A nonprofit based in Bangladesh is seeking local support for an initiative to set up country-wide broadband Internet facilities that will soon link schools across the largely impoverished South Asian country.
Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of the Rural Advancement Committee, or BRAC, spoke about the initiative at Harvard as part of his North American tour — which included lectures at Columbia, New York University, and George Washington University – in an effort to help launch BRAC USA, which opened its first office in New York this summer.
Addressing an audience of about 300 people in a crowded auditorium on September 17, Abed said the Internet facilities will help bring education to those who are currently not served in Bangladesh, where nearly half the population is living below the poverty line.
A nonprofit charitable organization that was started in Bangladesh soon after independence, BRAC has set up thousands of one-room primary schools in rural areas over the past 23 years, provided literacy education for adults, and has recently opened a university. More than 1.5 million Bangladeshi children — 65 percent of whom are girls — are currently enrolled in these schools, which provide instruction in the subjects of Bengali, English, mathematics and social studies, according to BRAC.
BRAC’s broadband Internet initiative is the first large-scale Internet provider in Bangladesh, according to Cambridge, Mass. resident Khalid Quadir, 40, who founded the BRAC Net company as a joint venture with BRAC two years ago.
Its goal is to provide high speed wireless Internet access to more than 1,000 small community libraries inside BRAC high schools in Bangladesh in the next two to three years, including libraries in rural areas and small towns that do not currently even have landline telephone service, Quadir explained.
BRAC is also in the process of developing online lessons for its schools, according to Susan Davis, the president and CEO of the newly-established BRAC USA.
So far, ten school libraries in the country’s largest cities, Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet, have gone online thanks to the initiative.
"In Bangladesh, Internet remains very much focused in urban areas; this is one way to push Internet into rural areas," Quadir said, explaining that it’s easy to deploy wireless Internet in Bangladesh because the land is mostly flat. "We are connecting these libraries one by one to our own network. The students and members of the community will have access to the Internet."
When it is put in place, BRAC Net hopes to provide wireless access all across Bangladesh for a fee of approximately $20 per month for those people who can afford their own computers, and at a discounted rate at high school libraries, Quadir said.
For BRAC’s founder Abed the key to success has always been about "scaling up" programs to serve more people. He said that BRAC is the world’s only charitable non-governmental organization that was started in a developing country and expanded to other nations in Asia and Africa.
BRAC’s school program started in 1984 in Bangladesh with 22 schools, expanded to 200 schools the next year, and eventually grew to 32,000 primary schools and 20,140 pre-primary schools today, he said..
"Whenever I’ve taken up a program, it’s always national," Abed said. "Broadband Internet facilities to cover the entire country is the best way of expanding education for the entire country."
In recent years, BRAC programs —in the fields of microcredit lending, healthcare, and education —also expanded to Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
In Afghanistan, BRAC established 284 community schools since 2002 which currently enroll 8,300 students, 89 percent of whom are girls, according to BRAC.
The nonprofit is currently in the process of raising $1.4 million to establish 100 pilot schools in war-ravaged southern Sudan and Uganda which will accommodate approximately 5,000 children, according to Susan Davis, the president and CEO of the newly-established BRAC USA. Davis said she is not sure if wireless Internet will be implemented in BRAC’s African schools.
In addition to broadband Internet, BRAC is working on raising funds to achieve universal immunization and bring down neonatal and maternal mortality rates in rural areas of Bangladesh, and is spearheading several initiatives with regard to the country’s economy, including planting mulberry trees in the hopes of competing with Chinese silk exporters.
"We are the only southern NGO that has gone global. Hopefully we’ll get your support," Abed told his Harvard audience in September. "If you know any rich people, get some money. Hopefully it’s not the last time I come to Harvard. Hopefully we’ll mobilize more resources, human and financial."