Hey, for anyone expecting another combative post, sorry! This is going to be a bit more personal and boosterish.
On 22 January 2011, my friend Lauren Fleming died. I’ve already said about everything I have to say about it to about everyone I know who knew her, so this isn’t really going to be a post about her. It’s just a bit of context.
More context, but less important. When I got a “real” job at USIP, back in 2007, I resolved that I was going to donate 10 percent of the portion of my take-home pay that I kept for personal use (as opposed to what I contribute to the joint account I share with my wife). This is less than the Giving What We Can pledge, but more than the The Life You Can Save pledge, so I figure it’s at least a good start. (My wife and I also give 5% of the after-tax income we contribute to our joint account).
I used to make my charitable donation as a lump sum on or around my birthday (since charitable organizations incur transaction costs on donations, other things equal you’re better off donating in larger amounts to a smaller number of organizations). But since Lauren’s death, I’ve been donating on or about January 22, in memoriam.
This is really just context and prologue to what I really wanted to talk about here, though, which is the organization I’ll be making my donation to this year: BRAC.
BRAC was founded as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Commission (though the acronym seems to have floated free of that particular meaning). Apparently it was originally just their founder putting some persons displaced by the cyclone up in his offices at Shell, where he was an accountant.
They have since expanded their operations massively, becoming by some reports the largest NGO in the world, with operations well beyond Bangladesh – it is also believed to be the largest NGO operating in Afghanistan (for most of the empirical claims, see the linked Economist and SSIR articles, by the way), and has operations in Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Haiti.
A big part of BRAC’s core operation is microfinance, but they follow a “microfinance-plus” approach. That is, one of its core businesses is microfinance, but it also provides education services (including a university), some advocacy, community-building, health care, etc.
There are a few key reasons to like BRAC.
First, and in many ways foremost, “it is a [global] Southern organisation from a poor country expanding to other poor Southern countries.” (10) This is important for moral and ideological reasons. It breaks up invidious tendencies to cast poor countries always in the victim, never in the agent role. It has less of a neo-colonial savor, which isn’t nothing. On a more direct, but still moral, level, it means giving money to aid workers who do not enter their work with the social and economic baggage that many Western aid workers do. For instance, BRAC employees are paid wages that are high for locals, and for Bangladeshis, but much more in line with local wages and standards of living. The Southern origin of BRAC is also practically important – it means that many of its workers will have a deeper understanding of the global poor live than even the best-informed and sincerest Westerner.
Second, it ranks high on sustainability. Though BRAC does accept donations (hence this post), about 80% of their operating budget comes from their own activities (like the microfinance and seed banks). Thought I’d throw something in there for my more business-minded readers.
Third, BRAC is very much involved in “frontline” services. They have a small advocacy unit, but the bulk of their work is still service provision, in a time when lots of the big Western NGOs are moving towards policy influence. Your mileage may vary on this – I have some skepticism about the ability to influence policy from the top-down, plus it’s my day job (sort of), so when I give money to aid I like to give it to groups that are largely focused on service provision.
There’s a worry here that I may have more to say about later on this blog – doesn’t direct service provision create dependence or a parallel government (that gets the real government off the hook)? I worry more about the latter than the former – I don’t really worry about the former at all – but at the same time aid conditionality has had a mixed track record at best. Where governments are bad, I don’t see a lot of evidence that starving them of aid makes them much better (not that we shouldn’t care about making them better), especially when the aid is direct service provision rather than support to the government’s own coffers. And direct support loses much of its moral lustre when the government already isn’t accountable to its people.
Fourth, on the other hand, warming the cockles of my policy-analysis heart, BRAC has a strong internal committment to monitoring and evaluation, including having a well-respected in-house research arm. Even groups critical of it – more on that in a sec – note its committment to evaluation. In addition, BRAC is pretty heavily studied – and generally found to have a positive impact on poverty and development – by outside academics.
Fifth, BRAC has, since 2002, been doing innovative work to help the “ultra-poor.” In a nutshell, the problem is that people at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder are often unable to benefit from the traditional development programs to get a leg up – e.g., microfinance or access to education may not help them much because they are too ill and malnourished, or too socially marginalized, to make effective use of them. To my eye, one of the most intriguing components of their approach is the community involvement angle. When BRAC starts up a poverty targeting program, one of the first steps is to engage the community in a participatory process of identifying the community members most in need and strategies to help them. Community involvement in the resources and the progress of those poor is then part of the ongoing strategy for addressing poverty. In part, apparently, this comes from the founder’s sensitivity to the ways in which social stratification in Bangladesh interfered with people coming out of poverty, which shows real insight (or maybe I’m just biased since it fits with the view I articulate in my own book, that social domination is the ur-vulnerability).
BRAC is, of course, not without its critics. In particular, I was a bit surprised and disconcerted to learn that GiveWell, an aid-evaluation org that lots of “let’s give more of our money to the poor” projects (like the two I link above) rely heavily on, does not recommend giving to BRAC.
But I will be honest that I cannot really tell why. The stated reason on their assessment page is that the research arm of BRAC does not provide any public evaluations of their employment or income programs (at the time of the 2009 review). But this seems to be at least partly inaccurate. For instance, BRAC’s research arm has a report on the employment impact of their grants to small and medium enterprises, dated 2005 (GiveWell claims they searched on relevant terms, but I found it with “employment”).
In addition, GiveWell seems to move the goalposts in their assessments. The only one of their top three charities that focuses on poverty alleviation (as opposed to medical research and implementation) is GiveDirectly, an org that transfers money directly to poor people in Kenya. Now, I have no problem with GiveDirectly – and I like their model, too. But GiveWell counts them as effective because there is evidence that they do in fact distribute their money, and there is no strong evidence (they feel) that the presumably good impact of giving poor people money is either not as good as it might seem, or that it is undercut by other bad effects. Meanwhile, their bar for BRAC is higher – not just that they conduct their programs, but that they be able to prove they alleviate poverty.
I’m happy to chat more about aid assessment methodology – it’s not my direct area of expertise, and something I’m still learning myself. But it leaves me pretty comfortable that giving to BRAC is a pretty good use of my money.
Of course, it doesn’t bring Lauren back.