Non-formal Primary Education Programme of BRAC: Scope, Growth, Achievements and Factors Contributing to its Success

Some 1.4 million children from poor families are currently enrolled in BRAC schools.
Some 1.4 million children from poor families are currently enrolled in BRAC schools.
Written by Web Editor

MAHMUDA ALDEEN wrote about BRAC Education


Starting with 22 schools in 1985, BRAC now operates over 47,000 schools of various categories covering different age/social groups (pre-primary schools, primary schools, adolescent primary schools, and ethnic schools), all over Bangladesh. BRAC schools are complementary to the national education system, filling the gap in providing primary education. Some 1.4 million children from poor families are currently enrolled in BRAC schools, comprising around 20% of all students outside the publicly-owned primary schools.

Recently, this model has expanded beyond Bangladesh (Afghanistan, Sudan and Uganda) in entirely different contexts and cultures. It is too early to comment on the success and impact of NFPE’s replication abroad, but various studies regarding its national contribution have determined that NFPE has had significant organisational and societal impact on diverse stakeholders across Bangladesh, ranging from poor children, their families and communities, NFPE teachers, other GoB and community schools, local NGOs, donors and GoB itself.   Observing how NFPE operates, through reviewing the literature and from extensive discussions with NFPE staff and management, it may logically be concluded that the NFPE’s special factor was its focus on the prime issues affecting people at large and the society. Having determined those expectations and priorities, BRAC then moves ahead to find local solutions, working closely with the people concerned, while keeping their eyes on emerging issues and resolving them with needs-based remedies and specific necessary support (e.g. installing appropriate tools and systems, developing human resources).


1.1 Background and objectives

Bangladesh is an agricultural Least Developed Country in South Asia with a growing population of 141.8 million. Its labour force is largely unskilled and uneducated, which despite the large population keeps human resource development extremely low. The Population Census 2001 estimate of adult literacy rate (for 2001) was 48 percent (male 54, female 41). The average level of schooling of the labour force is 2.5 years.1 Up to 40 percent of children fail to complete primary education, 20 percent still do not attend school at all, and a quarter of primary school students drop out before completing 5th grade.2 Student-teacher contact hour is among the lowest in the world.3 Moreover, for those who do finish all primary classes, the quality remains low and many of those lapse into illiteracy.

Since 1996, enrolment in formal primary education has increased over 30 percent. This has put enormous pressure on public primary education infrastructure, which has only risen up to 4.1 percent per annum during 2003-2004. In all the government sectors the accountability and incentive mechanisms are extremely weak, resulting in gross human rights violations and the endemic corruption. Under these circumstances, the bilateral and multilateral development partners in Bangladesh have always considered NGOs4 as a useful partner for development. Some 1.4 million children,5 mostly from poor families, are enrolled in NGO-sponsored non-formal schools. About 1.2 million children are currently enrolled in BRAC Non Formal Primary Education (NFPE) schools, operating throughout the country, mostly in rural areas. About 8 percent of primary school enrolments were made through NGO schools and of that 6.3 percent were enrolled in BRAC schools. BRAC school students constitutes nearly 20 percent of the total students outside the government run primary schools.6 BRAC NFPE programme aims to fill the gap in provision for the dropouts or never enrolled children.

This study has one purpose and two audiences. It aims to:

– Enable the programme to be recognised further by national and international policy makers, by offering evidence of its scope and significance in complementing their drive to achieve EFA and its MDGs on schedule; and
– Facilitate valuable practical learning for national and international development partners in understanding the dynamics of a context specific capacity development process.

1.2 Methodology and organisation

This case study is based on secondary data using a ‘desk study’ approach as well as interviewing and discussing with a number of key people at BRAC and NFPE. The desk study covers BRAC’s reports and publications, NFPE programme reports, various external review reports on NFPE, and other international documents on sustainable development, NGO dynamics, capacity building and donor policies concerning capacity building. In addition, the authors own experience in the field over 15 years, visiting approximately 100 NFPE schools also contributed to the analysis of this study.  

