Reimagining education technology solutions to address poverty in the Global South amid COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the world to the core, underscoring the inescapable connections between public health, poverty, and education.

A Play Leader reads to children in a Play Lab in Uganda. Photo by Lee Cohen.

By Dr. Muhammad Musa and Radhika Shah


This piece was originally published here in WINGS. It has been reposted below.

The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged the world to the core, underscoring the inescapable connections between public health, poverty, and education. The challenge for education technology, and the philanthropy that supports its innovations worldwide, is to improve this situation no matter what the local conditions. That requires adapting creatively, and we have already learned vital lessons on how to do that in Africa and Asia.

The World Bank estimates that the pandemic will push as many as 150 million people into extreme poverty in 2021. Simultaneously education, which is crucial to emerging from poverty, has been compromised through school closures and shifts to remote learning. Temporary school closures in more than 180 countries have, at the pandemic’s peak, kept nearly 1.6 billion students out of school; for about half of those students, school closures exceed seven months, the World Bank reports.

Access to remote learning is, in turn, greatly influenced by socioeconomic conditions. At least a third of the world’s schoolchildren — 463 million globally—could not access remote learning when COVID-19 shuttered schools, according to UNICEF. Disadvantaged children have been hit hardest by emergency measures, according to the United Nations.

The need for technologically innovative solutions for remote learning could not be clearer. Solutions must address five distinct but related elements: first, access to the internet, which is lacking in much of the world; second, in the absence of internet access, use of various forms of traditional media to augment remote learning; third, the necessity of adapting solutions to local circumstances; fourth, the varying needs of children of different ages; fifth, diverse family circumstances and dynamics.

The challenge is greatest in countries with low connectivity, but low-tech innovations born of necessity in those countries can benefit the underserved worldwide. Such innovations highlight the opportunity to leverage the power of philanthropy and technology to improve education and alleviate poverty.


The intersection of education and poverty

The intersection of enhancing education and alleviating poverty is underscored in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which prioritise “No Poverty” as SDG 1 and “Quality Education” as SDG 4.

As Nobel Laureate and MIT Professor Abhijit Banerjee, one of the leading minds in development economics, states, “Poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realise one’s full potential as a human being.” Poverty is, therefore, inextricably linked to education, whose purpose is to expand our potential as human beings. SDG 4 is thus foundational for the next generation and all other SDGs.

Technology’s role in addressing poverty is vital, too. In a 2019 fireside chat at Stanford Business School, we discussed “Scaling Impact at the Intersectionality of Technology and Global Development to Achieve SDG #1” with Stanford Business School Professor Ken Singleton. The discussion examines the intersectionality of poverty, education, and technology.

Cutting-edge technological innovation, including artificial intelligence, is often cited as the panacea to achieving SDG 4 through remote learning in a post-Covid-19 world. But global progress toward ensuring inclusive, equitable, quality education was too slow before the pandemic, and inequities in education have only worsened since.

Prominent among them is inequitable access to online learning. The World Bank reports, “Only about 35 per cent of the population in developing countries has access to the internet (versus about 80 per cent in advanced economies).” This equity gap limits more than internet access: According to an analysis published by the Center for Global Development, in low- and lower-middle-income countries, only 50 per cent of households have access to radio or television.

Amid Covid-19, communities in the Global South created resourceful education innovations to address this stark digital divide. These innovations are needed to address the pandemic and other crises—including refugee crises, severe food insecurity, extreme weather, and conflict—which can be numerous, simultaneous, and layered. The innovations can be adapted worldwide, with applications for disadvantaged learners everywhere.


Stories from the Global South: Bangladesh, Tanzania, and Uganda

BRAC, the international development organisation headquartered in Bangladesh that reaches nearly 100 million people across 11 countries, has a long history of tackling poverty. It has vast experience providing education amid crises, ranging from the Ebola epidemic and the Rohingya refugee crisis to conflict in Afghanistan and South Sudan.

BRAC offers several models for delivering remote learning in low-connectivity contexts. In Bangladesh, Tanzania, and Uganda, BRAC adapts education delivery to each local context through television and radio broadcasts, telephones and mobile phones, and door-to-door outreach.


On March 18, 2020, Bangladesh closed all schools and began televising lessons with BRAC’s support, and, for secondary students, assigning homework to be submitted when in-person classes resume. With many of Bangladesh’s students lacking access to television, BRAC created a home school programme conducted over basic phones. The programme reaches BRAC’s secondary students and offers subject-based learning, psychosocial support, well-being activities, and Covid-19 awareness.


With in-person learning at BRAC’s flagship Play Labs not available for early childhood education during the pandemic, radio was identified as the most accessible platform for young children in marginalised communities in Tanzania and Uganda. Play Labs are vibrant, fun spaces where children aged three to five learn through an evidence-based curriculum that is centred around playful learning.

With support from the LEGO Foundation, which has been a key philanthropic partner in developing and supporting the Play Lab model since 2016, BRAC has adapted elements of its play curriculum and parenting curriculum for several avenues for remote learning, including radio. BRAC is using radio to share interactive playful activities for literacy and numeracy, hold storytelling sessions, and convey messages on child development, positive parenting, nutrition, safety, and well-being. In Uganda, where Play Labs are mostly in rural areas with limited connectivity, BRAC has partnered with two community radio stations to hold two Radio Play Labs sessions per week. In Tanzania, BRAC partners with the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation for countrywide coverage.


