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.

Opinion: 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.

Opinion: From Cox’s Bazar — how to address refugee needs amid COVID-19

BRAC’s Hasina Akhter shares insights from her work responding to COVID-19 in the largest refugee settlement in the world.

A mother with her child in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh

By Hasina Akhter

 

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

Addressing the needs of the largest refugee settlement in the world is daunting enough. Now, the challenge is compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. The combination is a crisis within a crisis.

The largest refugee settlement in the world is in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where around 900,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are sheltering. As of June 30, 50 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the Rohingya settlements, but the full extent of infection is not known. The pandemic is widespread in Bangladesh — with more than 260,000 cases confirmed — and the tightly packed conditions of the camps make their residents especially vulnerable.

To address this extraordinary set of circumstances, BRAC — the largest nongovernment responder to the humanitarian crisis in Cox’s Bazar — has developed a three-pronged approach that reflects its experience creating programs in the global south by listening to those most in need. The approach may prove instructive to aid workers facing other challenging settings around the world.

 

Prioritizing primary health care

First, one of the lessons we learned from the West African Ebola crisis was the importance of maintaining essential primary health services.

More than 11,000 people died from the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, but the closure of health facilities resulted in thousands more preventable deaths. Pregnant women who lacked medical care, for instance, were found lying unconscious outside of closed maternity centers. The COVID-19 pandemic similarly threatens the availability of primary health services and, with them, more lives.

Amid the pandemic, 11 health facilities we run in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, including two primary health care centers and nine health posts, are open. Each has a maternity unit providing essential health care to pregnant and lactating women, while also making contraceptives available to help reduce the risk of pregnancy and limit the number of babies being delivered during the health crisis.

To maximize safety at maternity units, each patient must call in advance to book an appointment, at which time a midwife asks questions to determine if the patient has symptoms of COVID-19. When screened patients arrive, they must immediately wash their hands, their shoes and sandals are sprayed with disinfectant, and they are met by midwives in personal protective equipment. The clinics are also sprayed with bleaching powder on a regular basis.

By maintaining and scaling primary health services, responders facing the pandemic in the most challenging situations can reduce excess preventable deaths.

 

Innovating to adapt preventive measures

Second, aid groups should prioritize adapting preventive measures for challenging contexts, such as facilitating hand-washing without running water in environments where water is scarce.

Masks are also a critical preventive tool. Amid global shortages of personal protective equipment, one innovative solution has found a way to provide masks for refugee families.

Through a program funded by UN Women and led by BRAC, women in the camps of Cox’s Bazar are learning to make reusable cloth masks, enabling 127 refugee women to earn income to support their families while sewing masks for camp residents. Mask-making began in April and operates in women’s centers in two camps, with hygiene measures maintained to keep the women safe from the virus. Together, refugee women have made more than 30,000 masks.

By adopting creative and cost-effective preventive solutions that enable hand-washing and mask-wearing in even the most under-resourced contexts, we can save countless lives.

 

Spreading essential knowledge through community-based outreach

Finally, the need to educate the public is essential and ongoing. This has two key components: conveying vital information about COVID-19 and dispelling myths that can become dangerous.

In Cox’s Bazar, we must draw on the expertise of the refugee camps’ community health workers, who are part of the largest nongovernmental pool of community health workers in the world. These health workers, who live and work in the communities they serve, are trained to make regular visits to households, provide basic health information and screenings, and link the households to institutional care.

Since the onset of COVID-19, community health workers have played a critical role in sharing information about how the virus spreads, educating refugee families on its symptoms, and instructing them on what to do if they get sick. Community health workers know the ins and outs of the refugee settlements and how people communicate within them, enabling them to dispel rumors and myths about the spread of the virus.

Responding to COVID-19 in an already dire humanitarian crisis is an unprecedented challenge. Refugee needs are extraordinary without a pandemic, and COVID-19 only adds to the complexity. But by using lessons learned from experience providing health services, engaging refugees in taking preventive measures, and drawing on the network of community health workers, we can help create the conditions needed to defeat the pandemic.

