Baby Begum, a middle-aged housewife from Haldia, Munshiganj, has seen many faces of poverty. Her husband Siddiq Sardar used to be a day labourer and the sole earner of the family.
With Sardar's insufficient income, the family did not know what life beyond extreme need really tastes like.
Baby's story, however, has a happy ending.
Five years ago, when the Centre for Zakat Management (CZM) started to implement a programme called Jeebika in Baby's locality, they registered her name as a beneficiary, gave her a small capital, and instructed her on how to invest the money in an income-generating activity.
Five years down the road, this family is now a solvent one and dreams bigger.
The CZM's Jeebika program gives money – mostly zakat and some CSR money – to people like Baby and Sardar who are living in extreme poverty and helps them invest it in income-generating activities.
The project officers in the locality check up on their progress from time to time. For example, if someone buys cows with equity assistance from CZM, these officers guide them in rearing the cows and advise the beneficiaries on how to maximise profits by selling them.
The beneficiaries then return the original capital to Jeebika, but only to use the money again in another investment.
"When this five years-long project ends, Jeebika's capital is given to the beneficiaries for good, either in cash or as some investment," said Shahriar Kabir, the Deputy General Manager of CZM.
In the process, they promote these families' economic development and contribute to their transformation from extremely poor to standard poor, if not solvent.
So, utilising whatever family savings Baby and Sardar had, they bought a battery-run auto-rickshaw. In five years, the couple now has four auto-rickshaws; and dream big of expanding their business.
Besides promoting income-generating activities, Jeebika provides education, health facilities, entrepreneurial training, a shelter for the homeless, food to the beggars, etc.
The Center for Zakat Management implements Jeebika in more than 50 districts of Bangladesh. In each of the project intervention areas, CZM's charity covers around 500 families.
Currently, they have around 29 Jeebika projects in operation. Over the years, the project has changed the livelihood of more than a million people in Bangladesh.
In implementing these programmes, more than 15 corporations, including Rahimafrooz, A K Khan group, Akij Group, Kohinoor Chemical, Rahim Group, etc., have partnered with the CZM.
When it comes to distributing zakat in Bangladesh, the first image that comes to mind is that of men and women in a queue collecting sarees and lungis from the gates of the rich. We have even seen incidents where people were trampled to death in the process.
For decades, such practices have failed to deliver what zakat was originally devised for – cutting poverty.
"As common methods of delivering zakat cannot cut poverty, we, the Rahimafrooz family, chose to do it differently back in 1986. Instead of scattering a small amount of money in sparse areas, we delivered all our zakat money to a remote village in Manikganj to promote education, health and livelihood. In three years, we witnessed a remarkable change in livelihood," said Rahimafrooz group director and CZM Chairman Niaz Rahim while reflecting on how the initial idea of CZM was conceived.
The Center for Zakat Management, in its current form, was launched in 2008 under the supervision of Niaz Rahim.
But instead of turning this into a family organisation, Rahim "opened up the CZM as an independent body where any corporate and individual can play their role."
In Munshiganj's Louhojong area, where the TBS team visited recently, the Jeebika project is sponsored by Rahim Group. They donated more than a crore targeting around 500 extremely poor families.
Satisfied with the result and CZM's implementation method, "our chairman wants to carry on with such projects. We are wondering whether we can extend the project here to continue helping the ones we have been helping, to get them to a more stable position or implement a new project in another locality to help people overcome abject poverty," said Humayun Kabir, a former joint secretary to the government and adviser to Rahim Group, during the visit to the implementation area with the TBS team.
"Since the inception of CZM's journey, we implemented projects worth around Tk 150 crore across the country. Our projects are not limited only to Jeebika.
We have several other projects, for example, Ferdousi to provide medical facilities, Mudareeb to reduce poverty through the creation and development of micro-enterprises, Insaniat for emergency humanitarian assistance and more," said Niaz Rahim.
The CZM style of managing zakat
For CZM's Niaz Rahim, 'collecting' and 'managing' zakat are not the same.
"We do not collect Zakat and CSR from the corporates and individuals to distribute them on our own. The CZM rather manages Zakat and CSR for the corporate and individuals," he added. Its DGM, Shahriar, said that when a corporation wants them to manage their zakat and CSR, the CZM allows them to choose the locality. If the donor does not have an area of choice, the CZM picks an area based on rigorous socio-economic research.
"The donor can scrutinise the implementation process from time to time both on paper and through on-field visits. Additionally, we have our own layers of audits to ensure that this money is properly spent for the noble cause that the donors trust us with," Shahriar added.
Financial empowerment with zakat money
Sponsored by A. K. Khan Foundation, in 2011, the CZM started to implement the Jeebika Mohora project in a poverty-prone river-side neighbourhood on the eastern outskirts of Chittagong city.
The Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) undertook an end-of-project longitudinal study to assess the sustainability of the Jeebika Mohora project results.
Based on the findings in their mid-term assessment in 2014 and post-project assessment in 2017, PPRC chairman Hossain Zillur Rahman wrote in an article that "it was not only financial inclusion but also financial empowerment" that Jeebika brought to beneficiaries.
The project-end PPRC survey found that the beneficiaries' average monthly income had more than doubled from Tk7,469 to Tk17,412, the average household equity capital had risen by 80 percent from Tk20,000 to Tk 35,868, the dependence on moneylenders had dropped from 61.9 percent to just 1 percent, and the boat-ownership of fisherman households had risen from 21 percent to 100 percent.
Additionally, on the household resilience and quality of life criteria, it found that within this timeframe, the ownership of 'pucca/semi-pucca housing' had risen from 27.7 percent to 47.6 percent, the access to sanitary latrine had risen from 46.7 percent to 87.6 percent, and the bi-weekly/weekly protein intake had gone up from 40 percent to 75.3 percent.
Hossain Zillur found that the "beneficiaries have expressed their confidence in the equity-based revolving fund by exiting both from other NGO microcredit options as well as from the traditional high-interest money-lenders."
The model is open
"We do not exercise intellectual property issues at the CZM that no one else can use this model of distributing Zakat and CSR. The model is open to anybody," said Niaz Rahim.
"If a corporation wants the CZM to manage their charity for them, we will be happy to do it. But if they want to copy our mechanism and distribute zakat as effectively as we do, they are welcome," he explained.
"The mission is to execute our charities effectively so that the core objective of cutting poverty is ensured. We want this culture to spread. If only a handful of corporations and individuals can play such a role, imagine what could be achieved if all of us join hands for such a noble cause."