In partnership with telecommunications companies, BRAC launched tele-counselling and tele-learning hotlines using cellphones to connect parents and children with teachers, Play Lab leaders, and counsellors to provide continued psychosocial support and guidance on play-based learning at home. In Bangladesh, a model called Pashe Achhi, or “Beside You,” provides a national platform that started with psychosocial support in response to the pandemic and grew to include more support for caregivers and children specifically, including refugee families in Cox’s Bazar. In Tanzania, BRAC has collaborated with an existing national child helpline, run by the government and C-Sema. In Uganda, BRAC partnered with a major mobile network to establish a toll-free helpline promoted on the radio.

Text messaging and phone outreach

BRAC uses weekly text messaging and phone calls to share Covid-19 awareness messages with parents and continue children’s learning at home. BRAC has thereby reached more than 10,000 children and families in Uganda and Tanzania.

Door-to-door visits

Where possible, teachers visit families door-to-door to deliver hygiene messages and engage children through drawing and stories. In rural communities in Uganda, door-to-door visits have been particularly important. In Tanzania, where most Play Lab learners are in peri-urban communities, staff supplements door-to-door support by distributing learning packages that include crayons, storybooks, workbooks, and pencils.


The path forward: Philanthropy and technology joining forces

While technology and artificial intelligence can help create a richer, more engaging, remote learning experience, which all children deserve, we must first ensure access to the internet and to the most effective media resources at hand.

Solutions must be customized with partners who understand the local context. There is a need for funders—both philanthropies and impact investors—to finance such innovations, while embracing a co-creator mindset, in collaboration with organisations with deep experience on the ground and with technologists. There is also an opportunity to reimagine education technology financing by embracing collaborative and blended financing models where philanthropy can play a catalytic role and help de-risk later capital providers.

We can reduce poverty through education on a large scale if technology and philanthropy join forces with local innovators, academics, and policymakers to build research-proven solutions that are replicable. It is time to apply lessons from the Global South on how to shift our notion of innovation and scale to creatively design and fund solutions for the most disadvantaged children, even in the face of very limited digital infrastructure.

The SDG Philanthropy Platform catalyses collaboration within and across countries and sectors to achieve the SDGs. WINGSForum 2020-2021 brings together the global philanthropic community to raise their voices, share diverse knowledge, and reimagine a post-COVID world.


Dr. Muhammad Musa is Executive Director of BRAC International. Radhika Shah is Co-President, Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs, Advisor to the SDG Philanthropy Platform, Illumen Capital (Fund of Impact Funds Tackling Bias), and Stanford Center for Human Rights & International Justice, and a Board Member of the Center for Effective Global Action at UC Berkeley.

Overcoming the learning divide: Assessing what students missed during school closings for COVID-19

Amid COVID-19, schools in Bangladesh have been closed nearly a year. How can we ensure students are not left behind?

Students engage in remote learning at home

By Safiqul Islam


This piece was originally published here in Inter Press Service. It has been reposted below.

School closings and the varied impacts of remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic are a global challenge. Educators worldwide have been struggling to meet contemporary educational standards in this environment. But this challenge is followed by yet another: how to assess the readiness of students to resume in-school education when schools open. At BRAC, the international nongovernmental organization that operates 25,000 schools in Bangladesh, serving 750,000 students, we have developed an approach that could be helpful.

Schools in Bangladesh have been closed since March 2020, with remote education taking their place. That poses a very practical problem. When students return, likely in the first quarter of 2021, they will have had greatly varied educational experiences.

That variety of experiences will be evident globally, not only because approaches to remote teaching are so varied, but because student access to it is. In many parts of the world, Internet access is limited; that is as true in the United States as it is in Bangladesh. Rural areas have less access than urban areas. Wealthier areas, and wealthy families, have more access than poorer ones. Smaller families have fewer family members to share the home computer than larger ones.

There are also differences specific to the student and family; some students respond well to remote learning; others do not. Some have parents who are better able to help them than others. Some are in settings that are more conducive to study than others. Some deal with stress and uncertainty better than others. This is universal.

In Bangladesh, BRAC has addressed these varied circumstances by drawing on television, radio, and telephones to create new educational platforms and curricula for use depending on local conditions. Those formats enhance both the potential and the reality of remote learning, but of course cannot completely erase the differences in student experience.

A student engages in remote learning at home

The challenge of student readiness in Bangladesh can be understood simply through considering the case of a new third-grader. If that student had been struggling academically two years ago – in first grade – and had received just two months of in-school education in second grade (before schools closed in March), he or she could be quite unprepared for third grade in 2021. Even though that student would basically still be at second grade level, he or she will resume in-school education in third grade, because the Government of Bangladesh has instituted automatic promotions for all students when schools reopen.

Contrastingly, a student who thrived in first grade and was well served by remote learning in second grade could be fully ready for third grade.

The challenge for schools and teachers is, therefore, to assess each student and create remedial opportunities, so students are properly prepared to succeed. But that requires a new approach. Never before have schools welcomed students while having so little understanding of what the students learned the year before.

When BRAC schools resume, we will not start with normal classes. We will instead assess the diverse competencies of the students and provide remedial support as needed, so that within six months, we will have everyone back at grade level.

In the assessment phase, we will have three groups and six sub-groups, in order to address sufficiently the range of needs. The three groups – green, yellow, and red – will designate those students who are ready for the new grade, those who had not achieved enough in the previous grade, and those who are a year behind that. The sub-groups allow for further variation.

