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.

World NTD Day: Deworming out-of-school children is more vital than ever

Amid widespread school closures, it is more important than ever to maintain critical health services for the most vulnerable children.

By Sarah Allen


Parasitic intestinal worms affect more than one in four people globally, but they are disproportionately prevalent in Bangladesh, where they infect one in two children. These infections prevent nutrients from being absorbed into the body, which often leads to impaired cognitive and physical development, anemia, undernutrition, and other illnesses. Children infected by worms are less likely to attend school regularly, and the related health issues diminish their ability to focus and learn.

“I used to fall sick quite often with stomach aches,” said Tanisha, an eleven-year-old in Saidpur, Bangladesh. When she was feeling sick, she was unable to attend school.

Intestinal worms are widely prevalent, but they are also exceptionally simple and cost-effective to treat, particularly those that are spread through the soil, known as Soil Transmitted Helminths (STH). For just 50 cents per child per year, deworming pills can have broad and lasting impacts, from keeping kids in school longer to increasing their earnings potential as adults.

Recent research on a deworming program in Kenya found that 20 years after treatment, children with two to three extra years of deworming earned 13 percent more money as adults, spent 14 percent more in consumer spending, and were more likely to work in urban areas and in non-agricultural jobs with higher earnings potential.


BRAC staff raise awareness on deworming at a schoolA BRAC staff member raises awareness about deworming. Photo by A.S.M. Maruf Karbir, Viscom Bangladesh. Photo taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.


It is clear that deworming has positive, lasting effects on children’s health and development. But traditionally, deworming programs have been delivered through schools, a cost-effective and easy way to reach many children at once. But how can we reach the most vulnerable children with this potentially impactful treatment when many of them—especially girls—are frequently absent or not in school at all?

With support from Johnson & Johnson and in partnership with the Government of Bangladesh, BRAC launched a health program in 2017 to reduce STH infections in both in-school and out-of-school children across Syedur, a sub-district in Bangladesh. The program trains community health workers to diagnose and treat intestinal worms, educates teachers and families about how to prevent and detect infections, and works with schools and communities to promote hygiene practices and facilitate deworming. BRAC health workers target children and parents in the community to educate them about the importance of deworming and of sanitation as a method for prevention.

Read more: Learn about BRAC’s health care programs.

In addition to assisting schools in biannual mass treatment campaigns, BRAC organizes deworming camps and delivers home-based treatment for worms, with an emphasis on reaching children who work, are affected by child marriage, or for other reasons do not attend school. Because community health workers are trusted members of their communities, they are able to educate families on the importance of deworming, break down stigmas and cultural barriers, and improve uptake of the treatment.


A community health worker educates mothers on preventing and treating intestinal worms. Photo by A.S.M. Maruf Karbir, Viscom Bangladesh. Photo taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Through the program, BRAC has trained nearly 200 community health workers and over 4,000 school mentors to educate families on deworming. In turn, these providers have educated over 100,000 mothers and caregivers through health forums and reached over 90,000 children with deworming medication through schools and community deworming camps.

Amid COVID-19 and widespread school closures around the globe, maintaining the delivery of essential health care services outside of school settings is more crucial than ever. More than 40 million children have been affected by school closures in Bangladesh, where schools have not reopened since last March, eliminating a critical avenue for deworming and other vital public health interventions.

Read more: Discover how BRAC is responding to COVID-19.

BRAC has developed creative approaches to engage children at home with deworming messages, such as creating comic books with lessons on deworming and hygiene practices and broadcasting animated videos on local television.

While her school was closed and she was learning at home, Tanisha received accessible, creative comic books created by BRAC that helped her easily understand how to prevent intestinal worms.


Tanisha holds a comic book with messages on dewormingTanisha shows off her favorite comic book.


“After reading these comic books, I understand that the reason for my stomach aches was not washing my hands properly before eating,” she said. “I learned how people can be affected by worms, and how they can be avoided. Now I always wash my hands.”

Widespread, extended school closures mean that more children are vulnerable and unable to access health services. To respond to the pandemic and ensure the continuity of care, BRAC has equipped health workers with personal protective equipment and additional training, mobilized tens of thousands of staff and volunteers to educate communities on COVID-19 and how to prevent it, set up testing kiosks, and adopted remote, no-touch, and low-touch health protocols to continue delivering care door-to-door safely and referring families to testing facilities.