This document is divided into four key sections. The opening section comprises an introduction covering the background of the study along with its objectives, methodology and organisation. The second section mainly captures a brief description of the physical growth and achievements of BRAC NFPE under the title: ‘What is BRAC NFPE and what has it achieved’. This section also includes a brief impact of NFPE. The third section then describes the growth process, which is entitled ‘How NFPE got to where it is now’? The final section then outlines the conclusion together with some important ‘Lessons for the capacity building practitioner and development partners’, and highlighting BEP’s existing challenges.


2.1 The Evolution of NFPE Schools

“But what about our children? Must they grow up illiterate and wait until they are old enough to come to your programme?”…A voice spoke aloud from amidst the adults in one of the sessions of BRAC’s functional education programme. It was the voice, the concern that inspired BRAC to start non-formal primary education for younger rural out of school/dropout children from poor families. Source: NFPE report 1993

The birth of BRAC NFPE, a non-formal basic primary education model, was simply triggered from that very straightforward question. The following year, in 1985, a programme was formally launched by BRAC with 22 experimental schools. Those persons engaged, mostly women, were involved in forming a school committee, finding a site and selecting a teacher and then managing their schools.  

In the mid 1980s when BRAC NFPE was launched, more than half of the primary age group children were not reached by the formal education system. Most of those children were from poor families and were involved in some kind of income generating or income saving activities. The rigidity and inflexibility of the formal system, coupled with irrelevant contents of textbooks and financial inability of poor families, put basic primary education beyond the reach of the rural poor communities.

Taking those difficulties into account, BRAC initiated the development of its Non Formal Primary Education (NFPE) programme aiming to cater for the educational needs of rural children from very poor families who either had never been to school or dropped out of the formal schooling system.  

2.2 The Pilot Phase of NFPE (1985 – 1992)

Growth at a Glance

1985    First 22 NFPE schools  (8-10 year olds, grades 1-3)
1986    Total 176 NFPE schools
1987    410 NFPE schools, 223 BEOC schools (11-16 year olds, two-year cycle)
1988    First 22 NFPE schools completed a three-year cycle
1989    BEOC schools extended to a three-year cycle
1990    10 Urban schools opened, ESP school piloted, 6003 NFPE schools
1991    First NFPE graduate becomes a BRAC teacher

The initial 8 years, from 1985 to 1992, are considered as the evolution and pilot phase of NFPE. Initially NFPE started with 22 one-roomed schools with tin sheds or thatched roofs, rented from the communities, each accommodating 30 students between 8-10 years old. The children sitting arrangement was made on the floor, on mats, in a ‘U’ formation so that teacher and student were easily visible to one another. Each school was supplied with books, blackboard, slates and pencils and a small steel trunk for the teacher use for supplies.

22 teachers, mostly women with 10-12 years of schooling were selected from the community. These teachers received training on non-formal education, pedagogy, use of teaching aids, child psychology, improving classroom teaching skills and organising co-curricular activities. At the end of each year, two refreshers courses were held, building on teachers’ experience and classroom management problem solving. At the same time Programme Organisers supervised up to 15 schools directly at least once a week.

The schools were designed to address a single cohort of students enrolled in the first year and moved together through the three years of schooling in the same classroom and with the same teacher. Once a cohort completed the three-year cycle, the school ceased operation unless there were at least 30 eligible children in the community interested in enrolling in the school.

In 1987, BRAC opened 223 BEOC schools (Basic Primary Education for Older Children) for older children (11-14 years) to provide them a last chance to acquire basic education. Initially these schools were for two years, which later extended to a three year-cycle. In most cases the same room and teacher accommodated both groups (NFPE and BEOC) of students within a village making morning and afternoon shifts. Piloting an extension of the NFPE model in remote areas in partnership with local NGOs under the name of ESP (Education Support Programme) was started in 1991.

NFPE achieved a number of impressive results during the 8 year piloting phase. It managed to limit its student dropouts to only 2% at the end of three years, compared with more than 50% of students who dropped out from government primary schools at the end of Grade III. The children graduating from NFPE schools entered government schools in Grade IV. Above all, a very significant achievement was made in 1992, i.e., a NFPE graduate became a teacher in a NFPE school, completing nine years of education.