 

Hasina Akhter is area director for BRAC in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. She currently oversees the organization’s multisector response to the Rohingya refugee crisis. She previously served with BRAC as country director for Uganda, where she led BRAC’s holistic suite of development and humanitarian interventions in the country, including a response to the Ebola outbreak and a portfolio of activities to support South Sudanese refugees.

A quarter of Bangladesh is flooded. Millions have lost everything.

The country’s latest calamity illustrates a striking inequity of our time: The people least responsible for climate change are among those most hurt by its consequences.

By Somini Sengupta and Julfikar Ali Manik

 

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

Torrential rains have submerged at least a quarter of Bangladesh, washing away the few things that count as assets for some of the world’s poorest people — their goats and chickens, houses of mud and tin, sacks of rice stored for the lean season.

It is the latest calamity to strike the delta nation of 165 million people. Only two months ago, a cyclone pummeled the country’s southwest. Along the coast, a rising sea has swallowed entire villages. And while it’s too soon to ascertain what role climate change has played in these latest floods, Bangladesh is already witnessing a pattern of more severe and more frequent river flooding than in the past along the mighty Brahmaputra River, scientists say, and that is projected to worsen in the years ahead as climate change intensifies the rains.

“The suffering will go up,” said Sajedul Hasan, the humanitarian director of BRAC, an international development organization based in Bangladesh that is distributing food, cash and liquid soap to displaced people.

Opinion: How financial inclusion can build economic resilience in the wake of COVID-19

As the COVID-19 crisis takes a massive economic toll, financial inclusion will be critical to helping the poor recover. Microfinance institutions should work in tandem with businesses to build community resilience and boost economic growth.

Raising awareness on COVID-19 in Bangladesh

By Lewis Temple

 

This piece was originally published here in Business Fights Poverty. It has been reposted below.

COVID-19 has impacted nearly everyone around the globe, but its impacts are particularly acute for people in poverty. As governments restrict gatherings, health authorities recommend social distancing, and markets panic, the outbreak poses a disproportionate threat in the Global South.

At the same time, many microfinance institutions (MFIs) face threats to staff safety and operational viability, threatening access to financial inclusion. Microfinance is a crucial tool for poor households to smooth consumption, invest in small businesses, build resilience, and cope with shocks—shocks that today threaten to plunge half a billion people into poverty and jeopardize decades of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from governments, civil society, and the business community. Drawing on BRAC’s experience lending in crises, here are three ways that MFIs and businesses can partner to invest in local economies and communities as they face COVID-19.

 

1. Reinforcing financial resilience

Lockdown measures and social distancing regulations have drastically impacted people living in poverty. A recent rapid assessment by BRAC in nine countries across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa revealed the majority of respondents are experiencing food insecurity and sharp drops in income, and a similar survey in Bangladesh suggested household incomes have declined by 69% in urban areas and 80% in rural areas. Access to credit is critical to enable families to keep small businesses afloat and cover necessary expenses such as nutritious food, medical care, and school fees.

While social distancing regulations pose challenges for continued lending, MFIs can take several immediate steps to support families affected by the crisis, such as offering revised repayment schedules and waiving interest for borrowers struggling to repay loans. In the aftermath of West Africa’s Ebola outbreak in 2014, BRAC created flexible repayment schedules for borrowers in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In a retrospective case study, BRAC found this helped borrowers bounce back after the crisis and resume businesses, ultimately enabling them to pay back their installments and take out new loans. By working hand-in-hand with businesses, MFIs could create more flexibility for clients in crisis and amplify the impact of these measures on local economies.

 

2. Engaging frontline staff

While many MFIs have closed branches and suspended loan collections and disbursements in order to safeguard clients and staff, frontline staff can still play a role as the pandemic continues. As the COVID-19 crisis escalated this spring, BRAC paused microfinance operations across seven countries for various durations in consideration staff and client safety and in line with local directives. But it has continued to pay salaries for its 34,000 frontline staff despite branch closures.

In a post-Ebola assessment, BRAC found that paying staff through closures reassured field-level staff that their jobs would still be intact after the epidemic, and as a result, they maintained regular communication with clients, helping to maintain relationships and enabling staff to more quickly re-deploy. This helped BRAC smoothly resume operations as the crisis wound down and rapidly serve clients in critical need of credit to aid in their financial recoveries. Following a similar approach for the COVID-19 pandemic, MFIs can work with businesses to invest in frontline staff and help accelerate the recovery process for the communities where they work once the crisis subsides.

