Episode 25: Tackling extreme poverty through locally led development at BRAC. Asif Saleh interviewed.

About this episode:

In this week’s episode, Asif Saleh speaks about BRAC as an INGO based in Bangladesh, which delves into understanding the underlying structural causes of poverty. Their work has focused on addressing the most pressing issues in a way that generates long-term stability. Asif talks about circular learning and flows of knowledge which disrupt Global South/Global North dynamics. BRAC emphasises the scalability of models so that they can be applied to a variety of contexts focused on keeping costs low and engaging the community. We discuss the need to build capacity of Southern-based organisations, especially for climate change adaptation.
Episode 25: Full Transcript

​​The Power Shift: Decolonising Development

Episode 25

Tackling extreme poverty through locally led development at BRAC. Asif Saleh interviewed.

Asif: [00:00:00] The first thing is that we need to understand that we’re all getting impacted by climate crisis, but we have very different levels of vulnerability, different countries. So the countries which are most vulnerable and doesn’t have a very strong social protection system, they need to get supported first. Second thing is adaptation is very, very crucial, right? But urgently, it needs to be funded better and it cannot be loans. It has to be grants and then we are talking about loss and damage at the same time, great progress that was made in terms of countries agreeing for a Loss and Damage Fund this year. It needs to be operationalised. But then more importantly, wherever, whether it’s the Loss and Damage Fund or adaptation money, that money needs to get on the ground. And get on the ground through locally led development, locally led entities. So I think that people who are implementing has to have a way to get those accessible money.

Kate: Hello, I’m Professor Kate Bird, and I’d like to welcome you to this episode of the Power Shift Decolonising Development. Today we’re speaking to Asif Saleh, the CEO of BRAC. BRAC is one of the world’s largest civil society organisations and one hubbed in the Global South. [00:01:00] We talk about their Ultra Poor Programme and how they support sustained escapes or graduation from poverty using a multi dimensional programme.

We talk about how they’ve applied this model across the world and how BRAC is now an organization influencing global discourse on development and poverty reduction. We discuss their role as a broker or intermediary, an accompanying partner for majority world civil society organizations and NGOs accessing USAID’s localization funds, and BRAC’s involvement at the COP. Listen on for more.

Welcome to the Power Shift Decolonising Development, the podcast series seeking to bring together thinkers, practitioners, activists, to share ideas, inspire change, and identify tools for practical action. I’m Professor Bird, a socio economist and director of the Development Hub. Today’s co host is Dr. Nompilo Ndlovu. Over to you, Nompilo.

Nompilo: Hello, I’m Dr. Nompilo Ndlovu. I’m a Zimbabwean living and working in South Africa. I’m an oral historian who applies gender frameworks to my work with communities in Africa. Recent work has included involvement in a mixed method study [00:02:00] on poverty dynamics in Zimbabwe, where I led the work on gender and marginalisation. My PhD focused on mass violence, memory, and local transitional justice in post colonial Zimbabwe. Back to you, Kate. 

Kate: Thanks, Nompilo. Today we’re very excited to be talking to Asif Saleh, Executive Director of BRAC. BRAC is an internationally influential INGO headquartered in Bangladesh. He has over 26 years of leadership experience in fields as diverse as banking, policymaking, development and communications, and has worked both nationally and internationally.

He became an Asia 21 Fellow of the Asia Society in 2008 and was acknowledged as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2013, and is a non resident fellow at the Center for Global Development, amongst other roles. For more on Asif, BRAC, and their work, click on the show notes below this episode. For our first question, over to you, Nompilo. 

Nompilo: Thank you. Asif, could you provide our listeners and viewers with a brief overview of BRAC and its work? Focusing [00:03:00] particularly on BRAC’s journey from being a national NGO in Bangladesh to becoming an international development actor?

Asif: First of all, thank you so much for having me, Professor Bird and Nompilo.

Really appreciate the opportunity to speak about BRAC in this podcast. BRAC is now absolutely a very large NGO, but it didn’t start as this. There wasn’t this grand plan of becoming such a large NGO. But the whole idea behind starting BRAC started within our idea that everybody has potential, but there are various external reasons why people cannot fulfill those potential. So BRAC wanted to provide some of those tools so that they could access those tools and bring about change in themselves. In 1971, when Bangladesh got liberated, we had about 10 million refugees who were based in India and they were coming back after the liberation war and our founder who sold his flat in London was at that time working at the private sector, came back to [00:04:00] Bangladesh and decided that he’s going to work to rebuild the country and support these refugees.