Those who are ready for the new grade will proceed at grade level, while those who are not will receive remedial support in accordance with their group and sub-group. Those in the green group will also serve as mentors, providing peer support to those who are not yet as advanced.

In order to have fewer students in classrooms until the pandemic ends, students in first grade will have their classwork indoors, while students in second and third grades will have a mix of indoor and outdoor classes. Students in fourth and fifth grades will have assignments that require them to pursue projects outside. A project to encourage creativity, inquisitiveness, and analysis might, for instance, have them studying trees and preparing presentations on them.

This approach will best serve all students by ensuring that they start at a level appropriate to their readiness and by enabling those who need to catch up to do so as quickly as possible. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged schools as never before, and the prolonged combination of uncertainty, fear and loss has challenged students as never before. Globally, we must ensure that it does not rob students of the educational attainment that they so greatly deserve.


Safiqul Islam is Director of Education at BRAC in Bangladesh.

Opinion: The impact of COVID-19 on child marriage and other gender-based violence

In a troubling trend, more girls are seeking child marriages as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on.

Girl in a school in Bangladesh

By Saeda Bilkis Bani


This piece was originally published here in Inter Press Service. It has been reposted below.

I recently visited rural areas of Bangladesh amid the COVID-19 pandemic and returned to Dhaka with a new understanding of the impact that COVID-19 is having on child marriage, a harmful practice that is a global challenge. The fundamental shift that I saw was that child marriage, which has typically been encouraged by struggling parents, is now being encouraged by struggling girls. This worrisome trend underscores a new burden of the pandemic on people living in poverty.

Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. Yet UNICEF reported in April that the number of girls married in childhood stands at 12 million per year worldwide.

According to the United Nations Population Fund’s State of the World Population 2020 report, COVID-19 threatens to make that stunning number even worse. The agency estimates that COVID-19 will disrupt efforts to end child marriage, potentially resulting in an additional 13 million child marriages taking place between 2020 and 2030 that could otherwise have been averted.

The challenge is not only the disease but the response to the disease – especially the impact of school closings, which have been in effect nationally in Bangladesh since March. The transition from in-school to online learning can easily seem like a mechanical one, but it creates new challenges for remote communities and families living in poverty.

What I witnessed in visiting rural communities was girls completely home-bound and bored amid school closings. They typically lacked Internet access, television, and smartphones. Analog phones are the only readily available means of communication, and too often, parents are not able to maintain any sort of schooling at home.

Girls are often home-bound because, unlike boys, they are generally forbidden by their parents from leaving the home unnecessarily. School closings become confining and limiting.

All too often, the girls I met had glazed looks in their eyes. They saw no future for themselves. Without school, they were deprived of possibilities. The daily effect was crushing. For many, the only escape is child marriage.

The shift to girls pursuing child marriage instead of their parents is a devastating one that could drive the numbers even higher. It could limit the prospects and potential of girls worldwide.

School closings also affect boys, but boys have more to do. They are freer, more mobile, and outside more. In some areas, that may increase child labor, drug addiction, and gambling, but boys are not confined in the same way that girls are.

The situation is also different in urban areas, where there is greater access to the Internet, television, and smartphones. Internet access has its own liabilities, but it is available for educational purposes.

For girls and women, the response to COVID-19 has other implications, too. Lockdowns have left many men out of work and, as a result, they are at home during the day, often making demands of one kind or another. The burden on women – to prepare more food, do more cleaning, maintain the home life – only increases. Financial stress creates domestic stress, and the potential for violence grows, especially as husbands demand more money from wives’ families – a major cause of domestic violence.

BRAC is working to prevent child marriages and other forms of violence against women and children and to defend victims of such violence. BRAC’s Community Empowerment Program supports Polli Shomaj, the community-based women’s groups that are active in 54 out of 64 districts in Bangladesh in combating gender-based violence. BRAC also operates 410 legal aid clinics, whose cases typically involve gender-based violence. But to maximize prevention of child marriage, a cultural shift is necessary.

Men and women are equal in Bangladesh’s Constitution and law, but not in its culture. And with three million cases backlogged in the court system, the law has limited effect.

Bringing about that cultural shift requires economic empowerment alongside social empowerment for girls and women. It requires life skills for negotiation, partnering in decision-making, and goal setting, among other things. It demands occupational skills training to enable girls and women to connect with the job market and to earn their own income. It also requires microfinance so that women can get loans, and mentoring so that they can envision a future that they control.

Fortunately, BRAC has those tools in place. BRAC has over seven million microfinance clients, nearly 90 percent of whom are women. Its skills development programs have equipped nearly 85,000 people with training and knowledge needed for employment, and 83 percent of those learners – half of whom are women – secured jobs after graduation. Together these tools create a comprehensive package that can enable girls and women to see a vibrant future and escape gender-based violence.

But the scale of the problem is greater still. According to a 2015 survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and the United Nations Population Fund, more than 70 percent of married women or girls in Bangladesh have faced some form of intimate partner abuse, about half of whom say their partners have physically assaulted them. And the problem is global.

COVID-19 has revealed that girls and women need to be able to see a future of opportunity for themselves. In combating COVID-19, the world must awaken to this revelation. COVID-19 should now become the catalyst for the world to make possible a future of opportunity for girls and women – a future without gender-based violence.


Saeda Bilkis Bani is a Program Manager for the Community Empowerment Program at BRAC.

