

“We need to really step up. And we are currently beginning to.”

— Muhammad Musa, executive director, BRAC International

An international NGO from Bangladesh

BRAC, an NGO that started in Bangladesh, has expanded its work to 10 other countries in Asia and Africa. Employing more than 110,000 development professionals, it now wants to engage in more partnerships with government and market-based actors such as social entrepreneurs, as well as local NGOs, and community-based organizations. It also wants to work more with academics and the media.

In dealing with COVID-19, the organization partnered with the World Food Programme to address food insecurity. It also partnered with media in countries such as Uganda and worked with governments to promote public health measures such as wearing masks, physical distancing, and hand-washing, to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

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But there will be more issues the world will face as a result of COVID-19, which will require all hands on deck. This includes the challenge of extreme poverty. The World Bank estimates an additional 150 million people will fall into extreme poverty by 2021 because of COVID-19.

“No single organization can deal with this issue alone. We have a bigger challenge, and this requires us to work together,” Musa said. “Ultimately, we want to see that we are playing a value-adding role in the humanitarian-development nexus.”

The plan

The plan is to bring its programs, such as BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation program, to countries through partnerships. Through it's Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative, BRAC will be providing partners capacity building and technical support while improving the model with them to address the needs specific to a particular area or region.

“Over time we would like to become a capacity builder for local actors and support local initiatives for adapting local problems,” Musa said.

The organization also plans to use the evidence and knowledge it has developed from its work in communities to influence policy in countries.

However, this doesn’t necessarily translate to more country offices for the organization. While BRAC will continue to have a handful of country offices in strategically selected locations, the goal in the coming years is for one country office to cover several country programs.

Apart from being cost-efficient — as it limits overhead costs — it could also be sustainable in the long-run, Musa said. 

“One of the big shifts we're making [is] that we'll be reorganizing our country offices in selected areas, like subregional as opposed to country. So like one office taking care of three or four countries — like in Horn of Africa, so one country office, but with partners in multiple other countries. So if we are in Kenya, we can be having a partner in Ethiopia, we can be having a partner in Somalia, we don't need to go ourselves there,” Musa said.

“Over time we would like to become a capacity builder for local actors and support local initiatives for adapting local problems.”

— Muhammad Musa, executive director, BRAC International

Challenge and opportunities

BRAC is one of the very few global south NGOs that has made a name for itself on the global stage. It has remained No. 1 for five consecutive years in Geneva-based NGO Advisor’s annual top 500 NGOs in the world ranking.

NGOs in the global south usually find it challenging to expand their work and programs in other countries, a practice that has largely been limited to established Western-based NGOs.

Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive of Oxfam GB said that when BRAC started working in the U.K., it was “a powerful signal that it wasn't just a Bangladeshi organization but that it wanted to take its learnings and its perspectives, and share them and adapt them to other parts of the world.”

“And that's fantastic, because, of course, that's what northern NGOs have been doing for the last few decades. So why shouldn't Southern NGOs also do that?” he added.

But that hasn’t always translated to easy partnerships. Musa said they were not always seen as a partner of choice in some countries. It is also a result of the fact that BRAC has not invested enough in brand building. The organization’s work, he said, became known as different development and academic institutions became interested in its approach to addressing extreme poverty.

Tony Sheldon, executive director of Yale School of Management's Program on Social Enterprise, told Devex in an email that BRAC is “one of the better known international NGOs within development circles.”

“They have never had as effective a PR mechanism as a few others (such as Grameen) but they are even more highly respected among practitioners,” he said. Sheldon has been a consultant to the Ford Foundation, which adapted and tested BRAC’s graduation approach in countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America from 2006 to 2014. He is co-author of the World Bank’s technical guide to the graduation approach.

The adaptation and piloting of BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation program ultimately led to the launch of a new division within the World Bank: the Partnership for Economic Inclusion for which BRAC is noted as one of the four key supporters. For Sheldon, this is “further indication that BRAC is indeed recognized fairly widely within the development community as a major international player."

BRAC’s outreach efforts are bearing fruit, especially during COVID-19, giving the organization confidence to pursue increased partnership and collaboration, said Jess Hagler, BRAC International coordinator.

“We need to really step up. And we are currently beginning to … take interventions, initiatives to address that. But it will take several years before we become a household known entity,” Musa said.

COVID-19 has raised questions on the future of development work. As BRAC and many international NGOs ponder theirs, Sriskandarajah said: “I think there is a question about what the next generation of international NGO networks will look like. And it probably is more like a franchise or a partnership model rather than a direct delivery model.”

Updates, Jan. 22, 2021: This article has been updated to reflect that BRAC was able to play a major role in countries like Bangladesh; that the organization will be providing partners capacity building and technical support through it's Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative; and that BRAC’s graduation program is called the Ultra-Poor Graduation Program.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.