But then very soon we saw that people after getting the short term relief, they turned into looking for livelihood opportunities. And that’s when BRAC started changing its way of working and looking for what are the sort of going into the deeper reason of poverty. And that’s where I think essentially, microfinance started as a tool for access to finance, then Bangladesh at that time was about second largest, second poorest country in the world. Households had about seven children. So population control became the big focus going forward. And then when we asked the parents why aren’t they not doing population control, they said that we don’t know how many children will survive.

Child mortality was very high at that time. So, BRAC then focused into reducing child mortality, so going into the health, teaching mothers how to make oral rehydration saline in their households. There was a big communication campaign, and then it went into every single household in [00:05:00] Bangladesh, and taught mothers how to make oral rehydration saline with indigenous materials.

And that gave BRAC this huge confidence about scale. And the idea for that small is beautiful, but large is necessary for resource constrained countries like us became embedded in the DNA of the organisation. So I think after that, in the 80s, we focused on large scale immunisation campaign working with the government.

So by the end of the 80s, child mortality dramatically reduced because there was both an effort on diarrheal disease and vaccination. Then we focused on education, particularly girls education. And then the one room school model was created. And then, over time, this whole process of piloting, then perfecting it for scale, and then scaling up, led us to grow the number of schools to about 64, 000 by 2009.

So we ran 64, 000 schools. About 15 million children graduated from our schools. 70 percent of them are girls. And so this is central part of BRAC’s development philosophy is that women needs to be a [00:06:00] big part of this development management because they are the best managers of their home.

They invest in a best way for their families, and they save and so our core focus became how do we get women more educated, invest in them and get them out of their homes. And intently basically continuously looking and hearing from the community both in terms of what were the sources of the problem, but getting into that deeper reasons of the underlying structural issues of poverty, and this led to market development, this led to market linkages.

 Some of the earlier work on our social enterprises, we have some of the largest social enterprises in the world. The first one that we started was practically supporting rural artisans to sell their products to the urban market. And again, these were opportunities. BRAC was looking for to create more livelihood opportunities for rural people in an economy where nothing is happening. There was nothing called private sector. So we had to build everything, build the ecosystem. So [00:07:00] we created a store called Aarong in the capital of Bangladesh, in Dhaka. And where we started selling some of these products and to the urban up markets.

So our role was to ensure that we give them the quality raw materials and the design that urban consumers were looking for the more contemporary design, but at the same time rooted into the motifs of what indigenous artisans actually created. So over time, this became very, very popular. This Aarong is now the largest and the most popular fashion brand, lifestyle brand in Bangladesh.

So this way, I know various social enterprises started like a BRAC dairy, which is a milk processing company, BRAC seeds, which produces high quality seeds for the farmers. So we have about 10 enterprises like this. We have investments. We started a bank called SME for SME purposes. The bank then started a mobile financial service company.

The ecosystem has large scale development programs, social enterprises, investments where BRAC doesn’t directly manage, but actually it generates profit and [00:08:00] the dividend comes to the mothership, the NGO. So in the broader ecosystem, we have also a university which actually does a lot of the institutional capacity building work and research work and also creates socially conscientious citizens of the future, and in 2001, we decided that we’re going to go international to take this model that worked in Bangladesh and to see whether it works in other similar post conflict regions. So we started with our work in Afghanistan in 2002. And then, over the last 20, 22 years, we expanded into 14 countries in Asia and Africa. We have a global network of technical assistance who works with big governments and big NGOs on Ultra Poor Graduation, one of our flagship program on eradicating ultra poverty.

So, essentially, there was not a big grand plan, but the idea behind BRAC and the philosophy that everybody has potential. And so we invest in people and the solutions actually come from the community. This led us to getting into that root [00:09:00] causes and then coming up with solutions and doing it well as well led us to also doing it at scale, led us to some level of financial self sustainability as an organisation. So in a number of ways it grew. So we now have about close to 100, 000 staff. Our annual budget in Bangladesh, it’s about 1. 6 billion dollars. And 80 percent of that comes from our own resources. So I think it’s a very interesting story of how a small local organisation started with very small goal eventually grew into such a huge ecosystem as well. Over to you.

Nompilo: Wow. Thank you for sharing how you guys come into the giant that you are today. I was particularly impressed by the way that you targeted women in your investment work, rural artisans, just working with people who don’t always have voice or who are outside of access, because that’s of personal interest to me. I’m so pleased to hear BRAC does that. My next question is going to speak to the Ultra Poor Graduation [00:10:00] initiative which you developed which seeks to interrupt the multi dimensional and intersecting drivers of poverty, enabling people to move out of poverty.

