By Barber, Ben
The World and I , Vol. 17, No. 5
Henry Kissinger once described Bangladesh as a "basket case": a country so hopelessly poor, crowded, and disorganized that it could never feed and educate its people. Ten years ago, a Bangladeshi journalist in Dhaka, the nation's capital, told me of a project that offered hope of proving Kissinger wrong: the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). The committee's efforts stood out in his mind above those of dozens of other well-meaning development groups operating in the country. "I went up country a few months ago to see a government minister address a rural assembly," he explained. "At the end, one elderly woman stood up and berated the minister with such force, courage, and clarity. She asked for concrete steps to deal with flooding and for medicines. It was BRAC that gave her the courage, the backbone to do that. The very poor, especially poor women, would never before have dared to speak up to government officials."
After three decades of working as a reporter in the Third World, I'd come to believe that getting people to stand up for themselves was the beginning of development--not assistance projects designed in Washington and carried out by local elites. I reasoned that if someone had figured out how to help Bangladesh fight poverty, illiteracy, disease, and hunger, that system might work in dozens of other Third World countries. So I decided to pay the project a visit. I had to drive along a muddy highway built up above the Bangladesh floodplain. As I looked at the sodden patchwork of fields on either side of the road, I thought that successful development seemed a hopeless, though vital, task.
After a long trip, I reached a village where BRAC was active. I was met by a dozen people, all thin as rails. They told me how BRAC had gotten them to change their lives. It began when the committee put together a group of the poorest people in the impoverished region of Manikganj, west of Dhaka, and invited them to free literacy classes. Landless laborers, they earned a meager living by hiring out during the planting and harvest seasons. They could earn no more than half-a-dollar per day for backbreaking work in the hot sun on someone else's fields. The literacy classes lured these people onto a path of self-improvement. This distinctive method of recruiting the landless poor was explained to me with great enthusiasm by both BRAC staff and the villagers themselves.
Simple but radical
Committee organizers go to the poorest huts to invite anyone interested to attend free literacy training, but the classes teach more than the alphabet. The first lesson is the Bengali word for hunger. A visual aid shows the word and drawings of hungry children. Then the trainer asks the people "Who is hungry? Why? Who can do something about this?"
For the next word, house, the picture is of a broken-down hut. The villagers are asked "Is the house broken? Who can fix the house?" In this way, the class prompts them to take responsibility for changing their lives.
After the first session, the people are asked if they want to form a group to improve their lives. When they agree, they are asked to choose one among them to be trained as a medic and to chip in a few cents a week to pay his bus fare to attend a monthlong BRAC medical course in a nearby town.
After completing the training, the medic is able to identify major illnesses that can be prevented, or treated, right in the village. Methods include purifying drinking water to halt dysentery, using antibiotics to treat infections, and giving vaccinations. The medic learns the limits of his basic knowledge and is taught to send difficult cases to the nearest clinic with a doctor. Since he has been trained with the help of the group, he treats group members and their families for free. Other villagers are charged, with the money being used to subsidize the members' medicine and pay the medic's fees. …