2.3 The Scaling-up phase of NFPE (January 1993-March 1996)

Growth at a Glance in NFPE Phase-I

1993    NFPE Schools increased to 34,000 covering 1.1ml children, Reading Centres opened for adolescent girls
1994    First BRAC student became SSC graduate, ESP expanded
1995    Union Library Programme started, Adult Literacy Centres opened
1996    Ex-Garments Workers Schools Opened

The first phase of NFPE is considered as the ‘scaling-up’ phase, when the number of schools increased from 6,000 to 34,000 covering 1.1 million children throughout the country. The ESP programme was also scaled up. This expansion coincided strategically with the government’s drive toward ‘Education for All’ and it’s Fourth Five Year Plan (1990-95) that called for a ‘multi-frontal attack on illiteracy’. In this period the government introduced Compulsory Primary Education aiming to provide full national coverage by 2000, hence recognised the importance of strengthening its own mass literacy efforts by expanding non-formal primary education and encouraging non-government organisations to come forward.

In addition to expanding the number of schools, during this phase BRAC also started many other activities responding to the emerging needs. Reading centres were opened for girls, realising that those NFPE graduates who did not continue their education in formal schools, were losing their basic reading and numeracy skills after leaving BRAC schools. In addition to retaining their learning skills, the reading centres also served as a socialising place for girls and women, having indoor games, cultural activities, etc. NFPE also started a library programme for secondary school students based in the secondary schools at union level.

As a result of scaling-up schools and other activities, NFPE administration became more decentralised in 1993. Several regions were formed to promote further decentralisation, and relevant training was provided for better co-ordination.  In addition, aspects related to the quality of curriculum and training was also introduced in this phase.

2.4 The phase of Stabilisation and Consolidation (April 1996 to May 1999)

Growth at a Glance in Phase-II

1997    Schools for Hard to Reach Children opened, Introduced English and Maths Training for teachers (IV & V), NFPE Four-year Cycle covering grades IV and V piloted, Pre Primary Schools piloted;
1998    Master Trainer and Batch Trainer introduced to improve subject training, Community Schools handed over to NFPE;
1999    BRAC Formal Primary School opened;

Following the rapid growth of NFPE in phase I, phase II was considered as a stage of ‘stabilisation and consolidation’. During this phase attention was given to improve the quality of school operation. This entailed bringing qualitative measures in the areas of management, curriculum development, staff, teacher training, etc.

Another important step of NFPE in this phase was piloting the full primary cycle in the NFPE model. Curriculum and materials development and teacher training for English and Mathematics accompanied this change. NFPE started to pilot pre-primary schools to develop reading practice in the younger groups, with the idea to make them ready and encouraged to go to government primary schools.

In the area of management: a number of quality assurance systems were initiated and implemented through creating additional positions, such as Master Trainers, Batch Trainers, and adjusted duties.  In the area of materials development: curriculum, students’ books and teachers’ guides for social studies and mathematics were developed while materials for other subjects were thoroughly revised.  

2.5 The phase of Growth, Change and Diversification (June 1999-June 2004)

Growth at a Glance in Phase-III

1999    NFPE schools extended to 4 years covering full primary cycle, Education Development Unit established;
2000    Life Skills Courses introduced in ADP;   
2001    BEOC Schools start offering full primary coverage, Post Primary Basic Education intervention in 22 schools;
2002    IT facilities started in Union Libraries, Education for Indigenous Children and CSN established;
2003    ADP field tests Economic Life Skills Projects

The third phase of NFPE was characterised by growth, change and diversification although the main focus remained on the operation of 34,000 schools with intensified efforts to improve the quality of education.

All NFPE schools as well as BEOC schools extended to 4 years cycle covering full primary. An Education development Unit was established in this phase to support and address the needs of this growth and change.

The reading centres for adolescent girls introduced life skill courses. The idea behind this was to educate them on their reproductive health, some important social issues and income generating activities. IT facilities were initiated in many union libraries. Other diversities of NFPE were to introduce inclusive education and education for indigenous children. In this phase BRAC also started piloting capacity development intervention of school teachers in 22 secondary schools.