I know you’ve already spoken about some of these aspects already in your earlier answer. BRAC piloted and refined this approach in Bangladesh and is now applying it in other countries. And hopefully you can continue to tell us more about that. But there’s three specific sub questions to this that I’d like to ask to say.

What does BRAC mean by the title, the Ultra Poor Graduation Initiative? Who does the program target and how does the program work? The second question is, does it work equally everywhere? And lastly, is this an example of South to South learning or even circular learning? Or instead, something quite similar to the policy transfer we associate with traditional development agencies. It’s quite a few questions. Would you like me to repeat anything? 

Asif: No, I think I’m good. Thank you. I’ll start with the first one. Then if I forget, then you can come back. But I’m glad that you asked this question because this is such a flagship program of BRAC. And I think encapsulates also everything we[00:11:00] have learned about development over the years from the community and working in this issue. It all started with this whole idea that microfinance was not a solution, right? In essence, microfinance was a very important part.

Access to finance was a very important part of getting out of poverty. But it doesn’t work for everybody. And so back in the late nineties, we commissioned a research basically to understand who are these people who are not being able to pay back. What is their profile? And then that finding was very interesting that consistently across different parts of Bangladesh, we saw that about roughly 20 percent of the population who were so poor, so invisible that they needed some additional handholding beyond just getting an access to finance, right?

And a big part of that was that confidence building, that agency. And that the core philosophy of poverty is not just a poverty of income or lack of income, there are so many other issues that [00:12:00] are involved because there are class systems even in rural society, we think everybody rural or the poor are the same way, homogeneous. That’s not true. There are the invisibility that no one actually sees them because they don’t have any social status. They don’t have any way to cope with shocks. So if you give them assets, they’re going to sell the assets just to get the earnings. So these are the profile where women who were left by their husbands with their children, there were no investments, they were widows. So we targeted single women led households and then we thought that this is a group that needed all these additional interventions.

So we then designed this comprehensive program, which started with an asset transfer. And the idea behind it was that you want to get them started with an asset, but then they would need some technical training to how to use their asset.

And then they would need to have hope essentially that there is a path out of this and that path has to be shown, that this is the way you can get out of this poverty. And we looked [00:13:00] at, essentially nine different indicators in terms of looking at this multi dimensional nature of poverty.

But essentially, who will we target was a big part of this. And then, because these kinds of social protection program, mis targeting means that the real deserving people actually don’t get the support. And there’s also that because there will be that extensive support that would be given to this household.

You would also risk that potentially other people who are probably slightly better off, they would ask that. Why didn’t I get that support? And so the targeting actually starts with the villagers drawing a map and actually telling us that these are the households that you need to support. So them telling us who in their village are the most poor and need these kinds of support. So once they tell us that we went to their homes and did a wealth ranking and then looked at, you know, do they have sanitary issues? Do they have a bathroom? Do their kids go to school? Do they have more than one sources of income?

So a number of these indicators. [00:14:00] And then once they pass, then we basically said, okay, this is the family that will get the support. Then we start with an asset transfer, as I was mentioning, then training would happen, and then over a period of two years, every week, the program officer would go and visit their household and talk to them.

And this is the whole agency building, which I think is the most important part of the program. A lot of people think it’s the asset, which is the most important program. But it is that is confidence building that you can make that difference. You can change your life yourself, once they start believing it. And our founder used to say that it’s like a light bulb gets switched on and then there’s no looking back. So after this 2 year process, teaching them why they need to save, why they need to have multiple sources of income, they become more shock proof and other things.

So then we looked at those 9 indicators and then if they ticked all the boxes, then we say that they have graduated. They have graduated out of ultra poverty to poverty, so essentially it doesn’t mean that they’re better off, but they’re in a path towards self [00:15:00] actualisation and at the same time getting out of poverty as a whole.

And then why it became such a flagship program? Because back in 2002, it started in Bangladesh, and then we rolled out over time, we perfected it, and then we scaled it up. Then in 2006, we wanted to see whether this model just works in Bangladesh or in other places as well.

So a six country experimentation started. The program was implemented by other organisation in the six countries. And then there was randomised control trial that happened as well. And then the results came out in 2015. It was then the interest really exploded because it worked in all these other countries. There was one country that didn’t work. I mean, different continents. It tried, but that was more of an external reason which was not linked to the program. Then we also did a research, we’re looking at these families nine years after our intervention stopped and that was done on the London School of Economics and that showed that not only the majority of them, more than 90 percent, actually didn’t regress back to extreme ultra [00:16:00] poverty, but they actually went from strength to strength. They actually prospered far more. This is the research that was done by Dr. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, which got them the Nobel in economics and Esther said that this was the gold standard model in ultra poor graduation.

