Global leaders from across the BRAC family discuss COVID-19 response
Join global leaders from across the BRAC family as they discuss our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, informed by nearly 50 years of experience helping communities recover from emergencies. Moderated by Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, the webinar features Dr. Muhammad Musa, Executive Director of BRAC International; Asif Saleh, Executive Director of BRAC Bangladesh; and Hasina Akhter, Area Director for BRAC’s humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Discover how play is changing lives in Tanzania and Uganda
Each day, thousands of children attend BRAC’s network of Play Labs across Bangladesh, Tanzania, and Uganda. Our flagship play-based approach to early childhood education helps children build better futures at a critical time in their development. Through play, learners develop creative and social skills, build self-confidence, and cultivate resilience. Discover the power of play in Tanzania and Uganda.
Seven years on from Rana Plaza, Bangladesh’s garment sector faces unprecedented challenges that will fiercely test its resilience. Can COVID-19 serve as a catalyst for a more responsible fashion industry?
BY LINDA PATENTAS
Global brands and retailers have canceled over $3 billion worth of apparel orders in Bangladesh since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The canceled orders comprise 980 million pieces, enough for three articles of clothing for each person in the United States.
These canceled orders spell devastation for Bangladesh’s most significant sector, which accounts for 84% of the country’s total exports. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association estimates that broken promises from fashion partners will affect over four million garment workers, the majority of whom are women living in poverty.
A humanitarian crisis with a public health dimension
For millions of garment factory workers and 10 million day laborers across Bangladesh who rely on daily wages to feed their families, the COVID-19 shutdown has already caused acute poverty and food insecurity. According to BRAC’s executive director Asif Saleh, “For Bangladesh, COVID-19 is a humanitarian crisis with a public health dimension.”
In early April, several hundred workers filled the streets protesting overdue salary payments, some alleging they had not been paid since February.
Loss of income and food insecurity can lead to conflict. BRAC’s human rights and legal services offices across the country have seen an increase in gender-based violence cases, including women who lost their jobs in the garment sector.
When garment factories closed in late March, Rakeya* filed a case against her husband, who physically abused her at home. The daughter of a landless farmer, Rakeya had moved from a rural community to Dhaka, shortly after giving birth to her first child, to find a job at a garment factory.
After COVID-19 took her job, Rakeya refused to give up the small portion of land to her husband that she had purchased with her savings. Her husband beat her and drove her out of the house, keeping their young daughter. BRAC helped Rakeya to file a case with the police and reunite her with her daughter.
BRAC’s director of human rights and legal services and social compliance, Jenefa Jabbar, says that stories like Rakeya’s are not uncommon. As both men and women lose jobs and income, domestic violence cases are on the rise. BRAC is seeing an increase in incidents of rape, suicide, child marriage, and domestic violence.
“When millions of people quickly fall back into poverty, it can result in a rapid increase in human rights abuses,” said Jenefa. “This is damaging to any society.” Indeed, one BRAC program received nearly 700 reports of violence across three weeks in late March and early April, a number of which were directly linked to the economic effects of COVID-19.
Broken promises from the global fashion industry
As governments around the world have imposed lockdowns, several major brands and retailers sent letters to Bangladeshi manufacturers calling for the immediate cancellation of orders, totaling more than $3 billion worth of goods. After an outcry from activists, some brands have promised to pay for their orders, while others have pledged to defer payments to an undefined time in the future or asked factory owners for discounts.
Bangladeshi manufacturers are also responsible for $1.96 billion worth of fabrics that go into manufacturing clothes. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association estimates that Bangladesh will lose nearly $6 billion this fiscal year as a result of order cancellations.
As we commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, where 1,134 garment workers lost their lives and more than 2,500 were severely injured, the fashion industry’s promise to be more collaborative and accountable is paramount.
This crisis demands responsible supply chains that support the millions of workers who are the backbone of the fashion industry and a commitment to inclusive partnerships that advance the dignity, safety, and opportunity of garment sector employees, especially women.
Supporting garment workers during COVID-19
It has always been BRAC’s ethos to support the most vulnerable communities. Its global response to COVID-19 has reached more than 60 million people worldwide with public health awareness activities across 11 countries.
In Bangladesh, nearly 200,000 families have received cash support of about $18, which will provide emergency relief for two weeks. BRAC has also distributed more than a million hygiene products and spread public health information about COVID-19 to 24.5 million people.
Many of these efforts have targeted geographic areas with high concentrations of apparel factories, such as Gazipur, Savar, and Tongi. According to BRAC University’s Mapped in Bangladesh, an online tool to map exporting garment factories, there are nearly 2,500 factories in Gazipur and Savar, collectively employing 3.5 million workers. Since 2017, BRAC has operated one-stop service centers for garment workers in these neighbourhoods, providing more than 125,000 people with healthcare, skills training and job placement, legal aid, microfinance, health insurance, and more.
To minimize direct contact and overcome barriers to financial inclusion, BRAC is partnering with the mobile money provider bKash to expedite new account registration and is looking to work with factory owners to digitize payments to garment workers.