A new component, called PRIME (Primary Initiative in Mainstreaming Education) was launched to improve NFPE’s relationship and co-operation with government in primary education. 16,000 pre-primary schools were opened under this component in order to facilitate the enrolment in government primary schools.

2.6 The phase of Government Collaboration (July 2004-June 2009)

Activities at a Glance of BEPIV in 2005-2006

Primary Schools:  31,500 (includes BPS, BAPS, ESP and Ethnic)
Pre-Primary school:  20,149
Children with disability:  22,000
Reading Centres: 8,500
Union Libraries: 964

‘Collaboration with the Government’ is the priority for this phase. For strategic purposes, NFPE was re-named as BEP in this phase and the names of NFPE and BEOC schools were changed to BPS (BRAC primary schools) and BAPS (BRAC adolescent primary schools) respectively.

In addition to maintaining a pool of quality schools and other previous interventions, BEP made a plan to increase the number of its pre-primary schools substantially throughout this phase. The pre-primary schools are situated either in GOB school premises or adjacent areas, and the students of pre-primary straight away transferred to grade I of GOB school. Also other plans were made in this phase to institutionalise the linkages with GOB primary schools.

2.7  Replication of the NFPE model

The NFPE model has been able to prove itself as a successful Non-formal Education system in Bangladesh, capable of bringing the inaccessible children under educational environment. Having been vastly enriched with in-country experience of catering for the educational needs for poor rural children and adolescents for the last 20 years, the BRAC NFPE model is now being adopted in other developing countries, i.e., Afghanistan, Sudan and Uganda.

2.8 Evidence of Impact

The significant growth and strengthening capacities of NFPE have had notable impacts on a diverse range of stakeholders both at organisational and societal levels. The size and diversity of NFPE interventions provides strong evidence of organisational impact as managing and handling this growth requires a pool of experienced workers. The fruits of their expertise are now being transferred and shared with different stakeholders, like other partner NGOs at home and abroad, with governments and with donors.

NFPE’s work with community and other government schools improved the capacity of teachers of those schools as it successfully demonstrated how to manage an education system effectively, retain dropouts at school and involve parents and communities through SMC7s and other activities. In addition, NFPE also contributes to the capacity building of many local NGOs engaged in delivering basic primary education to the rural poor children.  The growth of NFPE also gave confidence and inspired the donors as well as other countries to replicate a modified version of this innovative model.  

At societal level, NFPE’s diverse range of products and services not only fulfilled the basic educational needs of millions of poor children (3.12 million until 2005), more importantly it was able to implant seeds of hope and aspirations in them. Many of them now aspire to working with BRAC, government and also to be BRAC teachers. Their education helped them in standing out against family decisions about early marriage, negotiating dowries, creating awareness about gender discrimination, violence, etc. The NFPE also empowered a large number of female teachers, who were housewives before. They have now achieved recognition for their contribution to society and many of them are educating for higher degrees.

Also, as parents and communities are greatly involved with NFPE schooling and other activities, it empowers communities, especially women/mothers, to demand quality education as a right. In addition, the regular parents meetings, besides promoting social capital, also raise consciousness among the parents and communities about the bad affects of various societal practices, i.e. early marriage, dowry, gender discrimination, violence, etc.   

A recent BRAC research study done on socio-economic impacts of BRAC non-formal schools reveals that BRAC graduates in most cases performed on par with the government schools, which indicates a very significant impact of BRAC NFPE.

Parcentage of NFPE graduates having social impact comparing with GoB graduates and never enrolled

GoB primary graduatesNever enrolledNFPE graduates
Women empowermentWomen make decision on their own income (16-29 age group)50.0%20.0%66.7%
Age 18+ years at marriage29.3%19.9%28.4%
Marriage without dowry33.0%27.5%29.1%
Women involved at IGA5.5%10.8%11.9%
Knowledge and practice about health and hygineCorrect knowledge about prevention of six deadly diseases88.5%1.1%16.3%
Age of immunisation (starting age)45.2%27.5%44.1%
Age of immunisation (ending age)64.0%50.6%66.5%
AIDS awareness69.4%36.4%63.1%
Arsenic awareness39.7%29.1%38.2%
Use of safe latrine by women55.3%29.5%40.0%
Use family planning methods58.4% (Male)
62.3% (Female)
42.9% (Male)
52.5% (Female)
51.1% (Male)
53.7% (Female)
Political knowledgeHaving political knowledge912.7%1.6%8.0%