So this became our big focus in terms of that we shouldn’t be just doing this, we as in BRAC, shouldn’t be just rolling this out. This is a great model, the lessons from it can be taken by the big governments to improve their social protection program.

Other large NGOs can do the same. So then we created this group across the world who works with bigger governments and also big organisations to support them. To implement some of these learnings and some of them can be the targeting bit or bits and pieces of this program. But the idea is that if you have all these right intervention, it’s an investment, and for the governments, it’s like, you don’t have to give the give people allowances for years and years.

It’s make a one time investment and this handholding and then they’re off to become a very productive force for the economy. So this [00:17:00] is our big advocacy goal as well, that extreme poverty agenda is the G1, it has to be our top priority and how can we ensure that governments actually take these lessons and move up and meet these SDG targets.

 I think that kind of answers your question around whether it works equally well everywhere because it’s now getting replicated in 46 countries. Not necessarily just by BRAC, but other organisations. It is being replicated in refugee contexts, is being replicated in climate contexts, urban contexts in different contexts with different adaptation of the model.

 I think so far everything that is out there, we believe that this is one of the most effective tools in eradicating ultra poverty and ultra poverty is not even extreme poverty. Extreme poverty defined by World Bank has this number $1.95. Ultra poverty is even half of them are below. So they’re very, very, very poor, this invisible group of people that you don’t typically actually see. So how they can become a very powerful, productive force of economy, this model actually highlights that. Now, is this an example of South South [00:18:00] learning or even circular learning? I would definitely say that because the knowledge and learning, I think it’s very important that it’s something that we are challenging in all our program design. It cannot be just from North to South. It can be from South to South. It can be South to North. It can be South, South, North as well. So I think it’s very, very important. There are lots of lessons where we got some of the best experts from the North as well.

For example, the one room school model I was telling you about. That curriculum design in terms of what should be in the curriculum, we got some of the best experts from around the world, from New Zealand, from Finland, who basically advised us because we wanted to also move out from rote based learning to joyful learning.

So we wanted to create leadership, everything in that module. So that’s something we understood from Northern experts. But then how to deliver that within our own context, that’s where our social innovation came. Our innovation came in how to contextualise it. So the best of both worlds [00:19:00] happened and then it became one of the most important effective way of low cost education, which were very effective and that can be done at scale across any context.

It was done in boats. It was done in refugee settings. It was done in other various other slum settings, urban settings and other places. So infrastructure became less important. The curriculum, the delivery, the teacher, the community’s involvement, all of them became more important. So, innovation was not product focused, but more on how do you assemble a package and solution.

So I would say that the South South learning actually doesn’t happen because I think the core of it is really about understanding that you don’t have a lot of resources in the South. So I think this is one of the things that works for us that when you do the program design, oftentimes scale is not being thought about because you have number of resources and you have a very project based mentality. So you do something very beautifully in a small setting. So you don’t actually think about creating model that can be scaled. So that’s something we challenge. And that’s oftentimes one of the pet peeves of [00:20:00] Northern NGOs that I have, which is that they often come with prescriptive models, that this is the model that works, but those models oftentimes actually don’t work at scale.

They’re not working because they are not cost effective, they’re not optimised for scale. So I’d say from a learning perspective, South to South scale is very important. So I think that’s why this has worked in other places as well. Not only the design, but it’s focused on keeping the cost low, keeping it efficient and keeping community very much embedded involved in the whole process.

Nompilo: Okay, wow, what a full answer. Thank you Mr. Saleh for explaining what ultra poor means in this context in comparison to other terminologies such as extreme poor, chronic poor. I think that was quite an interesting category to show, and how you often say that ultra poor are invisible.

So once again you continue to show your targeting in development of people who are often not represented by stats and figures and geography. I just wanted to note how the work of BRAC has become so influential in terms of how it’s contending with worldviews and development, and I enjoyed your example[00:21:00] which showed your effective entry points.

And it reminded me actually of research that Kate and I did in Zimbabwe. Chronic poverty dynamics and wealth indicators, we, as BRAC is also doing in the Zimbabwe rural areas and township communities, we actually determined that the locals themselves would highlight what they termed as poor, what they termed as well off, what they thought were the ultra poor and that whatever initiatives were going to be given or shared were actually defined by the local community and how we changed the conversation and the power dynamics and just how it became interesting to see what different indicators are marked.