The New York Times: ‘R’ is for Rohingya: Sesame Street Creates New Muppets for Refugees

Noor and Aziz are Rohingya Muppets who will feature in educational programming that will be shown in refugee camps.

A Rohingya child plays with a muppet. Photo by Ryan Donnell for Sesame Workshop.
By Hannah Beech


Below is en excerpt of a piece originally published by The New York Times. Click here to view the full piece.

Six-year-old twins Noor and Aziz live in the largest refugee camp in the world. They are Rohingya Muslims who escaped ethnic cleansing in their native Myanmar for refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. They are also Muppets.

On Thursday, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that runs the early education TV show “Sesame Street” and operates in more than 150 countries, unveiled Aziz and Noor as the latest Muppets in their cast of characters.

The twins will appear with Elmo and other famous Muppets in educational programming about math, science, health and other topics that will be shown in the camps.

They will speak Rohingya, the language of a group of people that the Myanmar authorities have refused to recognize as a legitimate ethnicity. Sesame Workshop has created a new curriculum in Rohingya in partnership with the Lego Foundation, the International Rescue Committee and BRAC, a Bangladesh-founded charity.

Read more.


Photo by Ryan Donnell for Sesame Workshop.

NBC News: Sesame Street unveils Rohingya Muppets to help kids living in refugee camp

Most of the children inside the world’s largest refugee camp have never watched TV.

Rohingya children play with muppets in a BRAC Humanitarian Play Lab. Photo by Ryan Donnell for Sesame Workshop.
By Christine Romo, Cynthia McFadden and Rich Schapiro


Below is en excerpt of a story originally run on NBC News. Click here to view the full piece and watch the segment.

A grandmother named Merula has been living at the camp with her daughter and two grandchildren, ages 4 and 2 1/2, for the past two years. Merula said her family ran for their lives when members of the Myanmar military showed up at their village and set it on fire.

“We thought we would be killed,” she said.

The children, Ismabela and Bibijan, participate in an educational program at the camp known as the Humanitarian Play Lab. Developed by the humanitarian group BRAC, the lab uses play to help young children learn and recover from trauma.

Read on to meet Noor and Aziz, the new Rohingya muppets.


Photo by Ryan Donnell for Sesame Workshop.

Opinion: How to confront COVID-19’s cost to girls

If we have to prioritize one thing after a difficult year, let it be a stronger focus on girls.

Girls work on computers in a BRAC school in Bangladesh

By Asif Saleh


This piece was originally published here in The New Humanitarian. It has been reposted below.

No one comes out of a crisis without being changed in some way, and this pandemic is a crisis on a scale we have rarely seen: It has put years of progress in human development at stake; inequity is at its worst.

If we have to prioritize one thing, it should be ensuring that girls do not return to despair, teenage motherhood, and premature death. Girls deserve the chance to flourish and pursue a bright future in spite of COVID-19.

Girls are profoundly impacted by the pandemic in multiple ways: by the economic effects on their families and the resulting food insecurity, by the increase in domestic violence and child marriage, and by the closing of schools, among other factors.

In Bangladesh, for instance, research by the Power and Participation Research Center and the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development shows that COVID-19 is creating millions of “new poor” – people whose income was 40 percent above the poverty line but have fallen below it as economies are disrupted. A recent study by the Center for Research and Information, a Dhaka-based nonprofit, estimates that the “new poor” now totals 38 million – roughly one in five Bangladeshis.

Similarly, food insecurity is on the rise. Another survey by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development found that Bangladeshi households are spending less on food as their incomes drop: Compared to pre-pandemic levels, food expenditure shrunk by 22 percent in rural households, and by 28 percent in urban slum households.

On top of this, depression, crime, and addiction are rising among urban youth in the absence of schools, which have been closed in Bangladesh since March. Violence against women, both domestic and outside the home, is growing. A study by the Manusher Jonno Foundation, a Bangladeshi NGO, in 53 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts found nearly 2,900 child victims of domestic violence in June, up from about 2,170 a month earlier.

Yet it is with the closing of schools that the potential damage may be most profound. When schools are closed for months, the loss is more than just the course material that would have been covered: Students forget what they learned before schools closed, and the knowledge that was skipped may never be regained. The consequences for educational inequity can be long-lasting – and all of this assumes that students do not drop out.

Education is integrally tied to the economy. Many students work as private tutors in cities to make ends meet. Today, those options have largely disappeared, and students’ savings are dwindling to nothing. Many private schools have been sold, their teachers left penniless.

In all of this, girls are especially at risk – of being the victims of violence, of being forced into a child marriage, of dropping out of school, of not having the opportunity to pursue their talents and dreams.

What should be done? Governments, donors, and non-governmental organizations, particularly in the Global South, all have a role to play.

First, community empowerment groups are a vital asset and must be given the resources and training needed to support girls, to understand the pressures on them, and to prevent child marriages. In Bangladesh, grassroots women’s groups like BRAC’s Polli Shomaj play a vital role in supporting girls and women, including reporting violence and referring survivors to services. Such groups must be strengthened so they have enough resources, the proper training to make referrals, and the political muscle to defend girls and secure their path to self-fulfillment.

Second, communication and information are crucial. Bangladesh made big strides in girls’ education over the last 20 years through a nationwide public campaign and outreach to parents to convince them to send their daughters to school. Now, the sudden economic shock, school closures, and a sense of fatalism are leading parents to marry off their daughters early, our research indicates. Governments must play a bigger role, nationally and locally, in public messaging and bolstering support.

