Webinar: Food and income security amid COVID-19 — what is the data telling us?

A set of rapid assessments on food and income security across ten countries reveals striking patterns

BRAC has conducted four rapid assessments on food and income security across ten countries in Africa and Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic. This webinar dives into the findings and shares how we can apply the learnings to enable the most vulnerable to recover from the impacts of the pandemic. The webinar features key BRAC leadership and staff; including Sajedul Hasan, Director of Humanitarian Programs; Ruth Okowa, Africa Regional Director; Kazi Eliza Islam, Associate Director of Monitoring and Program Quality; and Dr. Munshi Sulaiman, Africa Regional Research Lead.

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: 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.

Vulnerable communities in developing countries face immediate threats to food security as COVID-19 pandemic worsens, survey finds

A new rapid assessment finds the vast majority of respondents are already experiencing a loss of income

Farmer in Liberia

NEW YORK, NEW YORK — As COVID-19 reaches developing countries around the world, a rapid needs assessment conducted in response to the pandemic by BRAC, a global development and humanitarian organization, has found that vulnerable communities in eight countries across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are already decreasing the size and frequency of their meals in response to immediate economic hardships. With food insecurity already a looming issue for many of these countries and self-isolation impossible for millions, countries with limited public health infrastructure and fragile social safety systems are poised to be hit hardest.

The assessment found that respondents whose governments have ordered a total lockdown are faring worst of all, with farmers, small business owners, and day-laborers most affected. Coupled with a reported increase in food prices across the board, this led one in four respondents to report they do not expect to be able to cope if the current situation continues. BRAC is already supporting 100,000 low-income families in Bangladesh with emergency food assistance, but the report suggests the need is urgent across developing economies – including in Afghanistan, Liberia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Uganda – where social distancing is disrupting lives and livelihoods.

“As we have seen in past outbreaks and disasters, including the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, crises disproportionately impact the poorest and most vulnerable communities, specifically women and girls and people with disabilities,” said Dr. Muhammad Musa, the Executive Director of BRAC International. “COVID-19 is no different. BRAC is committed to standing with these communities as they persevere through the pandemic and its effects. We are eager to work in tandem with national governments, private sector partners, local civil society organizations, and our peer organizations to ensure those facing immediate threats to their food security and economic stability can access the support and services they need.”

BRAC is responding to the COVID-19 crisis across all 11 countries of operation to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, protect vulnerable people from economic shocks, and ensure the long-term health and wellbeing of the communities it serves. Over the last month, BRAC has reached more than 15 million people in Bangladesh with preventative health information and another half a million in 10 additional countries across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

As a grassroots development organization, many BRAC programs rely on group-based community models. While much of this work has been constrained by self-quarantine orders, BRAC is retooling staff to support efforts to raise awareness about COVID-19. These staff have joined existing cadres of thousands of community health workers in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Liberia, and Uganda. Together, they are implementing comprehensive health awareness campaigns that educate communities about the virus, combat misinformation, and mitigate social ostracization of the ill.

Increasingly, BRAC is utilizing technology for its ongoing response efforts. It is piloting interactive SMS messaging platforms in several South Asian and sub-Saharan African countries to disseminate COVID-19 messaging and, in Bangladesh, has developed an app that enables field staff and program participants to screen COVID-19 symptoms and provides recommendations and guidance on when to seek care. In many rural areas, however, connectivity remains a barrier to technology-based solutions.

Importantly, the assessment will enable BRAC to develop a real-time understanding of the needs and challenges facing vulnerable communities from the COVID-19 pandemic. It will continue to conduct follow up surveys on a regular basis to generate a longitudinal understanding as the crisis unfolds. As a knowledge leader, BRAC anticipates sharing this data with partners to prioritize providing targeted food security and income support for affected communities in addition to its comprehensive public health programming. It is actively developing new partnerships to tackle this pressing need.

 

Notes to the editor

About the assessment

BRAC carried out a rapid assessment of food and income security in late March to quickly generate information on how COVID-19 is affecting the communities it serves and inform its response. BRAC interviewed approximately 1,000 respondents for the assessment, which included field-level staff and volunteers as well as program participants, through phone interviews that followed a structured questionnaire. Interviews were conducted across eight of the 11 countries where BRAC operates development and humanitarian programs, including Afghanistan, Liberia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Uganda. Due to its small sample size, the findings of the assessment should not be considered representative of the entire population of each country.