So I’m just really remembering my own work just from hearing your experience and I imagine when you work with such scale as you do, the locals in that context know best. Let me move on to the next question. BRAC is now acting as a broker for USAID. This seeks to reduce USAID’s risk exposure as they localise and enable them to partner with development NGOs and other development actors genuinely rooted in the Global South or majority world. BRAC will provide [00:22:00] accompaniment and mentoring with the aim of supporting the growth of development actors capable of scale and reach. So scale comes up again. This could contribute to genuine change in the development ecosystem. Is my description correct? And can you tell us more about this program and its ambitions?

Asif: Thank you. Yes, we’re quite excited about this new initiative because I think there’s a lot of conversation happening around localisation. But what happens is in the humanitarian sector as well as development sector is that that you get into this very chicken and egg debate that, ” oh, we don’t invest. We don’t actually give the money to local organisations because they’re very risky.” Then they don’t have capacity. And then you go to the local organisations, they basically said that “hey, we have to work as sub vendors for these NGOs, and they give us 2% overhead.”

So how do you think I will invest in my capacity? And even if one or two resources are doing well, where I’ve invested, they get posed by the INGOs, with double or [00:23:00] three times the salary. So you don’t have capacity. You don’t invest in capacity. You don’t give money to local organisations. So localisation actually never happens.

There’s a lot of talk about it, but actually doesn’t happen. So we saw that with USAID, a couple of years ago, it was 94% of the grants actually were mostly done by non local actors. So localisation actually doesn’t materialise because of this reasons. So we wanted to crack that, right? We also get asked quite a bit that our own learning has been that if you invest in a local organisation, I’ve told you the trajectory of BRAC, this was because there was investment in BRAC, and then there was vision, but there was also investment on BRAC, and we had strategic partnership with FCDO for 10 years where they gave us core funding, the first organisation to give us core funding, which actually helped us to really develop some of these systems in place.

 I think these investments are very important. So we started this in humanitarian sector that let [00:24:00] us absorb the risk for our donors. So, Global Affairs Canada worked with them in the Rohingya refugee camps, similar situation, so we said, okay, Global Affairs Canada, you give us the funding.

We’re not going to do this for implementation, but what we will do is manage this fund for you and we absorb the risk from your side. But then we will look at identifying all these NGOs and categorise them based on their own capacity and capacity needs. And then very specific customised approach to develop those systems and capacity will be made.

If some organisation is poor on safeguarding, we will work with them on safeguarding. If some organisation needs grant management support, we will work with them and grant management support, HR, finance, whatever that is. So it will be very specific so that you can hold us accountable. And also we can see the improvement in these organisations.

But at the same time, they will work on a direct project, so they can also continue to run their organisation. And then after a few years, they should be directly applying to funding for Global Affairs Canada. So we started and the first year went [00:25:00] really well.

So then a similar conversation started with USAID for the rest of Bangladesh. And then they launched a call and we applied for this. So I think this is a very similar model where the diagnostics will happen so that smaller NGO with great ideas also doesn’t get left out because they don’t have the systems in place.

But at the same time, we will ensure that this doesn’t become a self perpetuating thing where we will be continuously doing fund management, but really help create more local strong organisation that can get other funding to thrive and come up with the best solutions as well from their own vantage point.

I hear this in Cox’s Bazaar, I hear that in Bangladesh, in other local contexts. I talk about localisation in World Economic Forum in Africa and other places. Every organisation has the same issue. I heard that in Dubai when a guy from Lebanon came about in a panel who basically asked me, ” hey, I came to this big education conference thinking that all these commitments are being [00:26:00] made for finances and I’m running schools because our education system is broken. But how do I access these funds? I will have no chance to get access to these funds, but we’re here and all these commitments coming in.” So I think we need to break this, right? Essentially, that’s the idea, let’s see if we can come up with this model. We just announced this 3 days ago, we are working out the exact modality now and officially we’re going to do the corporate proposals in February, but our humanitarian expense is pretty good. But I think this is probably the first attempt to really take this head on and trying to really holding an organisation accountable to ensure that both things can happen, that the organisations can thrive as well, do their own work, but at the same time in parallel, very specific, customised capacity enhancements happen so that they can over time directly be eligible for funding. So we want to create more BRACs around the world. That’s the idea.

Nompilo: Okay, over to you, Kate, for the next question.

Kate: Thank you, Nompilo, and thank you, Asif. That was a really helpful description of how BRAC has [00:27:00] evolved over time, how it’s achieved scale, and also how it’s moved into this role of acting almost as a broker to support the transfer of funds to organisations in the Global South and majority world that wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to access them and benefit from them.