Third, schools need to gradually reopen with proper safety measures. This is more crucial than ever, particularly for rural schools. Girls tend to have the least access to education, be the newest to education, and be at the highest risk of dropping out – challenges BRAC has tried to overcome in helping over 12 million students graduate from BRAC schools in Bangladesh and around the globe.

Making up for learning losses will be difficult and will only get harder as school closures are prolonged. With rare exceptions, online education cannot replace in-school learning, particularly given a lack of connectivity in many regions. The risk of students dropping out only grows as a result.

Girls have the least access to the Internet, phones, and television – the other vehicles through which they could be learning while schools are closed. Clubs for adolescent girls, which have been so effective in Asia and Africa in preventing child marriage and teenage pregnancy, need to be revitalized and scaled up.

Fourth, access to vocational and skills training should be increased. All children need access to the best basic education possible, but this should be built upon with further formal education or training. Students and parents need good information about what opportunities are available – mentoring and call centers can be especially effective in helping them connect.

COVID-19 puts everyone at risk, but the social consequences for girls have been devastating. They must be at the heart of renewed efforts to ensure hard-fought gains made by women and girls are not rolled back.


Asif Saleh is Executive Director BRAC in Bangladesh.

Opinion: Maker spaces vs. COVID-19

How the pandemic is bringing the small manufacturing revolution to the development sector

A BRAC community health worker wearing PPE cares for a mother

By Kuldeep Bandhu Aryal and Nishat Tasnim


This piece was originally published here in NextBillion. It has been reposted below.

Rina is one of the nearly 50,000 community health workers trained by BRAC, a global development organization based in Bangladesh. She serves as many as 20,000 people in her community. With COVID-19 raging across the heartland of Bangladesh, there’s a lot of misinformation spreading. She provides people with health advice and primary health services, and acts as a center of referral to hospitals and health complexes. She has fear of contracting COVID-19, but it’s less of a personal fear and more of a concern for her own family members and the community she serves. Rina knows that without her, the situation will be much worse on the ground for these people. So she focuses on equipping herself with whatever personal protective equipment (PPE) is available, and continues with her work.

The need to protect frontline healthcare workers like Rina has become particularly clear, despite the “fog of war” that has clouded many decisions since the early days of the pandemic. When COVID-19 first struck, the global health sector did not know what we were up against. Yet it was obvious that essential workers had to be on the frontlines, and in Bangladesh, as in many countries, it soon became apparent that there wasn’t enough PPE to go around. Almost all of the country’s PPE was made abroad, especially equipment like face shields and goggles. This has resulted in price gouging and acute scarcity: To take one example, at the height of the shortage BRAC was paying US $12 for goggles that cost $2 before the pandemic.

And of course, this hasn’t happened only with face shields and goggles, but also with every other product needed during the crisis, from ventilator parts to test swabs. Bangladesh is still struggling to meet the demand for these items, as are countries across the developing (and developed) world.


Dealing with medical supply chain disruptions

Early on in the crisis, the pandemic caused severe disruptions in the global medical supply chain, leading the net exporters of PPE to become net importers practically overnight. Though increasing demand had made this equipment pricier than ever, many governments and organizations had enough money to pay for it. But they had no way of sourcing these products due to acute shortages, and over-dependence on the international instant order and express delivery supply chain system. And whatever they could source did not meet traditional quality standards.

In developing economies, these challenges around supply chains become complicated very quickly and in unexpected ways. Obstacles in these markets can include “sudden and unpredictable spikes in demand, difficult to access locations, disruptions due to conflict or disasters, as well as normal supply chain problems of leakage, spoilage, and other losses.” This means that simple procurement orders for items like medical disposables can take weeks and sometimes months to fulfil, severely impeding humanitarian operations.


Leveraging frugal innovation and maker spaces

One way of addressing this issue in developing countries is to look for frugal innovations which can be scaled. In South Asian contexts like Bangladesh, the concept of frugal innovation is known as “Jugaad,” a Hindi/Bhojpuri term which means “to make use of what you already have (because you don’t have access to external resources).” Under normal circumstances, Jugaad is generally considered an alternative coping and adaptation mechanism for people with an acute lack of resources. But BRAC has tapped into this approach to generate local solutions which are affordable as well – and the model, developed through our Social Innovation Lab, has played an important role in our COVID-19 response.

When the pandemic started, BRAC realized that we could not depend upon traditional PPE procurement processes, which were designed to operate in situations where the procuring organization has adequate resources and demand doesn’t exceed supply. We had to find new ways of working with materials that were locally available, and to consider alternative manufacturing partners and processes based on the kind of machinery and technical capacity available inside the country. 

But manufacturing was not the only piece of the puzzle. Local designs were also needed, because there were patent and copyright issues that prevented us from using local manufacturers to produce many internationally marketed products. Even simple products like face shields are patented, so we had to use open-source designs. But these designs also had to be adjusted based on local manufacturing capabilities and material availability, which required redesigns so extensive that it was almost like creating a new product from scratch. In addition, the strict lockdowns that were imposed across Bangladesh resulted in a massive logistical challenge. For example, while this initiative was underway, some simple machinery parts were not available in Dhaka, the capital city where BRAC is based, and had to be sourced from a small mechanical shop in Pabna, which is about 153 kilometers away.