The above table shows that BRAC graduates are significantly better in all categories than children who “never enrolled”. However, BRAC graduates are significantly better than those from GOB schools in gender issues and disease prevention. Government school students are socio-economically better off than NFPE students and thus expected to perform better. However, it is notable that NFPE graduates, who were almost ‘no where’ earlier, are now performing close to GOB students.


3.1 A framework for understanding the growth process of NFPE

The steady growth, stable operation and replication of the NFPE model make it a deserving example of successful ‘Organisational Capacity Development’.10 However, it is not a straightforward task to document the underlying factors leading to its successful growth as there is no magic model that guides an organisation to a guaranteed success, or a proven pathway that directs as to where to begin. The existing literature provides no single guidelines for building organisational capacity or achieving favourable outcomes.    

Nevertheless it is interesting to note that, although NFPE development interventions have gone through enormous learning, adaptations, experience and changes since its inception, the set of underlying core perceptions and guiding principles have remained constant. Observing how NFPE works, reviewing the BRAC NFPE literature, as well as extensive consultations with BRAC officials, repeatedly reveal one core message: the ‘client-centred focus’ constitutes the foundation of any NFPE intervention. In order for a systematic discussion, the underlying factors that contributed to the continuous growth of NFPE are shown in the following diagram:

Figure 1: A diagram showing underlying factors for growth and capacity building of NFPE

3.1.1    BRAC Client-centred Development Approach

A participatory, client-centred approach forms the lynchpin of NFPE’s evolution and development. Taking account of the difficulties, needs and aspirations of intended participants in designing a particular intervention plus involving community and beneficiaries at every possible stage of the programme – is built into the programme development of NFPE.  BRAC feels accountable towards its participants, which is validated through regular meetings and discussions between staff and individual villagers/participants and village committees on various existing and emerging issues concerning their living and livelihoods.

A thorough contextual analysis is a pre-requisite for starting NFPE intervention in any area of the country. Accordingly, in setting up action priorities, NFPE management and staff generally consider four key points:
o The urgency and importance of an issue in terms of its size/damage/coverage;
o Consistency of the issue with BRAC’s vision/mission/goals;
o Consistency of the issue with donor’s general development policy; and
o Its potential for strategic alliances.

The development of a suitable NFPE model was based on observation, discussion and experiment. Management and staff started from a ‘no knowledge’ basis about running an education programme, let alone one that would bring ‘dropouts’ back to school. From serious thought into why rural poor children do not go to school, BRAC’s NFPE school model was designed and then continuously refined to make schooling more suitable and appealing to the children themselves, their families and the communities. The schools have flexible hours, are close to the pupil’s homes, and have a relevant curriculum that provides them with basic life skills and basic education. The teachers are predominantly female and come from the same village as the children, hence the bondage and sense of responsibility is much stronger in them. The community is involved with the school from the opening to the end of its cycle.

NFPE gives priority to forging effective strategic alliances with the government and other NGOs, civil societies and the public sector, building working partnerships wherever feasible and sharing the lessons learned for an improved level of understanding and co-operation. These alliances help in building and enhancing existing staff capacities; they also bring increasing recognition of NFPE to the wider community and stakeholders.

Further, the spirit and keenness to respond to emerging demands led NFPE to spread out both horizontally and vertically. This expansion has increased the organisation’s capacity to do more in the face of the growing needs of the country’s poorest by covering outreach and providing diversified services and products.

