Bangladesh's biggest success today lies in its economy. In the 50 years since its independence, Bangladesh has transformed from the so-called 'bottomless basket' to a magical box of wonders. Once dependent on aid, today Bangladesh depends on its trade and commerce. It hasn't been an easy journey. Our intrepid entrepreneurs have taken big risks in their stride to take their country ahead down new roads and voyages. Also behind this success are economists, policymakers. These pioneers, pathfinders and visionaries in the field of economics have given Bangladesh a place of honour on the world stage. They are the game changers.
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed back in 1970 had been the head of finance in a multinational company. When a devastating cyclone hit Bangladesh that year, he went to Manpura to distribute relief among the people there. It was not a very planned visit. He just felt the urge to go there. But that one step made all the difference. It was the first step to an epoch journey ahead.
There was no looking back for Fazle Hasan Abed after that. The non-government organisation BRAC which he established 49 years ago to support the destitute people of independent Bangladesh, today stands as the world's largest NGO. He received a knighthood by the British Crown and became Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. His name has become synonymous with Bangladesh development and success.
Bangladesh was newly independent, but devastated by the war. There was need for all sorts of assistance. That is when Abed began to work for the people, and continued to do so till the last day of his life.
And that is not all. He was very much aware that he would not live forever and so built up the institution accordingly, making sure competent successors were in place to carry on the work. And so Fazle Hasan Abed lives on in BRAC.
Birth and early days
Fazle Hasan Abed was born on 27 April 1936 in the village Baniachang of Habiganj district. His father was Siddique Hasan and mother Syeda Sufia Khatun. Siddique Hasan was the sub-registrar of Habiganj. Fazle Hasan Abed's father and uncles had studied at St Xavier's School and College in Kolkata.
Fazle Hasan Abed's paternal grandfather was Khan Bahadur Rafiqul Islam. His maternal grandfather was Khan Bahadur Syed Moazzem Uddin Hossain, a minister of undivided Bengal from 1941 to 1947. From 1941 to 1943 he had been minister of agriculture and later was minister of education. Sir Fazle Hasan Abed's maternal grandfather was from Ashtogram, Kishoreganj.
From Class 3 to Class 6, Fazle Hasan Abed studied at the Habiganj Government High School. He studied in Class 7 and 8 at the Comilla Zilla School. In 1952 he passed his matriculation from Pabna Zilla School and his intermediate exam (ISC) in 1954 from Dhaka College. He then was admitted to the physics department of Dhaka University, but left that to go to England. At the time, Fazle Hasan Abed's youngest uncle Sayeedul Hasan was the commercial secretary at the Pakistan high commission in London. He advised nephew Abed to go to Scotland and get admitted to the department of naval architecture in Glasgow University. After studying there for two years, Abed dropped out of naval architecture and decided to study accounting. He went back to England in 1956 and started studies in accounting. In 1962 he completed the four-year professional course in Cost and Management Accounting.
In 1968 Sir Fazle Hasan Abed returned to the country. The people had risen up in demand for democratic rights. There were meetings and processions every day. The movement gained momentum, culminating in the mass uprising of 1969.
In 1970 Abed joined the company Shell Oil as head of finance in Chattogram. On 12 November 1970 Bangladesh's coast was hit by a devastating cyclone and tidal surge. Thousands of people in the three islands of Sandwip, Hatia and Manpura lost their lives. Abed, along with his friend Barrister Vikarul Islam Chowdhury, colleague Kaiser Zaman, retired government officer Akbar Kabir and Notre Dame teacher Father Timm decided to go to Manpura to distribute relief. They formed an organisation 'Help' and carried out relief work through that. They distributed relief among those who had lost their hearth, homes and families and also helped in rebuilding homes.
Bangladesh's War of Liberation
When the Liberation War began, Fazle Hasan Abed left his lucrative job at Shell Oil and went to London, via Islamabad and Kabul. In May 1971 he joined up with like-minded friends in London and took up the cause of the independence struggle. They formed two organisations, 'Action Bangladesh' and 'Help Bangladesh'. 'Action Bangladesh' worked on mobilising political and public support worldwide for the liberation war and lobbying with the governments of European countries to bring a halt to the atrocities of the Pakistani armed forces.
The work of 'Help Bangladesh' was to collect funds for the Mukti Bahini, the liberation force of freedom fighters. They were involved in all sorts of activities mobilising public opinion in favour of the Liberation War, distributing leaflets, writing in The Times, generating publicity on the war, speaking in interviews on radio and television, meeting with members of parliament of European countries and so on.