Thank you. So, Asif, as the executive director of one of the most famous international NGOs, and certainly one based in the majority world, in a subcontinent once colonised by the British and later regarded as a development basket case, BRAC is now a trusted partner of bilateral donors. So that role evolution has taken place and your role now as the CEO of BRAC gives you a seat at the table.

These contrasting experiences, once a basket case, now at the table, give you perhaps a unique insight into racism and colonial attitudes within the development and humanitarian sectors. Can you share [00:28:00] your thoughts on this with our listeners and viewers?

Asif: This is a loaded question, but essentially I lived part of my life in the Western world as well.

So I was an immigrant, and then I came back to my home country. When you’re an immigrant, you cannot be just equal to the natives, you have to be much better than them just to be equal. So in the development space, it’s similar, right? I think there are all these perceptions about local organisations, Global South organisations that cannot talk the talk.

They’re just quote unquote implementers. And they don’t understand the bigger picture. And there is this pooh-poohing of the delivery, which is the most important part, essentially, right? That is the science. That is where your innovation comes from, how you deliver things on the ground.

Most of the organisations that are traditionally development Western NGOs, they leave the implementation part to local organisations at a very cheap 2%, 3% [00:29:00] overhead cost. And they don’t want to deal with it. They just want to report and making sure that everything is checked off the as per the donor requirement.

They get focused on the compliance and but that’s where they miss out because unless you have the on the ground experience, you don’t actually learn by doing, you don’t actually learn what is working. So it reflects on how you design your future intervention and other things.

So essentially, I think one, I’m going back to your original question that I feel that this pooh-poohing of this implementation bit, I think it’s a big mistake, right? I feel that that’s always there. So you have to prove yourself you not only know what you’re doing on the ground, you’re generating insights of that, but in the same time, you also have to be able to speak in a way that they understand, which is often not talked about. Just to give you an example in the humanitarian context, when the Rohingya refugees came into Bangladesh, we were asked by UNHCR to come in and support, because we don’t traditionally work in the humanitarian sector, but our people, when [00:30:00] they went, they were drawn into these sectoral meetings.

Because in humanity, you have to coordinate with a lot of people, a lot of organisations, thrown into all these foreign experts who have come in and speaking in great English, and there was this whole language barrier. Our people were terrified that they wouldn’t speak that much because there was that issue.

And it translated into, they didn’t know what they were doing, but it’s exactly the opposite, right? So they were all about standards, this and that. But I think that this is often the unspoken truth. I don’t think essentially where decisions get made, the big tables that you mentioned, Kate, you have to also prove yourself that you are at that part.

In the past, I had to basically tell people that, “Oh, I worked at Goldman Sachs for 12 years.” Oh, then they would look back at me. Oh, okay. So they automatically put me in a different bracket. All right. But the guy who did not work at Goldman Sachs, but had great experience and really understands the community, he would not get that access probably, [00:31:00] because he doesn’t speak that language. He doesn’t drink wine with them. So I think there is that like good old boys club thing, that is there, right? And, essentially, you’re exactly right. Now I go there, I do have access to that, but I also see that others do not have access to that as well. Right? So I think it does put us in this unique advantage point. And that’s why we do want to open it up, and we do want to have a broader conversation about how development needs to be done differently, right? And there is this huge backlash now against international aid.

We see the world is getting so much polarised. Everybody’s looking internally with right wing governments are coming to power everywhere. How would we even talk about SDG targets as a whole? What’s going to happen if everybody’s defending themselves, looking inwards, what’s going to happen to the rest of the world as a whole, right? But then you then also ask that question that it’s not just about giving international aid or it’s really that if I were also the citizens of these countries, I would also want to know [00:32:00] and ask whether these money were spent effectively, where the money was actually really going on the ground, how much money was actually spent on all the flurries as opposed to really on the ground. There’s some scandalous thing that you have these millions of dollars of projects where the head of the project, their children have to be going to school in American schools. They’re going to be staying in the most fanciest residential community. And then the guy in the field, everything is getting squeezed at the bottom level, so those questions need to be asked, right?

Essentially, ensuring that the money that is allocated are spent efficiently and you’re just not coming up with stories and anecdotal stories. These are actually research. Evidence is generated on the impact and effectiveness of the program, right? Both from a cost efficiency and optimisation perspective, because if you spend 10,000,000 dollars but you’re working in just 2 sub districts with a very small amount of population, anything you do, you can show an impact. But is [00:33:00] that impact the best that we could buy in terms of what those 10 million could do? We need to ask those questions, right? So I think in a sense that globally, we need to as there are huge resource constraint everywhere.

