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Value-Added: A Case study of the BRAC-AKFC Partnership

Case Studies Prepared for the Canadian Council for International Co-operation
March 2003

Lessons in Aid Effectiveness from Civil Society
Value-Added: A Case Study of the BRAC-AKFC Partnership
Aga Khan Foundation Canada

From its modest beginnings as a Bangladeshi relief and rehabilitation organization over 30 years ago, BRAC has transformed itself into the world’s largest indigenous NGO: a multi-faceted development organization with over 60,000 staff and an annual budget of approximately US$166 million1. Today, BRAC promotes a holistic and innovative approach to poverty alleviation and empowerment for the rural landless poor in Bangladesh, mostly women, through micro-credit, rural development, health, education and training programs.

Twenty percent of this programming is funded by donors, including DFID, EC, UNICEF, WFP, DANIDA, DGIS, Save the Children, the Rockefeller Foundation and CIDA/AKFC, among others. In order to fund the remainder—as well as to link poor rural producers with expanding urban markets—BRAC also engages in a number of commercial enterprises, including BRAC Dairy; Aarong, a chain of retail handicraft stores; poultry farms and feed mills; BRAC Printers; a cold storage; sericulture grainage and reeling centers; fish and prawn hatcheries; and a bull station. In 1999, BRAC ventured into the information technology sector through the BRAC Information Technology Institute and, in 2001, widened its portfolio of initiatives to include BRAC University and BRAC Bank.

By any account, BRAC is one of the most capable and successful southern NGOs in existence today. In its early days, it received support from a number of international development NGOs, including Oxfam, for its relief efforts after the war of independence. In the 1980s, Inter Pares supported the start-up of BRAC’s successful primary education program. BRAC also called on Canadian NGO expertise to strengthen its gender capacity in the early 1990s. IN 1989, when BRAC first approached CIDA for support to its Rural Development Program, it specifically requested that the support be channeled through a Canadian partner organization: Aga Khan Foundation Canada. The question that immediately arises is why an NGO that has the capacity to deal with donors directly would request a Canadian NGO to act as an intermediary.

The answer, we believe, lies in the value-added that north-south civil society partnerships bring to the development process. Just as there is value in the roles for government-to-government partnerships that CIDA describes and promotes in its recent policy for aid effectiveness, there is also an intrinsic value in north-south partnerships between civil society organizations that manifests itself in expanding notions of global citizenship as well as improved practice and capacity for shared learning.

Southern civic partners represent the interests of their constituencies and clients, in many cases to a greater extent than their governments do, and are the true face of local ownership in civil society. BRAC, for example, works in 60,627 villages in all 64 districts of Bangladesh, covering a population of almost 68 million people. Its field staff live in the villages and have day-to-day contact with the beneficiaries they serve, allowing them to be in tune with the people’s problems and needs. Often, it is these southern partners that bring the voice of the people to their governments. Last year, at a meeting of district level officials in north Bengal, BRAC brought in one of the beneficiaries of its new poverty reduction project for the ultrapoor to speak directly to the audience. The woman spoke clearly and plainly of her daily struggle for survival. Disturbed and moved, many of the government officials present put their hands into their pockets then and there to try and help her. BRAC staff, however, emphasized the fact that policy changes and increased government programming for the ultrapoor would be a better, longer-term solution, not only for the woman, but also for the millions like her.

Making Connections: Building Global Citizenship

Just as southern civil society organizations represent the interests of their people to their own governments, northern partners represent the face of Canadian development assistance to Canadians. Through their partnerships with southern CSOs, Canadian organizations make links between ordinary Canadians and ordinary people in the developing world; they bring the stories of development home to Canadians. For example, through the development education component of its programming, AKFC sponsored the Vanishing Voices seminar series, featuring BRAC in a video entitled "Whatever Happened to Bangladesh?" The seminar series challenged Canadians to think critically about whether they are receiving the information they deserve and need about the successful development work they support overseas.

Similarly, AKFC’s University Seminar Series engages young Canadians in an interactive learning experience, allowing them to gain a practical understanding of key development issues as they relate to the design and implementation of projects in the field. The 2001 Series, titled "Investing in Communities", featured a speaker from BRAC’s Non-Formal Primary Education program who brought alive for the audience the successes and the challenges of educating over a million disadvantaged Bangladeshi children in BRAC’s 34,000 non-formal primary schools. These direct linkages between Canadians and the daily lives and struggles of people in developing countries would be highly unlikely in a world dominated by government-to-government partnerships.

Shared Learning - Mutual Benefits

North-south partnerships between civil society organizations are also mutually beneficial to both partners. They are predicated on the belief that the process of development entails more than just investing financial resources and tracking results. It is a process that requires the sharing of intellectual resources, knowledge and ideas, as well as the benefits that accrue from the process. This is the underlying philosophy that has guided AKFC’s partnership with BRAC.

