The concept of risk has been discussed by many, and often, over the past year, as citizens around the world voice their concerns about the global recession. Mortgage risk, loan risk, credit risk, bailout risk, risk assessment, risk of spending too much, risk of spending too little, and on and on. A lot of risky business (and not the underwear dance kind) has been going on and we are paying for it now in all too literal a way.

There is another kind of risk though; one that I think some of you may be familiar with. That’s right, it’s Risk, as in epic board game, world domination style Risk.

I have been thinking about this particular kind of Risk lately due to the fact that while working with the Kiva field partner BRAC, I cannot escape how much the organization makes me think of the game, with its trademark little army men taking control of continents and sweeping across the globe in the attempt to gain complete domination of the two dimensional board game-world.

Only in BRAC’s case, the army is not little plastic figures, but a human, benevolent BRAC army of Bangladeshis, Afghanis, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Southern Sudanese, Ugandans, and Tanzanians. And this is just the beginning – the army is growing, sweeping the globe, out to conquer the poverty of the world, one country at a time.

The figures in green represent BRAC, those in red...poverty.

The figures in green represent BRAC, those in red...poverty.

Okay, my analogy may be getting out of hand at this point. “Out to conquer the poverty of the world” is definitely too melodramatic, but the quantity and quality of BRAC’s global work to improve the lives of those living in poverty is undeniably striking.

Created in 1972 as a small-scale relief and rehabilitation project that was designed as a response to the consequences of the liberation war in Bangladesh, BRAC has since evolved into the largest southern NGO in the world.

With its programs in Asia and Africa, BRAC provides services to more than 110 million people. These services include: microfinance, health, water and sanitation, education, adolescent education and life skills, agriculture, livestock, and other social development programs.

Poverty is a simple word for a complex beast – BRAC works to improve the quality of people’s lives using a holistic approach, with strategically linked programs that address the causes of poverty from multiple angles. This might mean that within a microfinance group, there will be a health worker providing medical supplies for her group members or that down the street from a microfinance meeting a client’s daughter will be learning about gender issues at an adolescent club.

BRAC focuses on empowering women through these development programs, viewing women as crucial agents of change who will be the ones to lead their families out of intergenerational poverty.

Two BRAC Tanzania loan officers head out in the early morning to meet their borrower groups

Two BRAC Tanzania loan officers head out in the early morning to meet their borrower groups

Not only are women the target population for these programs, but women are also the primary workforce behind them.  BRAC employs more than 120,000 people worldwide, the majority of whom are women. They are the real life Risk-style BRAC army. From microfinance area managers, branch managers, and loan officers to agricultural workers to health program coordinators to adolescent club mentors, women are the driving force behind BRAC’s work in underdeveloped countries.

There are also dedicated men involved. BRAC’s head management is staffed by development experts from Bangladesh, men who move to the targeted country for a period of 2 to 3 years in order to implement the programs and train staff to run them. Agriculture and livestock program staffs are also often men, and male guards at the offices provide valuable work to the security of BRAC’s operations.

Together, these hardworking BRAC employees spread out across countries, opening branch offices and providing valuable services to citizens who have, until now, lived outside of the reach of other means of assistance.

I served my KF6 Fellowship at K-MET in Kenya, now I am in Tanzania working with BRAC. Moving from a one (albeit super-) man operation to the 85 office strong (and growing) BRAC operation in Tanzania has definitely been an eye opener in terms of scale.

A borrower group sits in the BRAC required U-shape seating formation (with near military like precision) on a mat in rural Zanzibar. Borrower groups meet once a week to make loan repayments and apply for loans. The group (of 20-40 women) is subdivided into small groups of 5. Each small group member acts as a guarantor of her group members's loans - if one of the small group members fails to pay, the other four are responsible for the payment.

A borrower group sits in the BRAC required U-shape seating formation (with near military like precision) on a mat in rural Zanzibar. Borrower groups meet once a week to make loan repayments and apply for loans. The group (of 20-40 women) is subdivided into small groups of 5. Each small group member acts as a guarantor of her group members's loans - if one of the small group members fails to pay, the other four are responsible for the payment.

BRAC Tanzania employs more than 800 (77% of whom are women) Tanzanians and reaches over 750,000 citizens across the country. Starting in June 2006, BRAC has expanded from one office to approximately 85 (I say approximately because they seem to be multiplying overnight of their own accord – it’s hard to keep track), reaching people in poverty in 17 out of the 26 regions in Tanzania. Over 80,000 women borrowers attend group meetings each week.

As BRAC Tanzania continues to grow, its relationship with Kiva plays an increasingly important role. Though BRAC has an Africa Loan Fund that provides funding for many of their programs, and the microfinance program itself is largely self-sustaining, the organization continues to want to diversify their funding avenues. Kiva’s  loans are a great way to continue to scale up their programs, enabling them to provide even more Tanzanian women with access to credit.

It is in this way that, you, the lenders, can become a part of the great BRAC army. Welcome. Make a loan to a BRAC Tanzania borrower today. Be a part of opening the door to financial services to women across Tanzania. And with the borrower group guarantee, it’s not even a little bit risky.

Sarah Forbes worked as a KF6 with K-MET in Kenya. She is now serving her KF7 and KF8 terms with BRAC in Tanzania. Unfortunately, she has never actually played the game Risk.

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