BRAC has also set up hand washing stations outside of its service centers and at entrances to slum communities where garment workers live and continues to offer health, legal aid, and mental health counselling to community members through call centers.
In Bangladesh, the rate of reported COVID-19 cases is increasing at an alarming rate. Though the majority of cases remain in Dhaka, a lack of testing capacity makes it difficult to understand the full picture. As the country rapidly approaches 5,000 reported cases, BRAC is committed to standing with communities affected by COVID-19.
Hope for a renewed garment industry
In the short-term, BRAC will continue to provide immediate relief for garment workers affected by the crisis. However, the long-term implications for the global fashion industry require attention and action.
The impact of COVID-19 has highlighted the significant power imbalances between industry stakeholders across the supply chain. BRAC is eager to lead broader conversations on rebuilding a responsible industry.
Since Rana Plaza, key stakeholders in Bangladesh have been working tirelessly to ensure that the “Made in Bangladesh” brand represents a new way of manufacturing ready-made garments, where safe, decent work opportunities are the norm.
BRAC teams are exploring approaches that support vulnerable workers who have been left behind, from reskilling programmes to interventions that combat projected spikes in trafficking.
Our late founder, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, said, “BRAC has always believed that change is human-made. At the heart of everything we do is the conviction that everyone can be actors in history.”
Even as the impacts of COVID-19 destabilize the sector, can we build a renewed industry that distributes value beyond shareholders and supports the economic and social rights of workers?
The fashion industry and garment sector must unite during these challenging times so that the suffering experienced after Rana Plaza is never felt again.
*Name changed to preserve anonymity.
Linda Patentas is Program Manager for Cities, Supply Chains and Migration at BRAC USA. Support communities where garment sector workers live by donating to BRAC’s emergency relief efforts for COVID-19.
This Earth Day, we focus on the impact projects like WE SOLVE have had on both the planet and people living in poverty.
BY CHRIS LYNE
In this age of lockdowns and social distancing, it is easy to focus on the terrible impact COVID-19 is having on people. Development organizations and practitioners the world over are grappling with the challenge of creating opportunities and providing services for vulnerable communities without being able to leave their own home, let alone conduct field visits. However, in spite of this, it is vital that we focus on the progress we have made pre-COVID-19 and will continue to make in the future.
Today is Earth Day, an international celebration created to drive transformative change for people and the planet. A unique project in rural Tanzania has been doing just that.
That project is WE SOLVE, which stands for Women Entrepreneurship through the Solar Value chain for Economic development in Tanzania. WE SOLVE has been tackling the twin problems of limited employment and economic opportunities for women in rural Tanzania as well as limited access to clean energy.
It involves a unique global partnership between BRAC, Solar Sister, a nonprofit that trains and supports women to deliver clean energy to rural African communities, and Signify, a global company offering high quality, reliable, and safe lighting products.
The project has a simple yet effective methodology: Solar Sister recruits women entrepreneurs to sell clean energy products to their own and neighboring communities. Signify is, among other providers, ensuring that Solar Sister entrepreneurs have high-quality, energy-efficient, reliable, and safe lighting to sell. They then use BRAC’s extensive microfinance network of over 200,000 clients as a customer base to sell the solar products. BRAC also supports clients with access to credit via a solar loan product to make the purchase more affordable if they do not have available cash.
The project, which started in 2018, has been funded for 4 years by Danida, Denmark’s development cooperation, and the Signify Foundation. The pilot phase of the project targeted the Arusha region, which is home to Tanzania’s nomadic Maasai and other communities. Many people here are ‘off grid’ and face life without light as soon as the sun sets, meaning that children cannot play or study and families are often dependent on fuel-powered resources to do their daily chores.
At its halfway point, the project has achieved remarkable success. BRAC recently conducted an annual survey report to explore its impact on the incomes and life chances of households in rural Arusha, comparing the baseline survey at the start of 2019 with data collected at the end of the year. The results are extremely encouraging.
Households spent on average 68% less on their energy per year because they used renewable solar lighting products instead of kerosene lamps, which are both expensive to run ($140 per year on average) and have damaging health impacts. The number of households reporting health issues due to the kerosene lamps more than halved with only 16% reporting relevant health problems.
The use of solar lights also had other benefits, with 64% of parents reporting improvements in children’s academic performance, mostly due to solar lights making light available for longer so children could complete their homework at night.
While gathering data for the annual survey, we spoke in detail to a number of clients to learn more about their stories. Elizabeth was one such person. She is a banana trader from Tengeru, a small market-town located in the foothills of Mount Meru. She took out a loan to purchase a solar lamp from a Solar Sister entrepreneur in early 2019.
“Since my family started living in this house in 1998, we had never had electricity. We had been using various types of kerosene lamps to take care of our lighting needs. I am a widow with four children; two are grown up, and two are still in school. The solar light has been very useful to my children, who are still going to school. Before, they used a kerosene lamp for studying at night.
“My son was recently blessed with a baby. Since we still did not have electricity in our home, I gifted my daughter-in-law the light to help with the baby, especially at night. My whole family has really benefited from this light. Even now, although we have managed to get electricity, the light is still very useful to use as a torch outside, or when the power goes out, and also in our bathroom outside that has no light.”
