50 years of Brac: an educational legacy illuminating the way

Needless to say, the towering personality of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed has left his indelible mark on the vision, mission and programs of Brac in all areas of development in which the organization has engaged. Education, in its institutional forms as well as in a generic sense, was seen by Abed as the key to empowering and empowering people to exercise choices and make decisions to shape their own life.

In September 2019, I approached Abed Bhai with a request to write the foreword for a book on education in South Asia, which two of my colleagues and I had written. I gave him some notes with great hesitation, hoping that he would read them at his leisure and give his observations and advice for a final text. I was then aware of his serious and life-threatening illness.

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This September morning, he seemed in a good mood. The 2019 Yidan Prize for Education, arguably the most prestigious and certainly the largest in monetary terms (valued at $4 million), had been announced the previous day. He glanced at the front pages of the notes and, beyond all my expectations, began to flip through the pages, making occasional comments and occasionally asking questions. He spent nearly an hour on the notes, making observations and offering suggestions.

The foreword to the book, titled “Political Economy of Education in South Asia”, published by University of Toronto Press in January 2022, was Abed Bhai’s last writing on education. Some of his thoughts and concerns are expressed in this article.

As Abed said:

In our corner of South Asia, in the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (Brac) transformed its post-conflict relief and rehabilitation operation into a reconstruction and development programme. Education was seen as a key part of our nation-building mission. Inspired by Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (1970), we launched a literacy and adult education campaign as a means of raising awareness about their situation and encouraging people to read the world, not just the word. At that time, 80% of adults could neither read nor write. Interestingly, the Brac participants, those from poverty stricken communities, told us strongly that their priority was educational opportunity for their children, as the existing primary education was not serving their children well. Nearly half of the children did not have access to primary education and most of those who enrolled had not completed this cycle.

Seeking to devise a response, in the 1980s Brac pioneered innovative one-room community centers for children aged 8 to 14, two-thirds of whom were girls, who had not entered a regular primary school. The teachers, mostly women, were drawn from the community, trained and supervised by Brac and provided with textbooks and teaching guides. It was then called non-formal primary education (ENEP), but its purpose was the same as that of primary schools: to equip children with literacy and numeracy skills and prepare them for secondary school. At its height, it served over one million children at a time, becoming the most successful non-formal primary education program in the world. Unlike formal schools, over 95% have completed the equivalent of primary education and over 80% have progressed to secondary school.

Abed lamented that such a program was still needed despite progress in expanding formal primary education, but Brac had to halt the program as donor funding dried up when bilateral and multilateral contributors began. channel all their funds directly to the government. . A new program approach under the new circumstances could be more of a partnership between Brac – and other education NGOs with demonstrated capacity – and the government to ensure inclusive, equitable and quality education for all children, as promised. in the SDG4 education program.

I first met Abed Bhai and Bahar Bhabi (Ayesha Abed) in 1973, when I was assigned to examine creative rehabilitation and rural development initiatives in post-liberation Bangladesh for the International Council for educational development in the United States. I visited the Shalla upazila projects in Sunamganj and Manikganj, which I wrote up as a case study, perhaps the first exposure of Brac in development literature, published in a book edited by Philip Coombs in 1980 .

With Abed Bhai’s encouragement, an international team from Unicef ​​(of which I was then the senior education adviser), USAID and the Rockefeller Foundation undertook an evaluation of the NFPE program in 1992 and examined its potential for major expansion. The assessment report was presented at an international donor conference in the idyllic setting of the Rockefeller Foundation Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy. Faruque Chowdhury, then adviser to Brac, represented the organization. The major bilateral agencies that were present readily pledged the support needed for a major expansion of NFPE in Bangladesh. Thus, more than 30,000 centers educating more than one million children were created in 1996.

The establishment of the University of Brac in 2001 is a testament to Abed’s unwavering faith in education. He often spoke of institutions that have endured for centuries like universities, such as Bologna in Italy, Oxford in the United Kingdom or Harvard in the United States. The undergraduate programs of the University of Brac and its graduate schools and institutes, including the Educational Development Institute of Brac, strive to offer an academic program suitable for an emerging country to middle income. Abed wrote:

At the University of Brac, we have set goals regarding the kind of people our graduates should be. We want them to have a few key attributes. They must have good written and verbal communication skills. They must be able to think critically and apply scientific reasoning to solve problems… They must be sensitive to changes in the global world. They should accept and respect the diversity and plural identities of human beings, which would serve as their moral compass.

In his last written article on education, Abed Bhai made a sober note:

Today, in the era of post-truth and alternate reality, amplified exponentially by social media powered by digital technology algorithms, the very idea of ​​progress is being challenged. In South Asia and elsewhere, the rise of ultra-nationalism, rejection of pluralism and secular humanism, self-interested populism, xenophobic tendencies and majority subversion of democratic institutions and values ​​emerged as new threats for human progress. Education itself risks being hijacked to serve these retrograde forces. The role of quality education – and of the wider education community, including teachers, parents and students – in reclaiming the very idea of ​​progress is more important than ever.

The words of caution, the spirit and the philosophy behind them are especially relevant in today’s world. Let Brac’s legacy continue to light the way.

Dr Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at the University of Brac.