In 1990, when AKFC and CIDA first began supporting BRAC, AKFC developed a demand-driven package of activities—dubbed the Canadian Component—designed to bring added value and mutual benefit to its partnership with BRAC, as well as to build on the core competencies and strengths of both organizations. Over the years, this package of activities has included elements such as staff development and technical assistance for BRAC, learning exchanges, research and publications, development education activities, and internships, the broad objectives of which have been to strengthen the effectiveness of BRAC’s development interventions and, at the same time, to bring the lessons and best practices from the field home to Canadians and to the development community at large.

AKFC has played a particular role in reciprocal north-south civil society partnerships through research studies and publications undertaken in collaboration with southern partners, including BRAC. Comparative in nature, these publications have capitalized on the experiences of southern NGOs and have added to the wider body of knowledge on successful development practices. For example, Managing for Change: Leadership, Strategy and Management in Asian NGOs addresses the key operational issues facing NGO managers by drawing lessons from the reality of southern CSOs. Similarly, Speaking Out: Women’s Economic Empowerment in South Asia examines the economic empowerment strategies pursued by seven South Asian organizations working with women. These publications, while useful as a record of best practices, have also functioned as launching pads for discussion and debate on larger policy issues, both within Canada and abroad.

Making Connections: Sharing Strengths

Partnerships between northern and southern NGOs can also bring benefits to other organizations outside the formal partnership. AKFC, by accessing the extensive resources of the wider Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), often brokers a cross-fertilization of ideas, innovations and information among southern partners. For example, through the learning exchange element of its programming, AKFC is sponsoring a high-level BRAC contingent to visit Aga Khan University’s Institute of Educational Development (AKU-IED) in Pakistan in order to discuss linkages between AKU-IED and BRAC’s new post-primary basic education initiative. Similarly, southern NGO partners such as the Mountain Societies Development Support Program in Tajikistan and the North Coast Rural Support Program in Mozambique have visited BRAC to take advantage of its expertise in the areas of rural development and microfinance.

In the same way, AKFC brings expertise and experiences from other partnerships in helping BRAC grapple with the larger issues of sustainability, good management and governance, and long-term vision through its participation in BRAC’s Donor Consortium (DC). Through this forum, AKFC, along with NOVIB, a Dutch partner organization, is able to bring a unique NGO perspective to the state-donor dominated consortium. Often, this entails supporting BRAC by mediating relations within the DC to ensure that state-donor priorities do not overwhelm BRAC’s priorities and best interests, thereby fostering local ownership of the development process. Furthermore, because of its long-term field presence, its knowledge of the local culture, language and context, its nurturing approach, its interest in the day-to-day affairs of the organization, as well as its designation as an NGO rather than a donor agency, AKFC is seen as a trusted partner by BRAC and therefore has better access to and understanding of the work of the organization than most donors. This benefit is then passed on to CIDA in the form of better project management, accountability and reporting.

Looking Ahead - Shared Commitment

In the twelve years since it formally began, the partnership between BRAC and AKFC has evolved and deepened. BRAC views AKFC not simply as a donor or as a project ‘executing agency’, but as a trusted friend accompanying it on the road to a brighter future for Bangladesh. In 2001, when CIDA decided to fund BRAC’s new Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction (CFPR) project directly rather than go through a Canadian partner organization, BRAC indicated its disappointment with the decision because it recognizes the value of partnerships between civil society organizations. BRAC’s commitment to poverty reduction in Bangladesh coupled with AKFC’s long-term commitment to support BRAC has fostered a deep and lasting relationship between the two organizations, one that has not only benefited BRAC and AKFC, but also the development community in Canada and abroad.

Today, BRAC as an organization is even more capable of dealing with donors directly than it was twelve years ago. Despite this, BRAC is still enthusiastic about partnering with AKFC. Discussions are currently underway for BRAC, AKFC and CIDA to collaborate on an innovative research and learning initiative based on BRAC’s new project for reaching the ultrapoor. The next phase of BRAC’s non-formal primary education program also represents an opportunity for collaboration and continued partnership between BRAC and AKFC.

However, our partnership with BRAC, although unique in its own way, is not uncharacteristic of the relationships that we share with many southern partners. The fundamentals of the reciprocal partnership approach, of bringing added value to Canada’s development assistance dollars and of building on each other’s strengths, are also reflective of our relationships with other partners. AKFC’s approach multiplied by the number of other Canadian civil society organizations with similar approaches results in significant cumulative value-added to the development process, both in Canada and in the developing world. 

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1 2002 Projected Budget, BRAC Annual Report 2001.

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