About BRAC

BRAC is a global leader in developing and implementing cost-effective, evidence-based programs to assist the most marginalized people in extremely poor, conflict-prone, and post-disaster settings. These include initiatives in education, healthcare, microfinance, women and girls’ empowerment, agriculture, human and legal rights, and more. BRAC’s vision is a world free from all forms of exploitation and discrimination where everyone has the opportunity to realize their potential. In 2020, BRAC was named the number one NGO in the world by NGO Advisor for the fifth consecutive year. Founded in Bangladesh in 1972, BRAC currently operates in 11 countries in Asia and Africa, touching the lives of over 100 million people.

About BRAC USA

Based in New York, BRAC USA is the North American affiliate of BRAC. BRAC USA provides comprehensive support to BRAC around the world by raising awareness about its work to empower people living in poverty and mobilizing resources to support its programs. BRAC USA also works closely with its international counterparts to design and implement cost-effective and evidence-based poverty innovations worldwide. BRAC USA is an independent 501(c)(3) organization.

 

Media contact

BRAC USA

Sarah Allen
[email protected]

West African authors elevate girls’ voices through storytelling

A new set of books inspired by real stories from girls in West Africa aims to help girls navigate the unique challenges they face. Hear from the authors who brought their stories to life.

BY SARAH ALLEN

 

This summer, BRAC published a new collection of life skills books designed for girl participants in its Empowerment and Livelihoods for Adolescents (ELA) program in West Africa. The program provides safe spaces in girls’ communities where they can come together to sing, dance, play games, and socialize. The ELA clubs are led by peer mentors, who facilitate training on life skills, sexual and reproductive health, financial literacy, and livelihood opportunities.

The new life skills books complement the ELA curriculum, navigating topics like forced marriage, early pregnancy, domestic violence, and other key issues that many girls in the program face. We interviewed two Sierra Leonean authors who helped write the books, Mohamed Sheriff and Allieu Kamara, to learn more about the writing process and how their own experiences growing up in the region informed their writing. Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.

 

How has your country or community impacted your writing?

Allieu: I became interested in writing following the end of the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone, when I became a journalist. We undertook many research and investigative projects. One of the glaring challenges after the war was that the education system was shattered, which in turn brought about a rapid decline of literary interest. When the Canadian Organization for Development through Education partnered with PEN Sierra Leone to undertake a project called Reading Sierra Leone, it gave me greater opportunity to continue writing about local issues I observed.

 

What events or other factors in your life have influenced you most as a writer?

Mohamed: My mother, who was a brilliant folk storyteller, influenced me the most. Her storytelling sessions were among my most enjoyable childhood experiences, and through them, I realized the immense power of stories to delight through both spoken and written word. I can say she was my greatest inspiration as a writer and, more specifically, the reason why I write and publish children’s books.

The suspense thrillers I read as a teenager also influenced me markedly as a writer. The gripping suspense, the twists and turns, and the seamless writing style that kept me turning the pages were key factors that enhanced my love for both reading and the art of telling stories.

Another factor that greatly influenced me as a writer was the 11-year civil war in my country, which caused a lot of death and destruction. There was so much to tell and so much to write about that one simply couldn’t not write.

 

What was your favorite book as a teenager or young adult? Why?

Mohamed: I read and enjoyed so many books that I can’t single out one as my favorite. I loved the folk stories from West Africa and Africa as a whole, but I greatly enjoyed books from other places – like the Arabian Night TalesAlice in WonderlandCinderellaJack and the Beanstalk, and stories from Greek Mythology.

Allieu: ‘So Long A Letter’ by Senegalese author Mariama Bâ was my favourite book growing up. It deals with problems that many African women face.

 

The new life skills books cover challenging topics like child marriage, early pregnancy, and gender-based violence. How did you navigate these important but difficult topics as an author? 

Mohamed: It was a bit of a challenge – sometimes you want to tell the story graphically, directly, bluntly; at other times, you want to be subtle, less direct, euphemistic, ironic. Even reviewers and editors are not always in agreement about which approach is best, so I follow my instinct.

There are no hard-and-fast formulas or one-size-fits-all approaches. Storytelling is a dynamic business, each story has its own feel, temper, and peculiarities. These determine how you navigate each story.

