Exploring the legacy of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed
By Asaduzzaman and Irad Mustafa
On 16th December 1971, Bangladesh, a nation ravaged by the atrocities of war for nine long months, had finally earned its independence. However, what remained in the aftermath was a country in ruins with its economy and infrastructure in tatters. The nation lost almost everything in its pursuit of freedom. Having achieved it, the country made an effort to start from square one and build itself up again in the face of daunting odds. Much of what has been accomplished since then can be owed to a group of visionaries who had taken a leap of faith to embark on a mission to rise up and shine.
Sie Fazle Hasan Abed was one of those rare gems who had a dream. Born in 1936 in the Habiganj district of Sylhet and educated in both Dhaka and Glasgow Universities, he initially worked at Shell Oil as an accountant. After observing the horrors of the Bangladesh liberation war, however, Sir Abed left his job in London and devoted himself to the cause of Bangladesh’s war of independence and started raising funds for an awareness campaign called Help Bangladesh. The war had made an imprint on him which had considerably changed the direction of his life. In 1972 Sir Abed and his friends set up a new organisation called the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC) which focused on the needs of the poor, resettling and rehabilitating the returning refugees from India. The following year it was renamed to Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and is now the largest non-government developmental organization in the developing world. Since 2009 the abbreviated form BRAC has been officially accepted as its name.
Today, BRAC is renowned worldwide for being a global leader for creating opportunities as a means to end poverty. With more than 120,000 employees, the world’s largest NGO has touched the lives of an estimated 135 million people in 11 countries using a wide array of anti-poverty tools such as microfinance, education, healthcare, legal rights training and more. It has a vision to make a world free from all forms exploitation and discrimination where everyone has the opportunity to realize their potential by nurturing values like integrity, innovation, inclusiveness and effectiveness.
Alongside the likes of Grameen Bank and ASA, BRAC was a pioneer in the era-defining 70s wave of Bangladeshi micro-finance and micro-credit organizations. Since then they have outgrown their old counterparts and now assume an unparalleled position on the international development stage in terms of impact, innovation and sustainability. Having received numerous accolades for his achievements with BRAC, Sir Abed on The Global Journal, a Switzerland based magazine, was quoted saying, “I hope this will encourage BRAC to continue its work with innovation and efficiency towards creating more opportunities for the poor. I thank the BRAC family for their effort and dedication for making BRAC what it is today.”
BRAC’s realization came in the early 80s that in order achieve poverty alleviation and improved nutrition they needed to engage in agriculture. BRAC focused on organizing poor women and providing them with improved breeds of poultry birds and cattle and training for disease management. It set up a poultry and dairy industry to complete the value chain in subsistence poultry and dairy farming, while ensuring better prices for small farmers. BRAC has been working with the government to increase crop production. Additionally, it conducts farmer participatory experiments in the poverty-stricken and flood-prone north-west region as well as saline-affected coastal areas where it delivers advanced technologies to farmers. It has also introduced sunflower and maize cultivation in the coastal areas. Cultivation of these crops has since grown fast. BRAC is developing the value chain for maize and poultry in Tanzania. It is also conducting adaptive research to develop a seed system for orange-flesh sweet potato, a nutrition-enriched variety developed by the Harvest Plus programme, in Uganda. Not only has BRAC’s agricultural and development innovations improved food security for millions but it has also contributed to a significant decline in poverty levels through the direct impact it makes on farmers and small communities across the globe.
BRAC has received worldwide recognition for its contribution in Bangladesh’s achievement in halving poverty and hunger levels since 1990, keeping in line with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Through its sustained efforts in the fields of hunger and poverty eradication and food security, Sir Abed and BRAC have produced miracles. By concentrating on producing scalable solutions, BRAC’s food programmes have been turned into sustainable social enterprises that provide inputs and access to stable markets for the rural poor.