This provided a unique opportunity for spaces like fab labs and maker spaces to jump into action. Not only were they capable of making original designs or “hacking” existing designs to suit local need, they also had some form of small- to mid-scale production capacity. In addition, they were tied into the international open source product design community and could tap into the global movement to create local PPE solutions, which started through the Facebook group “Open Source COVID-19 Medical Supplies” and Slack channels like “Project Open Air.”

These makers focused on rapid prototyping and using human-centered design principles to create solutions, and their work helped push the maker movement toward demand-driven frugal innovation. They were able to make their own designs, develop rapid prototypes and get prompt user feedback, then share these designs with other makers in countries like Bangladesh. To take one example, a designer stuck in quarantine in Bosnia shared a digital model for a face shield with BRAC, and the prototype of that face shield was made at Fab Lab Sher-E-Bangla Agriculture University, a maker space in Dhaka. The face shield was tested by BRAC staff and their feedback led to subsequent design iterations, and BRAC community health workers are now using it in the field.

Our maker space partners initially used 3D printers to make a modest number of products. But as demand increased among our health workers, faster means of production were needed, so the maker spaces started using computer numerical control (CNC) machines and laser cutting, adjusting the designs so they could fit into these two-dimensional machines. This is the true essence of frugal innovation at work. But it also created a new series of challenges, from material sourcing to design changes. It also meant that BRAC had to be involved in rapid prototyping and reiteration to adopt this new manufacturing process. This brought BRAC further into the innovation process, and we gradually became an integral actor in the digital fabrication of PPE to support Bangladesh’s COVID-19 response.

Along with leveraging our extensive network on the ground to distribute frugal innovations for this humanitarian response, BRAC also advocated to the government of Bangladesh that fab labs employees be designated as essential workers during the pandemic. This was a major milestone for the maker movement. We also supported local maker spaces by purchasing the raw materials they’d need for manufacturing and product packaging. This was a very rare move from a development sector organization, as BRAC went out of our way to accommodate the challenges on the ground and provide the flexibility that fab labs needed to innovate and experiment.


Why the humanitarian sector should embrace the maker movement

To make the best use of design and manufacturing in any emergency response, ecosystem players, NGOs, development partners and government agencies need to have strategies to integrate and accommodate maker spaces as platforms for rapid responses to humanitarian crises. Without proper policy buy-in and strategic support, agile maker spaces like fab labs can only reach a limited number of people. That’s why BRAC has worked to mainstream our partnership with fab labs and other maker spaces as part of our emergency response mechanism. To that end, we have established agreements with maker spaces to provide dedicated funding for their capacity building and internal teams, while boosting our efforts to integrate the products they can manufacture into BRAC’s general procurement and logistics functions.

We’re not the only ones moving in this direction. In Bangladesh, the World Bank has funded seven university-based fab labs to foster the growth of digital fabrication and manufacturing – an effort that started even before the pandemic. And DFID’s Frontier Technologies Hub, in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Engineering, is building a technology and innovation pipeline for local production and local solutions for their #COVIDaction projects. Globally, innovators are being encouraged to develop novel approaches to shorten supply chains using local raw materials, and to pivot domestic manufacturing to meet local needs. One of the biggest examples of this momentum in South Asia involved Maker’s Asylum in India. Their M-19 initiative started with the goal of providing 1,000 M-19 face shields to the country’s frontline workers. However, in 49 days they were able to activate maker spaces in 42 cities, towns and villages through their open source design, and produce over 1 million M-19 face shields.

These successes show the power of open source design and collective movement in times of need. To advance these efforts, BRAC Bangladesh has received the Frontier Technologies Hub grant, which will support our work testing out digitally fabricated PPE. We will assess the cumulative demand for this PPE in BRAC operation areas, and the supply will be met through collaboration between BRAC and university fab labs.

However, there is a common misconception about maker spaces and digital fabrication. It is not just about 3D printing: There are other types of equipment and technologies involved, from CNC machines and laser cutting, to injection molding, printed circuit board milling and other fabrication technologies. If these innovations are harnessed, it could help mainstream niche efforts like BRAC’s and bring the maker culture to the broader humanitarian sector.

Digital manufacturing has taken a big jump since COVID-19 started. If the humanitarian sector takes a coordinated approach toward maker spaces, working with government and non-government agencies and international development partners, we can further bolster this massive small manufacturing revolution.


Kuldeep Bandhu Aryal is a Social Innovation Fellow and Nishat Tasnim is Deputy Manager, Innovation Ecosystems and Partnership at BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab.

Opinion: How governments can reach people in extreme poverty and build resilient livelihoods during COVID-19

Let’s begin with the good news: The international community has taken unprecedented measures to respond to the humanitarian crises triggered by COVID-19.

woman in Graduation program in Philippines works at her food stand

By Lindsay Coates


This piece was originally published here in NextBillion. It has been reposted below.

Since March 2020, 212 countries and territories have enacted over 1,100 social protection measures to mitigate harm from the pandemic for the most vulnerable people. Most governments recognize the urgency of an effective response and have taken proportionate fiscal measures, now estimated to total almost $12 trillion worldwide.

However, even these massive efforts may come up short. With the number of people suffering acute hunger set to double to 265 million people by year’s end, and confirmed COVID-19 cases now exceeding 40 million, the scale of current responses is still not enough. And though the political will and finances to fund social safety nets exist at a global level, individual low- and middle-income countries face resource constraints. What’s more, most of these recent social protection programs are reactive and short-term, and current international development assistance is insufficient. Many programs do not reach those most in need of support, nor do they address the long-term needs of people in extreme poverty.