Allieu: During the research and brainstorming sessions that led to the publication of the life skills books, the project consultant ran a workshop with the authors on ways to deal with these types of sensitive issues in our writing. The main lesson from that workshop was that the dynamics of each story should guide the author about how to address an issue.

 

What kind of research did you do before writing these books?

Mohamed: Before writing the books, we visited communities where BRAC runs its ELA clubs to talk to their participants, adolescent girls, many of whom have dropped out of school or experienced abuse or another violation of their human rights. They shared their experiences with us as well as their hopes, aspirations, and views about life in general.

Allieu: In another workshop before writing the books, we were trained on how to navigate interviews with stakeholders and conducted focus group discussions with girls in the program, facilitators, and community members. It was interesting listening to the girls, as each person we talked to had different stories about similar challenges.

 

Which of the issues covered in the books are most important to you or near to your heart? Why?

Mohamed: All the issues dealt with in the books are near to my heart because they are interrelated, in the sense that they are all human rights abuses related to gender. These include early and forced marriage, lack of access to education, sexual abuse, gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy, lack of decision-making power in the home, and more. These are issues I have addressed through my writing for a long time.

Allieu: Personally, all the issues in the BRAC life skills books are important, because they all directly deal with the problems girls are facing in our country. The content of the books actually addressed the topics that came up in our research and provided responses to those problems. I believe if girls read these books, they can be in a better position to tackle the challenges they face.

Why were you interested in working on a project with BRAC?

Mohamed: The project is specifically targeting a readership that few if any people think about – adolescent girls who have dropped out of school. Many of the books that they may have the ability to read and comprehend are children’s books with content that may not match their experiences. Books that may interest them are written with more difficult vocabulary and a style that is beyond their current ability to digest. The BRAC life skills book project gave us the opportunity to produce books that provided interesting content targeted to the reading comprehension level of these girls.

 

What impact do you hope the life skills books will have? What do you hope readers of these books will learn or gain?

Mohamed: If a constructive reading program is organized for adolescent girls that incorporates these books, the girls could benefit in a number of significant ways. They would be exposed to positive new approaches to dealing with the gender-related human rights challenges they encounter regularly.

There are two key lessons that I want to emphasize: First, suffering in silence will not resolve their challenges, therefore, girls must speak out. Secondly, adolescent girls should never give up on their dreams and goals in life. If they persevere, they will succeed.

Perhaps more importantly, after reading all 11 books, I hope they will have adopted the habit of reading for pleasure and enlightenment. Since many of these girls may never return to formal education, adopting the habit of reading for pleasure could be one of the most valuable life skills tools they can take away from the entire BRAC program. A lifelong habit of reading is an effective means of informal self-education that could increase their communication and comprehension skills and broaden their horizons.

Allieu: Most if not all of the characters in the life skills books who experience gender-based issues reflect the experiences of girls we spoke to in BRAC’s clubs. I hope that they will believe that all is not lost, and that the stories they read will inspire them to adapt to and navigate these challenges.

 

About the authors

Mohamed Sheriff

Born and raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Mohamed Sheriff is an author, writing coach, publisher, producer, and director. He writes children’s books, short stories, novellas, and dramas for radio, television, and stage, and also produces and directs documentary videos, short films, and radio, television, and stage productions.

Mohamed’s books include Maryama Must GoTibujang Must Not ComeShasha Shooshoo and the Rat, and Secret Fear. He has contributed to plays including Not You Too and Free Juice For All. Mohamed has won several local and international awards for his writings, including three BBC awards for Just Me and Mama (1999), Spots of a Leopard (2006) and A Voice in Hell (1999) as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Prize for Excellence in Literature for Secret Fear (1999). He contributed to the following life skills books: Let Me Be, You Think You Know, Broken Promise, Change of Plan, For Her Sake, and To Do and To Dare.

Allieu S. Kamara

Allieu Kamara is an author who specializes in writing children’s books. He studied at Fourah Bay College at the University of Sierra Leone and brings a background in journalism. He enthusiastically promotes literature, reading, and creative writing for children in schools and communities across Sierra Leone.

Allieu’s works include, Is it Magic?The Waterside Stone, and Thief Thief! He contributed to the following life skills books: You Think You Know, Dreaming Again, and Change of Plan.

 

Sarah Allen is Communications Officer at BRAC USA.