Scaling Up Without Losing Your Edge

 

Harvard Business Review Blog Network article by Susan Davis
18 January 2013

Forty years ago, British economist E.F. Schumacher, one of the fathers of the Green movement, declared that "small is beautiful" and called for "a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful." The retort from mainstream economists was swift and scathing: "Small is stupid." Without economies of scale, they argued, developing societies would never develop the efficiencies needed to modernize.

Indeed, in the 21st century, Schumacher's ideas may seem a little quaint. "If you want to do significant work, you have to be large," Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of BRAC, the world's largest nongovernmental organization, told Forbes in 2008. "Otherwise we'd be tinkering around on the periphery."

The man would know a thing or two about the pros and cons of being large. Founded in 1972, BRAC has made scale one of its hallmarks. Following Abed's twist on Schumacher — "small may be beautiful, but big is necessary" — it now touches the lives of an estimated 126 million people with healthcare, education, enterprise development, microfinance and a slew of other programs. It has also expanded to 11 countries, in partnership with others such as The MasterCard Foundation, which has facilitated a speedy scale-up of BRAC in Uganda.

Yet the elements of "smallness" that attracted Schumacher and his followers remain relevant to BRAC and similar organizations. Small means moving quickly, adapting to local demands, and understanding the needs of people across the poverty spectrum.

It's not easy, but organizations can do all of the above without staying small, just as BRAC has done.

To address the needs of youth in developing countries, BRAC launched a girls' empowerment program, Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA), in 2008. The program's approach of social plus financial empowerment now counts close to 300,000 members in seven countries, and outside scholars have recorded positive impact on life and vocational skills, health-related knowledge, risky behavior, early childbearing, and engagement in income-generating activities.

Meanwhile, the organizations' program to "graduate" people out of extreme poverty is being replicated by other organizations in eight countries by CGAP and the Ford Foundation.

So how does such an organization stay nimble? In short, by following the mantra "pilot, perfect, scale up."

Look at how BRAC became a pioneer in social enterprise — almost serendipitously. Today it runs a sprawl of surplus-generating businesses across diverse sectors. Most of these began as so-called "program support enterprises," supporting mainstream programs like microfinance — by, for instance, providing services like seed delivery to rural farmers who were investing in their farms with microloans.

These programs were later spun off into stand-alone businesses. Although they retain a pro-poor focus, they generate the profits necessary for BRAC to be 70% self-financed in Bangladesh, where BRAC is based.

BRAC's scale "is a response to one of the biggest challenges of development: that solving one problem leads to others," The Economist explains. It compares BRAC to Samsung, which began as a wool mill in the 1950s. Samsung found that "to expand, it had to make its own textile machinery; then, to export, it built its own ships; and so on." Likewise, BRAC grew into a chaebol or conglomerate for social development.

 

"It began with microcredit, but found its poor clients could not sell the milk and eggs produced by the animals they had bought. So BRAC got into food processing. When it found the most destitute were too poor for micro-loans, it set up a program which gave them animals. Now it runs dairies, a packaging business, a hybrid-seed producer, textile plants and its own shops — as well as schools for dropouts, clinics and sanitation plants."

 

It's safe to say that straying into new areas is part of BRAC's institutional architecture, in other words.

Of course, there are downsides to this approach, and management needs to be aware of them. Size inevitability leads to hierarchy, to rigidities in the system, and bureaucracy. To work within a process-driven organization like BRAC is to swim in a sea of acronyms that are largely meaningless to outsiders. Effectiveness comes with a routinization of tasks that, while not exactly mechanical, owes something to Henry Ford.

But is such a beast necessarily ugly? Not if it also builds in a capacity for innovation and quick response — that is, pilot, perfect, scale up.

When demand is spotted — say, a need for financial literacy training and microfinance products tailored for teens, in the case of ELA — the organization doesn't waste time figuring out how to do things elegantly. It moves. It then assesses the pilot and adapts accordingly, which could mean eliminating the entire program if necessary. To do this requires stringent internal monitoring, and BRAC is often its own harshest critic via an independent research and evaluation division set up in 1975.

Only then does it scale up. This is really a version of the "fail fast, fail often" innovation strategy currently in vogue among business strategists. Abed likes to illustrate this point by telling the story of BRAC's oral rehydration therapy program, developed to prevent deaths from diarrhea, a leading killer of children in the developing world.

