Community dynamics

Abed’s story is the perfect example of development aid which is entirely based on the actual needs of the grantees. A problem found in many types of aid is that it is more of a projection of the do-gooders than a solution to realistic problems. This meant that Abed and his team initially focused on observing and analysing the community dynamics: what are the power relations? Who influences whom? Which factors have the most impact? How and in what stages does the poor-poorer-poorest process work? Armed with this valuable information, BRAC started developing a method that focused on real life problems, culture, relations and gender.

Door to door for ten years

Abed gives an example from the 1970s: “On average women had seven children. We saw infant mortality in Bangladesh going through the roof and recognised that we would never be able to reduce the number of births without first dealing with infant mortality. To achieve this, we invested heavily in providing information on the importance of fluids when dehydrated by diarrhoea, which was the number one cause of death at the time. 
“For ten years we went door to door to inform and train mothers. The results? Initially they were discouraging: less than 17% of mothers applied the knowledge and skills to keep their infants alive. But we didn’t give up. Door to door we mobilised the nation. A decade long, until we had reached every household in the country. Infant mortality due to diarrhoea dropped by 80%, deaths of children under five dropped from one in four to 38 in a thousand.”

Giving women a choice

Abed looks at me triumphantly to see the effect of these figures. A light and historically explainable rivalry with neighbour India pops up: “The income per capita in India is twice as high as in Bangladesh, but infant mortality is twice as high there as in our country… Our health care has improved, our food production has tripled, our economic growth is 7% and the average number of children per family has been reduced from nearly seven to two. Yes, indeed: two… When it comes to having children, women now have a choice; a choice which we presented to them on their doorsteps.”

Abandoning failed methods

Now, 45 years later, with his ambition undiminished, Abed is everything but naive: “The world has changed and, in many ways, we have seen significant progress. At the same time, we are still fighting some of the same battles. In particular, the approach to development aid in Africa failed miserably in various aspects during the early years. Corruption is still rife in our society, yet the fundamental indicators of human life have improved considerably. I think that’s because we learned to focus on the right indicators: hard facts and figures, such as the infant mortality rate, the under-5 mortality rate, family incomes and literacy. If we don’t remain focused on these issues – the figures that tell the story of how people’s lives have actually changed – we will never be able to abandon the failed methods from the past.”

Advanced measurement methods

“What ‘works’ in development aid is a question that has to be asked and answered time and again. I am proud that we have been a learning organisation from the start; a group of people who learn from their mistakes. This learning never ends. It’s never ‘finished’. I am happy to see that other organisations are taking a similar path of research and evaluation. New, more advanced measurement methods for the impact of development aid interventions – such as random sampling with control groups – are gradually becoming the norm.”

The attribution problem

Abed fully understands critics of impact measurements and also recognises the dangers of the ‘donor darlings’ when only aiming for results. He is also aware of the so-called attribution problem: how can you determine exactly whether changes are the result of your interventions when they involve incredibly complex chain problems with a seemingly infinite number of variables? Abed: “It’s all true and it especially applies to small organisations with limited interventions. In large, more holistic projects it is relatively easier to measure one’s impact on the aforementioned hard indicators.”

The need for patient capital

Not taking the effort to determine the impact of your interventions based on the complexity or practical issues is not an option, according to Abed. “Before measuring your social impact, it is important to understand that social investments will often not have a direct result. Development markets require ‘patient capital’: money invested based on the concept that a direct financial return doesn’t apply. And sometimes there will not be any profit at all.” 
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