Elizabeth has seen the many advantages of access to affordable clean energy: the women entrepreneurs selling the products are earning an income, and the planet is benefitting from an increase in the use of renewable energy products.
On this day of action for mother Earth, it’s more vital than ever that we celebrate our success and look forward to more progress for communities like Tengeru in the future.
Chris Lyne is Advocacy and Communications Manager at BRAC UK.
A new rapid assessment finds the vast majority of respondents are already experiencing a loss of income
NEW YORK, NEW YORK — As COVID-19 reaches developing countries around the world, a rapid needs assessment conducted in response to the pandemic by BRAC, a global development and humanitarian organization, has found that vulnerable communities in eight countries across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are already decreasing the size and frequency of their meals in response to immediate economic hardships. With food insecurity already a looming issue for many of these countries and self-isolation impossible for millions, countries with limited public health infrastructure and fragile social safety systems are poised to be hit hardest.
The assessment found that respondents whose governments have ordered a total lockdown are faring worst of all, with farmers, small business owners, and day-laborers most affected. Coupled with a reported increase in food prices across the board, this led one in four respondents to report they do not expect to be able to cope if the current situation continues. BRAC is already supporting 100,000 low-income families in Bangladesh with emergency food assistance, but the report suggests the need is urgent across developing economies – including in Afghanistan, Liberia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Uganda – where social distancing is disrupting lives and livelihoods.
“As we have seen in past outbreaks and disasters, including the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, crises disproportionately impact the poorest and most vulnerable communities, specifically women and girls and people with disabilities,” said Dr. Muhammad Musa, the Executive Director of BRAC International. “COVID-19 is no different. BRAC is committed to standing with these communities as they persevere through the pandemic and its effects. We are eager to work in tandem with national governments, private sector partners, local civil society organizations, and our peer organizations to ensure those facing immediate threats to their food security and economic stability can access the support and services they need.”
BRAC is responding to the COVID-19 crisis across all 11 countries of operation to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, protect vulnerable people from economic shocks, and ensure the long-term health and wellbeing of the communities it serves. Over the last month, BRAC has reached more than 15 million people in Bangladesh with preventative health information and another half a million in 10 additional countries across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
As a grassroots development organization, many BRAC programs rely on group-based community models. While much of this work has been constrained by self-quarantine orders, BRAC is retooling staff to support efforts to raise awareness about COVID-19. These staff have joined existing cadres of thousands of community health workers in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Liberia, and Uganda. Together, they are implementing comprehensive health awareness campaigns that educate communities about the virus, combat misinformation, and mitigate social ostracization of the ill.
Increasingly, BRAC is utilizing technology for its ongoing response efforts. It is piloting interactive SMS messaging platforms in several South Asian and sub-Saharan African countries to disseminate COVID-19 messaging and, in Bangladesh, has developed an app that enables field staff and program participants to screen COVID-19 symptoms and provides recommendations and guidance on when to seek care. In many rural areas, however, connectivity remains a barrier to technology-based solutions.
Importantly, the assessment will enable BRAC to develop a real-time understanding of the needs and challenges facing vulnerable communities from the COVID-19 pandemic. It will continue to conduct follow up surveys on a regular basis to generate a longitudinal understanding as the crisis unfolds. As a knowledge leader, BRAC anticipates sharing this data with partners to prioritize providing targeted food security and income support for affected communities in addition to its comprehensive public health programming. It is actively developing new partnerships to tackle this pressing need.
Notes to the editor
About the assessment
BRAC carried out a rapid assessment of food and income security in late March to quickly generate information on how COVID-19 is affecting the communities it serves and inform its response. BRAC interviewed approximately 1,000 respondents for the assessment, which included field-level staff and volunteers as well as program participants, through phone interviews that followed a structured questionnaire. Interviews were conducted across eight of the 11 countries where BRAC operates development and humanitarian programs, including Afghanistan, Liberia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Uganda. Due to its small sample size, the findings of the assessment should not be considered representative of the entire population of each country.
BRAC is a global leader in developing and implementing cost-effective, evidence-based programs to assist the most marginalized people in extremely poor, conflict-prone, and post-disaster settings. These include initiatives in education, healthcare, microfinance, women and girls’ empowerment, agriculture, human and legal rights, and more. BRAC’s vision is a world free from all forms of exploitation and discrimination where everyone has the opportunity to realize their potential. In 2020, BRAC was named the number one NGO in the world by NGO Advisor for the fifth consecutive year. Founded in Bangladesh in 1972, BRAC currently operates in 11 countries in Asia and Africa, touching the lives of over 100 million people.
About BRAC USA
Based in New York, BRAC USA is the North American affiliate of BRAC. BRAC USA provides comprehensive support to BRAC around the world by raising awareness about its work to empower people living in poverty and mobilizing resources to support its programs. BRAC USA also works closely with its international counterparts to design and implement cost-effective and evidence-based poverty innovations worldwide. BRAC USA is an independent 501(c)(3) organization.