There are more and more crisis happening everywhere. There’s climate change coming. It has become a dog eat dog world. Everybody’s fighting for resources, but I think this is a great opportunity to think how do you do differently, more effectively ?Localisation is just one part of it, but then you need to look at also the other parts like, how do you stop thinking just from a project based mentality?

How do you do much more longer term thinking? How do you have a vision on how do you see this change? How do you really build capacity within a community so that when you’re not there, they can continue with the work? So localisation is not about just a zip code that the organisation needs to be in this country. This is happening now. International organisations are also registering locally and then having a local board and basically saying I’m a local [00:34:00] organisations, but it needs to be much broader than that. I think it’s really focused on implementation. You need to be doing that. How you design your program cannot be prescriptive.

It has to be need basis, has to be demand based on the local community. So a lot of broader issues, but I think essentially, going back to your original question, not everybody has access to those tables. And this is why as we are, we have some visibility. We are trying to influence and change the debate around this because everywhere in the world we see, we hear the same things. But I think it’s about time that we change that.

Kate: Thank you, Asif. I absolutely agree. And I think it’s interesting that you tied together a whole set of themes there about elitist gatekeeping and whose voice counts at the top table. You flagged aid as investment and how aid is absolutely necessary in the world that we’re living in at the moment.

And with the rise of right wing thinking that perhaps, aid is being discounted and the role it has in resolving national and global problems is something that’s really important. And then you bring us [00:35:00] on to the thought of aid effectiveness, and how localisation and the decolonisation of development can increase and improve the effectiveness of the aid that’s being spent.

And you give lots of examples there about the squandering of resources on unnecessary expenditures. So thank you very much for that. And I look forward to hearing more about your collaboration with USAID in the weeks and months to come and how you’re opening the door to other majority world actors to grow, expand and embed their effectiveness in their national country contexts.

I’d like to move on now to think about the climate crisis. A Bangladeshi organisation like BRAC, which has now become international and transnational, is perhaps very well placed to think about the climate crisis. I think the climate crisis is on everyone’s mind at the moment, and Bangladesh is a low lying delta, is on the front line of the crisis. What do you think the international development community needs to do differently to better support people [00:36:00] in countries like Bangladesh to adapt as the climate crisis unfolds? 

Asif: Thank you. We’re right on the verge of another COP meeting. I think the whole climate community is going to basically crowd Dubai in a few days.

And this is a huge issue. A lot of the things that we talked about in terms of doing development differently is also applicable very much for climate change. For us right now, for countries like Bangladesh and other climate vulnerable countries, conversation has really shifted over the last 15 years. Right? First, it was like, oh, you don’t need to do adaptation because we are focusing on mitigation. So let’s all focus on mitigation and so that you don’t need to do any adaptation. Adaptation was a dirty word. Then it became more about let’s get this adaptation money, but we’ll put that money in a structure which will allocate money for the rest of the world.

And then it became the country level, you guys need to have all the plans in place. How are we going to use the money when you get it? I was in a forum in [00:37:00] September where, I forgot the country, but one of the climate vulnerable, I think it was Maldives. I basically said that we’ve got all the plans now, we’ve got the projects. In Bangladesh, we are sitting in three or four different plans, the national adaptation plan, prosperity plan, this and that, but we need money on the ground, right? So it’s almost like adaptation money was given to an entity, I reapplied 4 or 5 years ago for accreditation, green climate fund, huge bureaucratic process.

We didn’t hear anything forever. So local organisations, the 10% of the adaptation money has gone in the ground right now, 3% has gone into local organisations of that. We launched a video from my experience the day before yesterday, going back to the community and seeing what’s happening right now is a slow onset shifts that are happening.

I think that story really need to be told in a different way and we’re trying to tell that story. But that means that the plans are done, the commitments were made, all these sort of [00:38:00] structures that have been made, but money is not showing up on the ground.

So a lot of intermediaries are coming in being created and all of this. So I think 


Asif: so I think those are the things that we are advocating because in Bangladesh, 2000 people are coming to the capital every day. And we see now the slums. It’s all coming from about 63% of the population who are migrating and squatting in these slums.

They are coming from 10 districts, which are mostly coastal districts, and they are mostly coming because of your oceans and other livelihood related reasons. So for them, climate change is very real. It’s happening. There is no water in those areas because salinity has taken over. They cannot use their lands anymore.

And I welcome the audience to see the video and I’ll share the link that you can perhaps share this, which will become very real for them that you know how the vulnerability is very different. And it’s not like one fine morning in 2050, we are going to see so many people displaced, so many landloss. This is happening as we speak, right?