Bangladesh emerged as an independent and sovereign country on 16 December 1971. Fazle Hasan Abed returned home from London in January 1972, selling his small flat in London for 6,800 pounds. And that same year he set up the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, BRAC, to help in relief and rehabilitation activities and began work in Shalla and Dirai of Sunamganj. He used the money he got from selling his flat to start this work.
BRAC was established in February 1972, known at the time as Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee. In 1973 it expanded its reach outside of just relief activities and began to work as a development agency, under the name of Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, still known by its acronym BRAC. Under the leadership of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, within four decades BRAC became the world's largest NGO.
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed passed away on 20 December 2019. His last interview was with Prothom Alo. In the interview published in 7 October that year, he spoke about the story behind establishing BRAC. He said, "Towards the beginning of 1972, I returned to Bangladesh from London. I began working on rehabilitation and delivering relief to around 200,000 people in the remote area of Shalla in Sunamganj, of the war-torn country. Poverty at the time was so acute in Bangladesh that I realised that even after the relief work was over, these people could not be abandoned. Bangladesh was then the second poorest country in the world. Our per capital income was 70 dollars. And the population growth rate was 3 per cent. On average, a woman would give birth to six children. Family planning was almost non-existent. All-in-all, poverty alleviation was a massive challenge. In the newly independent war-torn country when I started BRAC, my only thought was to save Bangladesh. I never thought that one day BRAC would be the best NGO in the world and it would cross borders and expand its work to the international arena."
In his lifetime, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed also witnessed another special recognition. Three economists won the Nobel prize for economics in 2019, Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer. Abhijit Banerjee himself had worked with a model of BRAC's poverty alleviation programme. After receiving the Nobel, Abhijit Banerjee told BBC in an interview, BRAC did not see poverty as a single problem, but a multi-faceted problem. There were some projects through which work could be done for the ultra-poor. There was another group who were less poor. BRAC had varied programmes. These included health and education too. Their concept was like ours. There are various solutions to various problems.
A precedent in leadership change
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed left behind a unique precedent in instiutionalisation and leadership. In 2019 he voluntarily stepped down from the office of chairman. Not only that, he personally supervised the selection of the new leadership and the entire process of change. Speaking to Prothom Alo about the matter, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed said, "Over the past few years I have thought a lot about BRAC's leadership after me and have prepared accordingly. I never wanted BRAC to be centered on an individual but to stand as an organisation. I wanted to put a system in place so that even in my absence BRAC would continue in its excellence. That is why I wanted to ensure a professional and organised handover. One of the important parts of my decision was to select the correct leadership to take BRAC ahead. I took this decision with pride and confidence."
Awards and accolades
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed won innumerable awards and recognitions in his lifetime. In 2016 he received the Thomas Francis Junior Medal of Global Public Health award for his advancement in global public health and work to establish a healthier future for people living in poverty worldwide. In 2015 he won the World Food Prize for his contribution in the field of food and agriculture. In 2013 he received the Open Society Prize from Hungary's Central European University (CEU). In 2011 he received the education laureate WISE Prize from the Qatar Foundation. He received a knighthood in 2010 from the British Crown for his extraordinary contribution to poverty alleviation.
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed also won the David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award (2008), the Clinton Global Citizenship Award (2207), the Henry R Kravis Prize in Leadership (2007), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Palli Karma Sahayak Foundation (PKSF), the Gates Award (2004), the UNDP Mahbub ul Haq Award for special contribution in human development (2004), the Gleitsman Foundation Award (2203), the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Award (2002), the Olof Palme Prize (2001), the UNICEF Maurice Pate Award (1992), the Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Prize (1990), the UNESCO Noma Prize (1985) and the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership (1980).
BRAC won the Conrad N Hilton Humanitarian Prize (2008) and Bangladesh's highest state honour, the Swadinatha Purashkar (2007). The last award received by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed was the Yidan Prize (2019) for education and a knighthood from the Netherlands.
His last dream
After all the success he achieved in life, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed spoke of a special wish in his last interview. He said, "I dream of establishing equality between men and women in this country in the near future. Perhaps I will not get to see this in my lifetime. This will possibly be an unfinished agenda of my life. Equality between men and women is extremely important for social development and family peace and happiness. However, I believe our country will rapidly progress towards equality between men and women and our advancement in social progress will accelerate."
* This article appeared in the special supplement published in the occasion of Prothom Alo's 23rd anniversary and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.