What we need now is not a disconnected series of COVID-19 response measures, but instead comprehensive, universal social protection systems. Governments must invest in a robust emergency response, but approaches must be adaptable and inclusive – and they must prepare the most vulnerable populations for future economic, health or environmental shocks. Below, we’ll discuss how the Graduation approach to poverty alleviation can play a role in helping these communities and their broader economies recover from the pandemic.


Improving targeting of people in extreme poverty through the Graduation approach

People in the most extreme states of poverty are both the most in need of social services and among the hardest groups to reach. Many low-income populations in the Global South are employed in the informal economy – including around 86% of workers in Africa and 68% in Asia. During COVID-19, governments have struggled to provide assistance to poor households without permanent addresses or national IDs.

Low-quality data on national poverty in many low-income countries makes identifying and targeting extremely poor people with government programs even more challenging. International Growth Centre research on social assistance programs in 123 countries found that even before the chaos of the pandemic struck, only 15% of the total population of low-income countries was protected by at least one social assistance program. And these programs do not target the poorest people: Only 21% of the poorest quintile within low-income countries are covered by social assistance at all.

For the first time since 1998, global poverty rates are rising. With almost 700 million people in extreme poverty worldwide and up to 150 million more predicted to fall back into extreme poverty by the end of 2021, it is urgent that governments adapt their social protection systems to target the most economically vulnerable populations. The Graduation approach, pioneered by BRAC in Bangladesh in 2002, is a viable pathway to improve these systems. Graduation is a sequenced set of interventions that addresses the needs of people in extreme poverty holistically by supporting participants with a productive asset transfer, skills training, consumption support, coaching and linkages to government services. By specifically targeting people in extreme poverty with a multi-step process tailored to local data, needs and capacity, Graduation helps bring previously unreachable populations into government safety nets.

The explicit focus of Graduation on the poorest segment of a country’s population and its emphasis on localized, adaptive targeting makes it possible for governments to reach more people in dire need. This targeting process can involve the combined use of national registries (depending on data quality), proxy means testing and participatory community wealth ranking, with targeted verification surveys to minimize errors.

By leveraging data governments already have and combining it with self-identification, community participation and survey verification, the Graduation approach makes it possible to find those in extreme poverty. It is then possible to connect these extremely poor households to government services, improving the targeting of existing social protection programs. By collecting data on vulnerable populations through Graduation programming, governments can strengthen their emergency responses as well. For instance, in Bihar, India, the state government’s Satat Jeevikoparjan Yojana Graduation program, supported by J-PAL South Asia, provided data on extremely poor households which has allowed the government to reach 39,000 people with phone surveys and cash transfers during the pandemic.

For an inclusive recovery from COVID-19, governments will need to identify and reach the most vulnerable – or we risk leaving millions more behind. Integrating the Graduation approach into existing social protection systems facilitates this effort, and uses delivery of emergency aid to build toward longer-term solutions. But this is only half the battle. To truly build back better, governments must also help people in extreme poverty prepare themselves for severe shocks before they happen.


Building resilient livelihoods during COVID-19: A case study from the Philippines

This pandemic has made the need to help the most vulnerable build resilient, sustainable, long-term livelihoods painfully clear. Market closures and lockdowns have brought much of the economic activity low-income households rely on for survival to a jarring halt. Shutdowns have led to lost income on a shocking scale, with nearly half of the 3.3 billion workers worldwide at risk of losing their livelihoods. In the third quarter of 2020 alone, the International Labour Organization projects a 12.1% loss in global working hours – the equivalent of 345 million full-time jobs.

This loss of livelihoods – combined with social safety nets which often exclude the poorest people – has sent millions to the brink of starvation. The UN World Food Programme has warned that nearly 265 million people are at risk of facing severe food shortages and starvation by the end of the year, almost twice the number of people suffering from food insecurity before the pandemic, because of income and remittance losses. Economic inclusion for extremely poor people which builds shock-resistant livelihoods and resilience is more than a matter of finances – it is a matter of survival.

The Graduation approach includes several unique mechanisms which prepare participants to better weather crises on all scales, from personal disasters to global catastrophes. We can see how Graduation has increased resilience through the case study of how the Philippines Department of Labor and Employment’s Graduation program, in partnership with the Asian Development Bank and with technical assistance from BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative, has adapted and supported participants during COVID-19.

Crucially, Graduation strengthens extremely poor households’ economic resilience by providing training on asset diversification. Rather than relying on low-wage informal labor, participants are guided through the process of setting up multiple streams of income from diverse agricultural and commercial activities. When one income source fails, they have others to fall back on. As of July 2020, 76% of participants in the Philippines were able to continue earning an income even during lockdown through multiple means, including agricultural labor, selling fruits and vegetables, and producing and selling charcoal.

In addition to helping participants develop varied income streams, Graduation helps them create a buffer against shocks by increasing savings. Graduation coaches link them to local financial service providers and offer financial literacy training, encouraging saving and long-term planning. During COVID-19 lockdowns in the Philippines, 75% of participants used their savings to support their households, while only 20% took out loans. (For comparison purposes, at the start of the program, only 29% of participants reported having savings.)