3.1.2    Leadership culture  

A collective dedicated leadership culture has gradually flourished in BRAC under the strong and unique leadership of BRAC founder and chairperson Mr F.H. Abed. This collective leadership has been guiding the NFPE all through its journey from 1985 until now. A continual shared scrutiny of what worked and what did not work, plus taking inspiration from small successes to re-work on the failures, taught BRAC/NFPE to keep focused on pertinent development issues. This practice also drives in the revision and articulation of its values, visions, goals and policies not only in accordance with the overarching national and international development priorities but also by recognising that development activities deal with participants in a dynamic, living social system and it is crucial to understand, recognise and value the system in order to operate within it.

The practice of continuous dialogue among staff and management in working out a meaningful solution to a problem identified jointly, plus a subsequent collective decision making process, creates a feeling of ownership among the management and staff.

Mr F.H. Abed says: “When BRAC was started, every month I used to go to the field for weeks and stayed there, had continuous dialogues with our field staff about what should be done? For NFPE, our desire was to educate our children, so how do we go about it, what do we do to educate them? You see, it was always “we” and it was always “BRAC” as an organisation trying to solve an issue, rather than F.H. Abed telling them “you do this or that”.

The staff find it rewarding and energising when they see that their opinions are being valued and reflected in the designing, operation or modification of NFPE programmes. This motivation is also carefully transmitted to the NFPE students and communities by ensuring their participation in school management committees and also by giving individual attention and support to the needs of students.

Further, coordination, forethought and effective systems sustain BRAC’s collective leadership culture. There was and remains a closely coordinated link between the head quarters and the field offices of BRAC and between other BRAC programmes, i.e. education, health, poverty alleviation and the support units.

3.1.3 Human Resource Development

Human resource development has particular dynamics in BRAC. The development of management skills along with programme relevant technical skills is considered as a critical part of BRAC’s staff development programme. Acquiring field experience as well as participating in the decision making process is considered as crucial experience for staff leadership development.

BRAC NFPE programme did not start operating as a stand-alone programme in 1985, rather it was built on experience gathered from older programmes. It started as a part of an integrated approach to development, complementing the other BRAC programmes which were already running well by then.  After a few years of operation, when NFPE found that the ‘integrated approach’ was not producing the intended outcomes, it moved to a ‘line management approach’. However, the most useful feature of the integrated approach for NFPE was the adaptation of the decentralised management model, which was developed in BRAC’s early years (with older programmes) by trial and error.

The current NFPE management structure is a simple but intensive one, evolved and developed over the years addressing ground realities and needs. To begin with there were only six management/staff managing 22 schools. Later, the staff numbers expanded as the number of schools increased. In terms of staff expansion NFPE promotes people from within the organisation having substantive field experience. This allows a junior staff member to be promoted to the management cadre later.

During the early pilot phase NFPE followed a relatively centralised management style. However, as soon as NFPE started its first phase in 1993, it departed to a more decentralised management style, forming several regional offices to handle the scaled up programme at various regional levels. In addition, a series of relevant training was imparted to enhance the leadership capacity of various existing staff embracing new responsibilities in the decentralisation process. This decentralisation practice kept developing further at every phase by introducing various trained up staff/management layers at different points (master trainer, batch trainer, etc.) and also formally establishing the Education Development Unit (EDU) in 1999.  

Besides getting hands-on expertise for staff on field operations and decision making, BRAC management put a great emphasis on developing and managing skilled human resources. BRAC recognises that there is an evolving relationship between training and capacity development.11 In NFPE, formal and informal training is a continuous process and it serves mainly the capacity needs of the two core groups, i.e. the management/staff and the NFPE teachers. Staff training is earmarked and budgeted in all programme proposals to donors.

3.1.4 Continuity in Financing

Access to and control over resources is a critical factor in developing capacity for achieving specified objectives. This essentially requires establishing a trust-based relationship between development partners and practitioners. BRAC, basically fortuitous to take off and grow up in the pro-NGO era,12 was proactive from the very beginning in creating and fostering good trust and maintaining good professional relationships with development partners and political systems. This practice has rewarded BRAC with friends and sympathisers among the international and national agencies, supporting BRAC’s development interventions.

