I’m currently photographing on a four country assignment with BRAC, an NGO based out of Bangladesh. While I wish I could go there too, I’ve just finished up a leg in Liberia and am heading to Tanzania tonight. I first became familiar with BRAC after spotting their program signs at almost every junction in Tanzania directing highway travelers to nearby projects. They gained more attention last year after an agricultural grant from the Gates Foundation, another organization for whom I regularly photograph. Above, a mangrove swamp on the Sierra Leone River in Port Loko.

BRAC works in the areas of microfinance (small loans to individuals), sustainable agriculture, and community health. They primarily work with women and girls in these areas, as women of all ages are more vulnerable in the developing world, more likely to support their families and, as you can see from a past blog entry, doing most of the work here anyway. According to the Gates Foundation, women do about 80% of farm work in the developing world and, of course, a higher percentage of house work.

BRAC started programs in 1972 in Bangladesh, where they are based. Their approach was eventually recognized by the NGO community and began to spread to places like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Sub-Saharan Africa with the help of organizations/people like the Gates Foundation and George Soros. In 2009 BRAC began programs in two West African countries, Sierra Leone and Liberia, countries that were beginning the recovery process after years of civil war. Below, Eva and Rebecca, twin sisters in Jinja, Uganda.

Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee has expanded dramatically since its founding and now offers international programs in rural and urban areas. Most of my time in West Africa was spent in cities of more than a million inhabitants. Below, a bombed out army barracks in central Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.

I have to admit, I was a skeptic of microfinance before coming on this job. I wasn’t sure that debt in any form, no matter how small, could be beneficial to the poor. I was of the mindset that people in poverty should be given the start up capital as grants, not loans. But if I have learned anything from my time here in Africa, it’s that people seldom appreciate what they are freely given. Below, a young woman receives her first loan in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

For instance, when the World Bank wants to improve sanitation in the community, they don’t begin installing new, improved toilets in all village households. History shows that the toilets provided in this way won’t be cared for or used. The best way to go about improving sanitation practices in such a village is to first train local masons with the proper way to build more sanitary, improved toilets and to provide them with the tools to do so. The next step is to employ a group of local people to educate their community about the benefits of having these new toilets installed in (or just outside) their homes. The group then acts as marketers for these toilets. When a member of the local community decides to invest in one of these new toilets, it is used and cared for properly because the villager’s hard-earned money has bought it. I photographed this very scenario in southern Tanzania last year.

The point is that people use, people value, that which they pay for. The same goes for monetary loans. When women take out a loan in order to begin a small business, they work hard and usually make their payments on time. In Annie Walker’s case (pictured above), she began selling smoked fish on the streets of Monrovia, but with BRAC’s assistance that gradually grew into occupying a regular stall at the local market. Now her customers come to her.

There are a number of organizations in the developing world that have microfinance programs. Some of them are no more than banks. BRAC is unique, however. Many of the borrowers also participate in agriculture or community health programs, which I’ll touch on in later posts. BRAC borrowers meet every week in Freetown, Sierra Leone, as shown above, to pay installments on their loan and to discuss challenges and successes. If a woman is having trouble repaying, BRAC wants to know why and tries to help the family through without penalties, if reasons for default are legitimate.

It was a bold but fruitful move for BRAC to establish programs outside the well-trodden areas of East Africa like Uganda and Tanzania. The dynamic is different in the war-torn areas of Sierra Leone and Liberia, where infrastructure is either poor or non-existent. Above all, capital is being injected into some of Africa’s poorest areas, and women and their families are being empowered as a result.