Sunday, July 19, 2009

BRAC Field Visit

On the morning of the day that I met Ronnie, I went with other BRAC interns for a field visit to Gazipur, a village about an hour outside of Dhaka. At 8:30am we departed BRAC headquarters for a slow-going trip out to Gazipur. Our first stop was a village where women were being informed about their legal rights. The group of women undergoes a month long education process where they are taught legal rights and procedures relevant to avoid dowries, rape, early marriage, and other ingrained cultural institutions that hold women back. The kids who were hanging around the village loved having their picture taken. If I had a Poloroid camera they’d be going crazy. We were fortunate to hear from one of the ladies in the class who also happened to be a borrower of BRAC’s microfinance loans.

But first a quick primer on microfinance: Traditional banks will generally not lend money to the poor because they have no collateral (funny how the only people who can get money are those who already have it). Microfinance has come up with a different type of collateral – peer pressure. They organize borrowers into groups of 4-5 women (“why women” is explained below). When someone in the group wants a loan, the group as a whole becomes her guarantors – if she cannot pay back the lending institution, the group is responsible for coming up with the money. Being that their reputation is one of the few important possessions that the poor do have, borrowers think very carefully about their ability to pay back. These loans, which range between $50 and $500 for BRAC’s poorest group, are used to start micro businesses, such as selling breads or homemade crafts to street goers, much like you and I sold lemonade when we were young. Repayment rates for most microfinance organizations are between 97% - 100% - quite impressive when compared to us wealthy Westerners. There’s a lot more to it, but this is the basic idea.

Anyway, the woman we heard from was very proud to tell us that she had received two loans to start and expand a sewing businesses to supplement her husband’s income (usually the case is that the woman is the family’s only wage earner). Her son is in school and she is very optimistic about the future. Another borrower had purchased a cow and was selling milk to a local milk company.

BRAC places their primary emphasis on women (in its microfinance and other programs), as it and other development organizations have found that when women are assisted and empowered, the benefits extend to the rest of the family, especially the children. Benefits endowed on the men, however, seem to stop there.

The other highlight of the visit was the BRAC primary school (the 2nd pic is from the outside). BRAC operates a system of schools that fill the gaps of the government schools. Once kids who haven’t attended school reach age 8, it is hard for them to catch up in the government schools. BRAC does the government’s 5-year curriculum in 4 years, using the same benchmarks but different teaching methods. The school uses a one teacher/one room -model, in which all the students in the village start together. Ages of the kids may vary slightly. The students stay together with teacher for four years, and if the school is still needed in the village at the end, it will start a new class. But more likely it will pick up and move to another village. They have no furniture, a chalk tablet, and some writing utensils that they keep in an old aerosol can. We were fortunate enough to hear a song the kids had prepared for us, followed by each of them announcing in English what they wanted to be when they grew up. The presentation was impressive and it was encouraging to see smiling faces of kids who probably wouldn’t have received an education without BRAC.

No comments:

Post a Comment