 

3. Building public health awareness across communities

MFIs and their frontline staff can also play a vital role during the pandemic that is beyond their usual scope: Spreading life-saving information. Public health awareness is undoubtedly key to minimizing the health and economic toll of the pandemic, and community-based MFIs are well positioned to raise awareness among client communities that may not have access to the internet or reliable information.  By partnering with MFIs to roll out public health initiatives, businesses can mitigate the impact of the pandemic in their supply chain in a cost-effective way.

Leveraging BRAC’s last-mile network and guided by local public health recommendations, we have enlisted and trained our frontline microfinance staff to spread messages on preventing COVID-19 through hand hygiene and social distancing and distribute supplies like soap and sanitizers in client communities. A similar approach proved crucial in the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak. Because BRAC’s frontline staff continued to engage with clients and connected them to lifesaving information and services, borrowers were able to bounce back more quickly after the crisis.

 

Partnering to invest in the future

It is still unclear exactly how the pandemic will unfold in the Global South and how long its effects will last. But in its aftermath, MFIs will play an important role in financing individual families and reviving local economies. As we have seen after past crises, there will be increased demand for loans to inject in businesses, buy productive assets, and boost consumption in the hardest hit communities.

Stakeholders around the globe have made tremendous progress towards the SDGs, but now that progress is at risk, and those in poverty will be hit the hardest. But through partnership, we can amplify our impact now. As MFIs navigate the uncertainties of COVID-19, injecting cash into client hands, fostering relationships with clients, and promoting public health are critical investments in local economies and communities. MFIs should work in tandem with businesses and other partners to make these investments. Together, we can amplify our impact to boost economic growth and community resilience.

 

Lewis Temple is Chief Executive Officer for BRAC UK.

Opinion: Answering Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh with skills development, artisan training

Innovation is often associated with the newest technology or the latest app. Often, however, it can be seen in the fresh application of a tried-and-true strategy in a new context.

Women at an artisan training center in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh

By Sadiaa Haque and Samira Syed

 

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

Innovation is often associated with the newest technology or the latest app. Often, however, it can be seen in the fresh application of a tried-and-true strategy in a new context. In Cox’s Bazar, a small town on the southeastern coast of Bangladesh, extreme poverty, a fraught socio-cultural landscape and the Rohingya refugee humanitarian crisis have exacerbated existing vulnerabilities and placed an unprecedented burden on women in the host communities. BRAC is working to help them bounce back through artisanal skills training and new employment opportunities.

Cox’s Bazar is one of Bangladesh’s poorest and most vulnerable areas, with 17 percent of people living below the extreme poverty line, compared to the national average of 12.9 percent. The more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh has placed an unprecedented burden on Bangladeshis living in poverty in the surrounding host communities, particularly within Ukhiya and Teknaf, where most refugees have settled. Host communities cite livelihoods and access to employment as their most pressing need, with 51 percent of locals reporting that neither they nor someone in their immediate family are able to make a living in the local economy.

A recent BBC issue of What Matters? detailed concerns among the host community in Cox’s Bazar that Rohingya are offering their services at a fraction of what it would cost to employ a local Bangladeshi. The average wage for day labor has decreased by 55 percent, particularly in agriculture, salt fields and earthen work, according to a BRAC report on the impact of Rohingya refugees on host communities.

Meanwhile, the price of almost all food items has increased up to 120 percent, according to rapid assessments conducted by BRAC. With a fall in daily labor wages and a rise in the prices of basic staples, people living in poverty are resorting to desperate measures to cope, including the selling of small assets and livestock, taking on increased debt and risky migration.

The burden has been greatest for women.

Conservative cultural norms complicate the social landscape – one where women are often married by their family at a young age, unable to complete schooling, denied resources, and forced to live through intimate partner violence and polygamy.