Self-sufficiency in income and savings ensures that people in extreme poverty can provide for themselves to some extent, even during a crisis like COVID-19. Graduation also increases the effectiveness of existing social assistance programs by connecting previously excluded households to government services. In the Philippines, 96% of Graduation pilot participants received cash assistance from the national government. Graduation coaches are serving as an important linkage between participants and their local governments. If participants receive aid in the form of financial support from the government, the coaches record and track this information in order to build on the saving practices taught throughout the program. On average, cash assistance programs in lower-middle income countries reach less than 70% of the poorest quintile of the population, making this level of coverage particularly encouraging.


The path to a resilient recovery

The government-led Graduation program in the Philippines demonstrates the impact of correctly identifying people in severe need, connecting them to social protection systems, and helping them build shock-resistant livelihoods. The approach does more than improve access to emergency aid and provide for basic health and nutritional needs. It empowers participants to escape the poverty trap and become agents of change in their households and communities.

To mitigate economic disasters of this magnitude and prevent them from harming millions of the world’s most vulnerable people, governments must strengthen existing social protection systems. Even the most generous programs are missing the people who need help the most. As a result, hundreds of millions of people globally are being left behind, and those that receive support often only get it after disaster has struck. Policymakers and the development community need to design better-targeted poverty eradication programs with a long-term focus that enable marginalized groups to become more resilient and self-sufficient. The Graduation approach provides a path to do that.


Lindsay Coates is Managing Director at BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative.

A cataclysm of hunger, disease, and illiteracy

A pandemic of suffering follows on the heels of COVID-19 in poor countries, and children suffer most.

By Nicholas Kristof


Below is en excerpt of a piece originally published in The New York Times. Click here to view the full piece.

We think of Covid-19 as killing primarily the elderly around the world, but in poor countries it is more cataclysmic than that.

It is killing children through malnutrition. It is leading more people to die from tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS. It is forcing girls out of school and into child marriages. It is causing women to die in childbirth. It is setting back efforts to eradicate polio, fight malaria and reduce female genital mutilation. It is leading to lapses in vitamin A distribution that will cause more children to suffer blindness and die.

The U.N. Population Fund warns that Covid-19 may lead to an additional 13 million child marriages around the world and to some 47 million women being unable to get access to modern contraception.

The greatest impact of Covid-19 may be not on those whom the virus directly infects, but on those shattered by the collapse of economies and health and education systems in developing countries. Many schools and clinics are closed, medicines for AIDS and other ailments are sometimes unavailable, and campaigns against malaria and genital mutilation are often suspended.

“The indirect impact of Covid-19 in the Global South will be even greater than the direct impact,” Dr. Muhammad Musa, executive director of BRAC International, an outstanding Bangladesh-based nonprofit, told me. “The direct impact, as tragic as it is, affects those infected and their families. The indirect impact has economic and social consequences for vastly more people — with jobs lost, families hungry, domestic violence up, more children leaving school, and costs over generations.”

Opinion: Three lessons from the Global South on combating the pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, more and more people around the world are struggling during lockdowns and economic shutdowns.

By Dr. Muhammad Musa


This piece was originally published here in The New Humanitarian. It has been reposted below.

The coronavirus could nearly double the number of people facing acute hunger, according to the World Food Programme. Recent data collected by BRAC reveals that many families across the Global South can only sustain their food needs for seven days or less; many are trying to cope by eating less.

Top-down measures to curb the spread of the virus – dramatic steps like lockdowns and bans on large gatherings – pose an immediate threat to families in the poorest communities.

Even in developed countries, local opposition to top-down decrees is undermining the impact of public health initiatives. Resistance to these mandates will only grow if they are not tempered with solutions and leadership from the hardest-hit communities.

The key to turning this resistance around, and dealing with a pandemic long term, lies in the Global South. What’s needed is a renewed commitment to community engagement, rather than top-down mandates. The Global South has great experience on which to draw. Here are three examples that have proven effective.

First, local leaders – elected, civic, or religious, in various combinations depending on the community – must be consulted when creating public health strategies. Their concerns must be heard and addressed. In the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, for instance, many Rohingya religious leaders are working with BRAC to use their platforms to share life-saving information and dispel myths about COVID-19.

This is an age-old principle of community development, but in the rush to stop the spread of the virus too many officials around the world forgot about it and simply issued decrees. In India, for instance, when the government called on 1.3 billion people to stay home for three weeks, millions were left stranded, without work, and potentially hungry.

Second, existing community networks must be engaged. Community health workers are a great example: These are trusted, trained workers who live in the communities they serve. They can be especially persuasive in informing residents and convincing them to adopt needed measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand-washing.

Half of BRAC’s 100,000 frontline staff and volunteers across 11 countries are community health workers. During the pandemic, we’ve found they’ve been vital in working with local leaders to raise awareness about COVID-19 and to enact preventive measures.

Non-governmental organisations and other civil society groups have a crucial role to play. They are a vital link between centralised policy conversations and grassroots networks.

Third, hard-won experience with health crises is a powerful asset. In West African countries with a history of Ebola, for instance, adopting social distancing and other public health measures has been far easier. People who went through that emergency – both decision-makers and the public – understood more quickly what was at stake and what was needed. People knew where to turn for trusted information and how to respond.

COVID-19 isn’t the first public health crisis we’ve seen, and it won’t be the last. Large populations depend on daily wages to put food on the table. Economic activity and public health measures must co-exist.

We need to involve local leaders in crucial public health decisions to develop interventions that work. Solutions that rise up are better than those that drop down.


Dr. Muhammad Musa is a physician, public health expert, and Executive Director of BRAC International, a Bangladesh-based NGO.