In 1979, BRAC wanted to see if it was possible to teach Bangladeshis with limited literacy how to make their own oral rehydration solution using exact proportions of sugar, salt and water. So it launched a pilot and paid the trainers based on retention of correct knowledge. A month after the training, a monitor would visit and quiz the housewives to ascertain if the recipe had been remembered properly.

It worked — to a degree. The problem was how to monitor the monitors — how to be sure the monitors weren't simply filling out the forms at a tea stall, rather than making their required rounds. With lives at stake, it was a real concern.

The answer lay with the children of the household. When the trainer first visited, he or she would record the first name of the youngest born. The name was kept from the monitor — a field left blank on his form, to be filled on the follow-up. When the forms came back, sometimes the names matched, which meant the monitor had visited the right household. Sometimes they didn't. "We had to sack many of the monitors," Abed recalls.

Ruthlessly efficient? More like ruthlessly compassionate.

After multiple trial rounds, the program was taken to scale. In the end, BRAC taught 14 million of Bangladesh's 19 million households how to make the solution, contributing to a halving of the infant death rate.

Pilot, perfect, scale up. Then ask again if you have to be small to be beautiful.

 

This aricle was originally posted here: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/01/for_social_enterprises_size_ma.html

 

Beauty of alternative learning: Getting students to schools

UNESCO Bangkok article by Kanit Teerathumaskul and Rojana Manowalailao
28 November 2012

In the marshlands of Bangladesh where the combination of floods and poverty make normal schooling almost impossible, BRAC’s ‘floating schools’ serve a dual purpose. They act as a bus to pick up children and as a classroom for learning. The new initiative of BRAC to build 400 boats for children from disadvantaged backgrounds living in the flood plains of remote parts of Bangladesh is among many other alternative learning strategies that this largest development organisation in the world has introduced.

Profulla Chandra Barman, Programme Coordinator of the BRAC primary school, visited Thailand to attend a Regional Meeting on Alternative Learning/Schooling Programmes for Primary Education to Reach the Unreached organized by UNESCO Bangkok in early November to present the BRAC model, share experiences and discuss innovative ways to get out-of-school children to learn and graduate.

BRAC’s specific approach to alternative learning has been followed by over 400 local NGOs in Bangladesh. Starting as relief operation in 1972 in a remote village of Bangladesh, the organization has spread to 10 other countries around the world. It has supported and facilitated the alternative schooling approach in Pakistan, Philippines, Uganda, and Liberia, using a holistic development model towards inclusion and tools like microfinance, education, healthcare, legal services, and community empowerment.

BRAC provides a five-year primary education course to the poor and disadvantaged children and to drop-outs that cannot access formal schooling. It has touched the lives of an estimated 126 million across the globe. 

“Children are the main part of this school,” said Mr. Barman. “Our teaching and learning process is designed in that way with the children centered approach.”

The organization emphasizes on the curriculum framework by considering students as the center of attention. This can be easily seen by their classroom settings. The classroom desks are set in a V-shape to enable teachers to give equal attention to all students. 

With the student centered approach, new methods to help children learn more easily have been developed. At BRAC, learning can be done through many unique ways. 

Learning through group or peer discussions are one of the main keys. Students are introduced to a discussion topic related to their lives, such as ‘how neighbours help each other’. The teacher first gives a background about the topic before introducing the question to the students. Then students ask each other questions, share ideas and give opinions. The group discussions allow students to interact and leads to an effective learning process. 

“The learning process happens not only by the teacher but it happens also by the peer discussions,” said Mr. Barman. 

“In most education systems, teachers tend to make more complications to the learners. They hassle themselves by not engaging the students in learning,” he said.

Twenty-seven million primary school-aged children in Asia and the Pacific do not go to school. According to UNESCO, 40 per cent of out-of-school children in South and West Asia have previously been in school. The challenge of out-of-school children is a complex combination of deep-rooted inequalities associated to gender, ethnicity, wealth and location, in addition to poor quality of education. 

Although an enrolment rate in many countries in the region has been improving, progress has been slow as a number of children drop out before completing the full primary school cycle. Alternative learning and schooling programmes are indispensable and need support by legitimate education policies and frameworks.

Mr. Barman said: “The UN organization UNESCO can be more proactive to incorporate this plan within the government system because it can impose every government to incorporate it into the education plan in each country.”