From the late 1980s a donor consortium ensured continuous and increased funding, enabling NFPE to develop, experiment and expand the programme steadily. The fundamental basis for the relationship between BRAC NFPE and its Donor Consortium is the sharing of a common understanding and approach in reaching the EFA and MDGs through the non-formal primary education system complementary to Government’s formal primary education as well as its transparency and accountability. Instituting accountability both inwards (to the governing body and staff/management) and outwards (Government, donors and participants) strengthens and boosts BRAC’s relationship with its stakeholders.

The Donor Consortium supported NFPE with considerable flexibility (within the framework of funding agreements) in designing the programme approach and piloting new programmes, which had room for making mistakes while learning. This supportive attitude of donors allowed BRAC management to be flexible in terms of piloting interventions. In turn, managers were able to make thoughtful experiments, taking advantage of flexibility when answering needs, without feeling constrained by budgets or rigid planning.

The Donor Consortium also assisted NFPE greatly in developing and enhancing capabilities by opening the global picture of the development paradigm and providing guidance through regular review meetings and routine external technical assistance. More importantly, they guided BRAC in incorporating and implementing external review recommendations in programme management.

Considering financial capacity as a crucial factor BRAC leadership, thoughtfully, shifted part of its resources to more profitable ventures from time to time. This investment practice allowed BRAC to form a number of Project Support Enterprises (PSE) and Associate Organisations that enable BRAC to generate a considerable income, which in turn permits BRAC to respond to the emerging needs by initiating innovative need based interventions. Being in a position to draw on its own resources frees BRAC from the need to secure donor funds before embarking on a particular course of action. Once an intervention is shown to be feasible and successful, it is easier for donors to give their support.


Going through the growth history of NFPE, it is clear that NFPE’s “magic-wand” behind capacity building and growth includes a number of enabling features, i.e., favourable international development trends (Pro-NGO), strong leadership culture, continuous flow of finance and effective development of human resource, strategies and systems, closely intertwined to bring an outcome.

However, apart from the encouraging development trend, which was a given factor, the rest of the features were created and developed gradually under the dynamic spirit and core leadership of its founder Mr F.H.Abed. Mr Abed’s charisma stimulated his team of workers to embrace his vision and mission, which essentially required creation of a special mindset that affirms: ‘we shall solve problems affecting poor people by working with them”. Their centre focus was the prevailing challenges affecting deprived poor communities.The weapons they had in hand were strong determination, motivation and pushiness to reach to the ground realities of that problem to find a native solution.

Back in 1985, NFPE’s prime concern was to bring poor rural dropout children back to school and educate them. The big question asked amongst them was “how do we do it?” The answer they came up with was that there was a need to set up some kind of educational opportunity for poor children. Then, the immediate question was “many people tried to deliver education by setting up schools, but it did not work. So what else do we need to do to make it work?”

To begin with, NFPE started looking at the underlying issues working as intimidating factors for non-enrolment and dropout of children from poor rural families, especially girls. The information derived from the ground realities guided them to design the NFPE school model, which suited the needs and aspirations of rural communities. NFPE also thought that lack of access to education was a societal/national problem; hence, the solution lay in developing a model that could be rapidly replicated. Some kind of methodology would be required to enable NFPE to train a large number of teachers quickly. As there were around 3 million children out of school at that time, NFPE started thinking in terms of developing an effective system to be able to cope with this large number.

In this fashion NFPE focused on any existing/emerging challenges, closely observed and analysed the underlying factors causing those issues and then, together with the community, it attempted to find a suitable solution to them. The key strength of this practice was essentially the unique mindset and motivation that created a value towards working for a ‘cause’ certainly larger than simply a ‘project’, along with construction of need-based effective systems, human resource development and professional support that went to develop NFPE and its management/staff.     