Globally accredited as a change maker, Sir Abed was recently the recipient for the World Food Prize which is an international award acknowledging individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world. Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, President of the World Food Prize Foundation, announced this year’s winner at a ceremony at the State Department in Washington, DC. Sir Abed upon receiving the award which has been referred to as the Nobel Prize for food and agriculture stated, “Being selected to receive the 2015 World Food Prize is a great honor. I consider this award recognition of the work of BRAC, which I have had the privilege to lead over the last 43 years. The real heroes in our story are the poor themselves and, in particular, women struggling with poverty. In situations of extreme poverty, it is usually the women in the family who have to make do with scarce resources. When we saw this at BRAC, we realized that women needed to be the agents of change in our development effort. Only by putting the poorest, and women in particular, in charge of their own destinies, will absolute poverty and deprivation be removed from the face of the earth.”
Thanks to Sir Abed’s genius, BRAC has helped over 70 million women, and a total of more than 110 million people in 69,000 villages. Over 80,000 volunteers and 120,000 employees work for BRAC in a continually increasing number of countries which includes USA, UK, Netherlands, Haiti, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines and so on. BRAC has introduced an Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA) program in Uganda which is designed to empower teenage girls. The ELA clubs provide safe spaces for them to socialize and receive mentoring and life skill training. BRAC combines the approach with financial literacy training and customized micro loan, which socially and financially empowers adolescent girls. In the year 2014 a total 94,659 girls received skills, livelihood and financial literacy training, 280 adolescent health prompters (1409 girls and 140 boys) were trained on general adolescent health issues through a network of 140 clubs. In ELA micro finance, loans distributed increased from USD 4 million to USD 10 million.
In Afghanistan BRAC’s education programs aim to bring systemic reform, to improve aces, retention and learner outcomes through community based schools, teachers training, mobilization of the community Shura (religious) leaders, support from ministry of Education (MoE) and advocating government level policy changes. BRAC Afghanistan is currently operating two education projects, namely the Girls Education Challenges (GEC) which has educated 170,000 girls through 5,670 schools. Inspired by BRAC’s programmes, others are already using similar approaches with successes seen in at least eight countries.
BRAC’s revenue expenditure for the year ended December 2014 was $537 million and out of which 31.89 % is for Microfinance, 11.50 % for Health, 12.09% for Education, 5.77% for Water Sanitation and Hygiene, 1.24 % in Agriculture and Food security, 5.74 % in Ultra Poor and 27.99 % in Social Enterprise.
So it goes without saying that BRAC has made a monumental impact in Bangladesh’s future. Be it a school, a training center for women, or a workshop for women and family planning, there are very few areas in the countryside nowadays where the BRAC logo cannot be seen. In 1972, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed set out to accomplish an enormous task. In trying to make his dream a reality, he has multiplied his activities tenfold all the while maintaining the same quality and efficiency. Indeed, he is the leader from a country like Bangladesh who has taught the world how to reap benefits from the people’s power to usher in changes in their own lives. Perhaps the coinage of the term ‘globalization’ has become clichéd over the time but great minds like Sir Abed will work as an immense source of inspiration for anyone working to create a better future. As Carlos Santana, the famous Mexican-American singer once said, “One day there will be no borders, no boundaries, no flags and no countries and the only passport will be the heart.” Sir Fazle Hasan Abed is that one mighty heart who has bound nations together; taught them how to remain closer through thick and thin and work together for a better tomorrow which can dream of a poverty-free, educated society.
Awards and Accolades
In his developmental journey across the world, Sir Fazle has been honoured with numerous other national and international awards for his achievements, including the Trust Women Hero Award (2014), Spanish Order of Civil Merit (2014), Leo Tolstoy International Gold Medal (2014), CEU Open Society Prize (2013), Inaugural WISE Prize for Education (2011), Entrepreneur for the World Award (2009), David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award (2008), Inaugural Clinton Global Citizen Award (2007), Henry R. Kravis Prize in Leadership (2007), Palli Karma Shahayak Foundation (PKSF) Award for lifetime achievement in social development and poverty alleviation (2007), UNDP Mahbub ul Haq Award for Outstanding Contribution to Human Development (2004), Gates Award for Global Health (2004), Gleitsman Foundation International Activist Award (2003), Schwab Foundation’s Social Entrepreneurship Award (2003), Olof Palme Prize (2001), he is also recognized by Ashoka as one of the ‘global greats’ and is a founding member of its prestigious Global Academy for Social Entrepreneurship. In 2009, came his appointment as the Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George by the British Crown in recognition of his services to poverty reduction in Bangladesh and on the Global stage.