 

This article wa originally posted here: http://www.unescobkk.org/news/article/beauty-of-alternative-learning-getting-students-to-schools/

 

 

New study finds 0.3pc of arable land lost each year

 

The Daily Star article
15 November 2012

Bangladesh loses 0.3 percent of cultivable land each year due to massive urbanisation, industrialisation and new roads, not the 1 percent long been claimed, according to a recent study.

The country had 9.2 million hectares of farm lands, according to an agriculture census conducted in 1983-84. It came down to 8.2 million hectares in the census of 1996, providing ground for the claim that the country loses 1 percent of cultivable land annually.

But the latest study, which was conducted in 2008 but the results were made available recently, shows an increase in the cultivated land by 0.8 million hectares over the previous census.

Between 1983-84 and 2008, cultivable land decreased at an annual rate of 0.3 percent, said Mahabub Hossain, executive director of BRAC.

"It is an important piece of information, as various issues such as food security hinge on the availability of land," he said, urging the government to conduct a detailed research to find out the amount of land available in the country for agriculture.

The agriculture economist said although policymakers claim that a large swathe of land has been reclaimed recently, the amount is still not visibly significant.

He made the disclosure at a workshop on "Developments in tenancy and credit markets in Bangladesh: implications for agricultural development strategy and policies" at BRAC Centre Inn in the city. BRAC organised the programme.

Hossain said farmers must be given fair prices and some incentives, otherwise they would not feel encouraged to grow enough rice for the consumers in the cities.

The speakers also called for setting up a national commission to supply credible data not only for the farm sector but also for other sectors.

"How can we plan if we do not have effective census data?" Hossain said. "There should be a framework so that we can get credible information."

The food ministry and the agriculture ministry are always at odds over statistics over rice production in the country, said MM Akash, a professor of economics at Dhaka University.

"The food ministry tries to say that there is a shortage in the staple food. So it wants to import to narrow the demand and the supply."

"On the other hand, the agriculture ministry tries to prove that there is enough rice production to meet the national demand. We should set up a national committee to ensure that our political biasness does not become a statistical biasness."

Credible statistics is important for policymakers to guide the country to its desired direction, said MK Mujeri, director general of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS). "It is not only important for the agriculture sector, but also for other sectors."

Hossain of BRAC also said the government should go for targeted input subsidies, instead of a generalised one, so that the real farmers could really benefit from the budget support.

He also said the government will have to keep the agriculture development through technology in its hand as a majority of the country's farmers belong to small and medium categories.

These small and medium farmers may not afford the technology manufactured by the private sector, he said. They also should not be left at the mercy of the nature, he said.

He also said microfinance organisations will have to introduce short-term loans to cater to small households as 25 percent of the farmers still borrow from the high-cost market.

Apart for agriculture, farmers should also be given support in generating income from areas such as livestock and fisheries, he said.

Akash also said the country could go for cooperative farming at least in case of input procurement and output selling, so that they can bargain for their produces.

He also said Bangladesh should try for giving intermediary technologies to the farmers as they will not be able to adopt capital technology in one go.

Mujeri of BIDS said he thinks the current input subsidies for the agriculture sector help the recipients indirectly, not directly.

He said there should be institutions at farmers' level. Otherwise, the country will not be able to take benefit of different farm projects to the target group, he said.

Hossain Zillur Rahman, a former caretaker government adviser, said the government must boost its spending for agriculture to help the sector grow. The government should also develop marketing infrastructure so that farmers' produces get fair prices.

Sajjad Zohir, director of Economic Research Group, a local think-tank, said price support should be given in areas that are the most effective.

A national commission could be set up so that disagreement over statistics does not surface, said Monzur Hossain, senior secretary to the agriculture ministry.

On a section of policymakers' claim over land reclamation, he said about 200 to 300 square miles of land could be reclaimed in the last three decades. The secretary also said the ministry is going to set up a unit, which will give policy support to the ministry.

It is not the fault of the food ministry for the data over rice production and storage, as it gets the information from the statistical division, said Ruhul Amin, a former director general of the food ministry.

Prof Abdul Bayes, a teacher at Jahangirnagar University; Binayak Sen, research director of BIDS; SM Hashemi, a professor of economics and social science at BRAC University; Mohammad Abdul Malek, a research fellow of Research and Evaluation Division (RED) of BRAC; Prof WMH Jaim, director of RED, and Wais Kabir, executive chairman of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council, also spoke.

 

This article was originally posted here: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=257516