Moving on up

Guest post from OU student Rebecca Stevenson:

Aid is not new, but the world is increasingly turning from charity to development projects. Why this trend? In my opinion, a lot of it is about scale. A project that trains teachers and sets up teaching support networks will usually influence more students than a handful of donated textbooks would. Focusing on projects also forces organizations to be aware of who and how many they are helping. The natural result is an effort to create as big an impact as possible.

Scaling means you reach more people, but it also means that the quality of change in individual’s lives is better. If many people’s lives are improved and many aspects addressed at once, the ecosystem of a developing country will change. A market will be created. Opportunities for people will grow. The change will be more sustainable, the improvement more widespread.

BRAC, a Bangladeshi NGO with a comprehensive set of programs to improve the lives of the poor, understands the nature of this development ecosystem and the necessity of both big and quality change. An oft-heard phrase at BRAC is “small is beautiful, large is necessary.” Today BRAC serves over 100 million people. The Social Innovation Lab (SIL) is a unit within BRAC that seeks to institutionalize innovation by nurturing new ideas and translating them into action. SIL, as part of its “Doing While Learning” project, is looking at successful programs of BRAC and other South Asian NGOs to figure out what elements lead to large-scale impact.

In a series of four case studies, SIL tracks the growth of BRAC’s Education Support Program, a system of primary schooling in Bangladesh; the graduation model for ultra-poverty, a program that pulls the very poorest around the world out of  extreme poverty; the Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction Project, which focuses on empowering and enabling slum dwellers in Bangladesh; and the Rural Support Programs Network, which organizes poor rural communities and their development projects in Pakistan.

By understanding these case studies, we are learning how to scale. All of these programs had the vision of large-scale impact, capitalized on the benefits of large-scale work that could not be achieved through isolated efforts, and worked through key stakeholders to implement programs. Some expanded operations, while others organized and taught smaller NGOs to replicate the model. Some focused on increasing visibility of and support for their cause. Others provided financial support to beneficiaries. All focused on organizing the poor people that they worked to help, and on increasing the poor’s capacity to change their own lives.

As an intern this summer in SIL, I have become familiar with these four programs and been a part of understanding how we can learn from them. Their impact is inspiring, and the lessons they teach can be applied to any project. I believe others will learn as much from Doing While Learning as SIL has. Sharing case studies like this engages the development community and will allow SIL and others to build new ideas as we together learn how to scale impact.

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