SEATTLE — Over the past few decades, an ethnic group known as the Rohingya has been subject to extreme poverty and inhumane persecution in southeast Asia. They are barely recognized as citizens in Myanmar, an area of the world that they have been indigenous to for centuries. Left nearly stateless, they fled to neighboring Bangladesh for refuge. The years of essential homelessness and persecution in the form of forced relocation, rape and murder have prompted many organizations to provide aid to the Rohingya. One such group is called BRAC, and its track record speaks for itself.
The Effectiveness of BRAC’s Unique Approach to Aid
BRAC was founded in 1972 as an organization to help communities in Bangladesh. It has now expanded to 11 countries in South Asia and Africa and impacts 120 million lives worldwide. It has ranked as the top non-governmental organization in the world since 2016. The Borgen Project was able to conduct an interview with Emily Coppel, the communications manager for the U.S. branch of BRAC. She spoke to BRAC’s overall approach to combating world poverty. “We take a holistic approach to alleviating poverty with programs that include microfinance, education, healthcare, food security programs and more. The organization is also unique compared to others of its size because about 75 percent of its work is self-financed through its own activity.” What sets BRAC apart is that it is self-funding. It does not simply raise money in order to funnel it towards alleviating a single problem, it establishes a stream of income in order to create lasting, sustainable change.
Coppel discussed methods BRAC has used to lift 1.8 million households in Bangladesh out of extreme poverty since the nation gained its independence. Coppel said, “The approach is a big-push effort for people who are living in destitution, often too impoverished to benefit from government or nonprofit services. It combines social protection (including health and nutrition), financial inclusion, livelihood training and social empowerment, and takes place over the course of two years with set criteria.” Even though the program ends for the families, the aid to the Rohingya does not. Once they graduate, they are then provided with connections, programs and resources to keep them out of poverty.
Nicholas Kristof, an op-ed writer for the New York Times who is a prominent voice on human rights, penned an article pertaining to the approach described by Coppel. In the article, he writes, “A vast randomized trial—the gold standard of evidence—involving 21,000 people in six countries suggests that a particular aid package … gives very poor families a significant boost that continues after the program ends.” So why does he say that this program works? Hope. “There’s some indication that one mechanism is hope. Whether in America or India, families that are stressed and impoverished—trapped in cycles of poverty—can feel a hopelessness that becomes self-fulfilling. Give people reason to hope that they can achieve a better life, and that, too, can be self-fulfilling.” It is uplifting to think that one of the most successful poverty-reducing programs was built upon something as simple and powerful as hope.
Aid to the Rohingya Has Made a Difference in Refugee Communities
About the Rohingya, Coppel said, “Over the last several decades, the organization has consistently supported influxes of Rohingya families coming into Bangladesh with services they need… Since BRAC has operated in Bangladesh for years, it was able to bring in additional staff support to provide services that were desperately needed: clean water, latrines, healthcare, clothes, food and safe spaces for women and children.” The organization was poised to help these people when their need was most dire.
Coppel described the process used by BRAC to provide aid to the Rohingya who continue to flood into Bangladesh. It is a three-phase operation, with the aid described above as phase one, followed by “Setting up for longer-term support with safe spaces for children to learn, health clinics, latrine cleaning, wells, community development and much more.” The third phase is more specific to the needs of the Rohingya, stepping beyond basic needs. “Many of our staff in the region speak a dialect similar to that of the Rohingya and we are also working with a number of Rohingya volunteers to provide culturally relevant services to people in need. Recently, we worked with Harvard and Amnesty International on a rapid needs assessment to gauge the Rohingya’s short and long-term needs, as well as that of the host community.”
This approach has worked. According to BRAC’s annual report, in 2017 alone BRAC oversaw the development of Cox’s Bazar (the area that the Rohingya were settling) by building more than 13,000 shelters, provided medical treatment for nearly 16,000 people, conducted 40,000 hygiene sessions with families and constructed 15,510 latrines, 1,437 tube wells and 4,091 bathing cubicles. On top of this, schools have been established for children as well as safe places where they can go to play and interact.
The Rohingya have shouldered the brunt of poverty, statelessness and persecution. However, after having their basic needs met and hope brought their communities, they have seen a dramatic increase in families rising out of poverty. BRAC has played the largest role in the revival of the Rohingya people, and been an example for all organizations who seek to create sustainable change.
– Zach Farrin