Kate: Thank you, Asif. And we will definitely include that video link in the show notes so if [00:39:00] our listeners and viewers are interested in following up on that, they can do so. I’m certainly going to be watching what happens at the COP and listening for the points that you’ve made to make it through into the negotiations and hopefully get taken very seriously.

Because I know from my own work in Rwanda, in Cambodia and in Zimbabwe, that climate change is having a very real impact on people’s lives. And as you’ve said, different people are differentially affected and if you’re vulnerable to begin with, the impact of climate change can push you down into levels of well being which are just completely unacceptable.

And so I completely endorse and support the point that you’ve made about it needing to be grant funding for adaptation rather than any kind of loan or nonsense like that. So thank you very much for those points. So we’re coming to the end of our conversation now, Asif, and I’d like to thank you for covering so much ground in a relatively short space of time.

The last thing that I would like to ask you about is to finish up, can you identify a practical [00:40:00] first step that our listeners and viewers can take to support anti racism and decolonisation? Whether they work in the development sector or are simply members of the engaged general public. So a practical first step, please.

Asif: I think we suffer a lot from our own insecurities. When I say we, I say particularly the Global South organisations. It’s really important to recognise that what we are all doing on the ground, that is the most important for the delivery at the front.

So people can do fancy PowerPoint presentation, people can do really good TED talks, but end of the day, what the rubber hits the road is when the delivery happens. So you’ve got to be really proud of what you’re doing. Be confident of articulating that. Don’t feel inferior because somebody is speaking better English or somebody is a better articulator than you.

Tell your stories in a authentic way, the work that you’re doing on the ground actually gives you that authenticity, right? [00:41:00] It’s not some guy sitting in a DC room who’s going to prescribing proposals that you should implement and they’re holding you in compliance.

So that’s very important. And I think it’s also important for coalition building. I think that maybe a first step or second step is really find allies and coalitions to get your voices heard loudly. And thank you again, Kate, for giving this platform as well through your podcast and other means to amplify these voices as well.

What I see is that more and more organisations are coming up, they’re calling things out, they’re questioning how they are termed risky when their billions of dollars of funds are actually not being handled in a very transparent way. You’ve seen some articles in Devex few days ago. There was a massive story on this. Calling this out is also important. So be curious, be confident, find allies, build coalition. And amplify your voice through various means. 

Kate: Thank you, Asif. That was, thank you. That was a lovely end to our conversation. And [00:42:00] I’ve been so thrilled to have you here on the podcast as a global leader of development thinking.

And a brilliant example of leading from the South. I’m so delighted. So thank you for making time to talk to me and my colleague Nompilo. Nompilo, would you like to say goodbye as well?

Nompilo: Thank you Asif for reminding us how private government, NGO and international communities can work together in synergy ultimately to push the agenda of local communities.

You use so many examples and there’s so many lessons that I learned from today’s conversation. Thank you so much.

Asif: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity to be able to speak. I spoke very candidly maybe in some ways, politically incorrectly, but that’s that’s how I feel.

And I think it’s really important to get our voices out there. And again, I don’t want to make it confrontational. As I was mentioning that end of the day, we all can win when there is collaboration. We all have our strengths. And again, it’s [00:43:00] can be a South South collaboration, it can be North South collaboration, it can be South South North collaboration. There is many ways, but we need to understand and really appreciate the strength and not sort of pooh-pooh certain things and glorify certain things, because I think in this whole ecosystem, there is a role to be played by everyone. So just want to appreciate that. And thank you for the opportunity to amplify my voice again, thanks a lot. 

Kate: Thank you so much, Asif.

This weeks guest:

Asif Saleh is the Executive Director of BRAC.

He brings a multi-sectoral experience in senior leadership roles in private, public, and non-government arenas, with a proven track record of effectively managing development programming, operational and financial sustainability, and building effective partnerships. Prior to joining BRAC, he was a policy specialist for the Prime Minister’s Office’s Access to Information (A2i) programme. He spent 12 years in Goldman Sachs in different fin-tech roles and institutional client sales in New York and London, ending his term there as an Executive Director. He has also worked in Glaxo Wellcome, IBM and Nortel. He is a non-resident fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. Mr Saleh chairs BRAC IT Services Limited, co-chairs BRAC Net, and is on the Board of BRAC Bank, bKash and edotco Bangladesh Ltd. He was recognised for his work by Asia Society’s Asia 21 programme in 2008, the Bangladeshi American Foundation in 2007, and was selected as an Asia 21 Fellow in 2012. He was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2013. Mr Saleh holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science and an MBA from the Stern School of Business, New York University.

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