Amid the pandemic, reaching the most vulnerable children and families is more critical than ever. Health and poverty are inextricably linked, and healthy families are able to pursue bright, productive futures. Together with Johnson & Johnson, BRAC is ensuring that even the most disadvantaged children have the opportunity to grow, learn, and thrive.


Sarah Allen is Communications Officer at BRAC USA.

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.

Honoring Sir Fazle Hasan Abed: One-year memorial message

Dr. Muhammad Musa, Executive Director of BRAC International, shares reflections on Sir Fazle’s life and legacy on the anniversary of his passing.

Sir Fazle with children

By Dr. Muhammad Musa


On December 20, 2020, we marked the first anniversary of the passing of BRAC’s beloved founder, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. On this day, I am reflecting not just on Abed Bhai’s life and legacy, but also on who he was as a person and how he touched the lives of those around him. 

Abed Bhai—as those of us who knew him called him with respect and affection—contained multitudes. He was a global leader with vision and purpose, a courageous decision-maker and institution-builder, a humble personality who didn’t like the spotlight, and a loving family member and father. He built one of the largest and most successful development organizations in the world, but always highlighted the work of others above his own. A pioneer of social enterprises as a tool to address poverty and social injustice—and a lover of poetry, music and art—Abed Bhai was many things, but above all he was a man with a calling to help make the world a better place, not only for the current generation, but also for all those yet to come.

I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to work closely with Abed Bhai, especially in the last four years of his life. I was fortunate, as our offices were facing each other, to have many chances to interact with him informally on a regular basis. I will always cherish the days (and occasional late nights) of conversation and reflecting on work and life together.

Although I miss our conversations in the office, I learned the most from Abed Bhai in the field. I believe his last field visit was to the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in March 2019. We were together for two full days, driving miles to reach the refugee camps, followed by hours spent walking the narrow lanes in between the hundreds of tents in which Rohingya families were living. Together, we visited BRAC’s innovative Humanitarian Play Labs for the children of Rohingya refugees, observed in-camp income-generating centers for refugee women, and witnessed learning centers where children were receiving education services.

Abed Bhai was tireless, walking from morning to evening, intently observing each program. He was always appreciative of the great work that our team members were doing, while at the same time identifying ways to pursue even higher levels of excellence and challenging us to achieve even greater impact. It was one of the most rewarding learning experiences of my career. I realized on that trip that a BRAC leader needs to be extremely appreciative of the work of her/his/their team, but must never become complacent or satisfied. Abed Bhai wanted us to continually raise the bar of the quality and scale of our programs. That was our Abed Bhai, who never felt we were done, but, rather, always believed we still had a long way to go!

One year has already passed since our beloved Abed Bhai left us: I continue to miss him. I miss his voice, his smile, his affection, his teaching, and most importantly his enormous ability to help solve complex problems through simple and non-bureaucratic actions. Even though he is no longer with us, I still feel his spirit around me every day. In a year that has tested us all, the collective commitment of everyone in the global BRAC family—from field staff to management to donors, partners, and board members—to fight for a better world proves that the spirit of BRAC, the spirit of Abed Bhai, is still alive and well.

I am so grateful to have been able to know a man such as Abed Bhai, but I am even more grateful for the community, the BRAC family, that he built and so many are part of. Abed Bhai’s shining accomplishment is the people he was able to bring together—from his wife and children, to his lifelong friends who are still involved in the organization, to all the hundreds of thousands of people who make BRAC what it is.

Although today we look back in remembrance of Abed Bhai’s amazing life and accomplishments, tomorrow we look forward to carrying on his spirit and vision to create a world free of poverty, inequality, and injustice. Thank you for being a part of this collective effort.

I look forward to continuing Abed Bhai’s journey with you all.


Dr. Muhammad Musa is the Executive Director of BRAC USA.

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.

Video: Meet Noor and Aziz, the newest Sesame Street Muppets

Watch how these Rohingya twins bring playful learning to the world’s largest refugee camp

Noor and Aziz are 6-year-old Rohingya twins living in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. They enjoy learning through play, creating stories, and spending time with their family and friends. As part of Sesame Workshop and BRAC’s Play to Learn humanitarian program, Noor and Aziz will be featured in playful learning content to support children and families affected by the Rohingya refugee crisis.

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.