Healthcare, powered commerce

Financial Times

December 12, 2007
In the village of Dorogram, two hours’ drive from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, Asia Begum sits on a chair in front of huts made of tin sheets. A hen struts near her feet on the packed dirt as Ms Begum, 45, adjusts her green sari.

She shows some visitors the green medicine satchel given to her by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, one of the world’s largest non-governmental organisations. For nearly a decade Ms Begum has served as a BRAC healthcare volunteer. In her rounds, she visits 250 villagers over a couple weeks to detect common ailments such as goitres, diarrhea, worms and colds. Patients with more serious illnesses are advised to see BRAC-trained paramedics or to go to the hospital.

Ms Begum sells simple medicines from BRAC such as cough syrup for a profit of about 7 cents.This health programme has the dual role of helping to strengthen rural healthcare while giving volunteers such as Ms Begum additional income and a respected role in the community.

This is just one of dozens of social initiatives launched by BRAC. Originally established as a relief agency after Bangladesh’s tumultuous struggle for independence, BRAC has since spawned programmes and ventures including microfinance services, a bank, salt industries, a university, a dairy, adult literacy programmes, legal aid and Aarong, a popular retail chain selling handmade clothes and crafts. If that were not enough, BRAC has begun programmes in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan.

BRAC has almost 96,000 staff and has created 6.48m jobs. About 70 per cent of its 2006 budget of $339m was financed from commercial bank loans and its money-generating business enterprises such as microfinance and retail. Its budget has steadily increased but donor contributions now account for only 30 per cent of expenditure, compared with 100 per cent in 1980.

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