4.1 Some Lessons

A number of lessons could be drawn from the growth process of NFPE, which would be useful for development practitioners and partners, such as:

•    Strong collective and non-partisan leadership helps effective capacity building.
•    People need to be motivated to work efficiently. An open and learning oriented management system encourages employees to become motivated.
•   The ‘learning by doing’ method is very effective in terms of capacity development and sustenance, as it allows staff to internalise the work conceptually, tolerate mistakes, take risks and finally develop their confidence level. Also, constant feedback loops are essential to provide information about evolving activities and to support changes as appropriate.
•   Action priorities must include an overarching development issue that agrees with the organisation’s vision/mission and the donors’ policy interests. Within that context, programme design should focus on the interests of the beneficiary group; engage beneficiaries in programme implementation, respond to emerging needs; adopt the result driven practices.
•   A very good assessment of the environment, participants and inter-relationships is required for successful programme planning.
•   Emphasis needs to be given to human resource development. Furthermore, existing capacities and opportunities of the available human resources should be identified and used while building new capacities.
•   Effective rules and regulations must be in place for efficient operation. Emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness, plus transparency in financial matters, is very important in building trust with development partners. At the same time, facilitating implementation using flexible approaches, ensuring commitment and ownership by the programme staff and beneficiaries are essential.
•   A steady and supportive donor group ensuring access to and control over resources is imperative for successful capacity development. It is essential to recognise that capacity building is a long and continuous process for which adequate funding is needed. More importantly, there is a need for supportive supervision, effective guidance and a certain amount of tolerance and flexibility for innovation.
•   Donors should also understand that capacity development in development work requires huge context-specific experimentation, and hence pilot innovations should be encouraged. NFPE has a budget in every programme for ‘new initiatives’. 

4.2 Challenges to be addressed by NFPE

Working with Government

NFPE’s current priority and challenge is to enhance its collaboration with the central government education officials. Although NFPE is readily accepted and appreciated by many in local government, a considerable amount of rigidity still exists in the central government, which feels defensive in appreciating the efficiency of such a non-formal education model. NFPE needs to work on gaining increasing trust and confidence of this group for the following important reasons:

– NGOs working in partnership with government have acquired significant importance for donors and may well be the axis on which future funding will depend.
– BEP’s long term sustainability can only materialise if and when NFPE schools are mainstreamed with government primary schools with government assuming financial responsibility for their operation.

Replicating the NFPE model abroad

Recently BRAC started replicating NFPE in Afghanistan, Sudan and Uganda by setting up their own offices and experts.  Earlier this model was tried in other high-priority countries of Africa (e.g. Mali) but those interventions did not bring about the expected outcomes. Hence, it would be the utmost challenge for NFPE to replicate and scale up the model in new countries with different culture and context.       


1.    Ahmed, M., Chabbott, C., Joshi, A., Pande, R., and Prather, C.J. (1992). Primary Education for All: Learning from BRAC Experience: A case Study
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1Barro and Lee, 2000
2News Network, 2004
3Single shift (<10% nationally) schools have annually 861 hours for grades 1-2 and 1470 hours for grades 3-5. Double shift schools (>90% nationally) have 595 hours for grades 1-2 and 865 hours for grades 3-5.
4The term NGO is here to denote those non-governmental organisations that are engaged in  development work with external financing.
5About 7% of all children at primary level, of which  60%  are girls
6Samir Ranjan Nath, 2006.
7SMC: School Management Committee, consists of parents, school teacher and elite community people
8The six deadly diseases are: Tetanus, Diphtheria, Whopping cough, Polio, Measles and Tuberculosis
9Political knowledge variables consist of: voting age for male & female, name of president and prime minister.
10While the definition of ‘organisational capacity development’ has many dimensions, however, here it captures a simple meaning: the capacity of an organisation to achieve what it sets out to do: to realize its mission. In this sense, capacity measures an organisation’s performance in relation to those it is set up to benefit.(A.Kumar, 2003)
11For some of the literature that summarises the experience to date, see John Kerrigan and Jeff Luke, Management Training Strategies for Developing Countries, 1987 and Samuel Paul, John Icky and Jocob Levitsky, Educating Managers for Business and Government, A Review of International Experience, 1990. 
12Since late 80s there has been an increasing preference from bilateral & multilateral donors to work with NGOs as well as government. This has led a rapid increase in the budgets and size of big NGOs, who currently accounts for 85% of the donor assistance to all NGOs (over 1200) and BRAC accounts for 55% of their collective expenditure.(DFID April 2000).

*This study has been conducted at September 2007.

Author: Senior Development Officer, BRAC Donor Liaison Office, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Email:

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