It is not any easier for women in the refugee camps. Focus group discussions by the United Nations Population Fund have revealed similar issues, as well as new ones, such as husbands marrying other women to access more rations. It is imperative to invest in women, in both camps and host communities, by supporting livelihoods that are sustainable and empowering, to prevent further adoption of negative coping strategies.

In extending its flagship enterprise to host communities in Cox’s Bazar, BRAC is investing in exactly that. Created by BRAC in the 1970s to develop livelihoods for rural women, Aarong harnesses the skills of 65,000 women artisans to market handmade products at its 21 outlets across Bangladesh. Now the country’s largest lifestyle retail brand, Aarong forecasts sales and production to ensure that its artisans receive regular orders and have a consistent source of income throughout the year.

Aarong operates across Bangladesh in two ways. The first is through the Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF), which uses a hub-and-spoke model with a main production center linked to many small sub-centers. AAF’s artisans have access to BRAC’s holistic development interventions, such as microfinance, maternal healthcare, hygiene awareness, subsidized latrines, human rights awareness and legal aid, daycare facilities and more. Aarong also works with over 800 independent producers, independent master-craftspeople and micro-entrepreneurs, who take direct orders from Aarong and are audited on 39 social compliance metrics.

This year, Aarong opened a production center in Ukhiya, near the refugee camps and settlements. It is the first of its kind in the region. With support from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, women receive on-the-job training from experienced trainers for six months and leave the program equipped with skills in machine-sewing, hand embroidery, block printing and screen printing. They are given a monthly stipend to support them throughout the training period.

Program participants are carefully selected to ensure that only women living in the most vulnerable situations are included. Most of the participants were forced into early marriage, are widowed, or abandoned by their husbands. Many never completed school beyond the fifth grade. Others had no previous source of income and those that did, relied on agriculture on a very small scale. A few worked in garments factories in Chittagong, more than five hours from Ukhiya.

Today, the project includes one main center and five sub-centers operating in the host communities, as well as six training centers in the camps. In total, almost 400 women are now being trained, with a goal of 600 by the end of the year.

The project seeks to reduce women’s unpaid care work, advance women’s agency, transform discriminatory gender norms and practices, encourage higher incomes, and promote better access to and control over resources. Artisans will receive holistic development support from BRAC, including financial linkages, health insurance, regular health check-ups and retirement benefits.

Breaking down employment barriers for women, particularly those living in vulnerable settings, is critical to driving future economic prosperity. Enterprises need to ensure progressive work environments that encourage women, and women need to be equipped with the skills to get those jobs and keep them. On World Refugee Day, we stand with refugees and those affected by refugee crises by declaring our commitment to sustainable, long-term support that enables everyone to realize their potential.

 

Sadia Haque is Deputy Manager, Reporting and Documentation, Emergency Preparedness and Response at BRAC International.

Samira Syad is Senior Manager, Executive Director’s Office at BRAC International.

Lego and ‘Sesame Street’ unite with $100m project to benefit refugee children

There’s no greater image than that of a happy, healthy child playing and giggling.

Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop

By Dana Feldman

 

Below is en excerpt of a piece originally published in Forbes. Click here to view the full piece.

There’s no greater image than that of a happy, healthy child playing and giggling. Unfortunately, as we all know, this isn’t the reality for many children the world over.

The LEGO FoundationSesame Workshop and organizations working with Syrian and Rohingya refugees have teamed up on a humanitarian project announced today in an effort to change the daunting reality for refugee children. The goal is to help children up to age six heal from trauma with play-based learning programs.

LEGO will provide $100 million over the course of five years to the creators of Sesame Street to expand their work with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in the countries surrounding Syria, and also to partner with the Bangladeshi relief organization BRAC that works with Rohingya refugees.

“The goal of the humanitarian play lab is to build resilience and empower children and their communities,” says Director for BRAC University’s Institute of Educational Development, Dr. Erum Mariam. She’s been running BRAC’s education programs for more than 25 years and describes the children of the Rohingya community as some of the most talented and spontaneous she’s worked with. “We have been working with the children over the past 14 months to collect ‘Kabbiya’ (rhymes), physical play activities and ‘Kissa’ (stories) so that the humanitarian play lab provides children with self-confidence and pride. The entire model is based on the idea that play heals and play helps children to learn.”