Sir Fazle Hasan Abed’s last interview was with Prothom Alo. He had retired from BRAC and fresh leadership was installed in the world’s largest NGO. In his interview with Prothom Alo on 3 October, he explained the changes in BRAC leadership, his thoughts about BRAC and his dreams for Bangladesh.
Prothom Alo: What was on your mind when you began? Did you envisage the present state of BRAC back then? What had you wanted to do?
Sir Fazle Hossain Abed: I grew up in quite well-to-do circumstances and as a youth I never dreamt that I would build up an NGO and work in the remotest villages of Bangladesh. A terrible cyclone had hit the coast on 12 November 1970 and I went to the island Manpura to assess the destruction and damages. I saw hundreds of dead bodies floating in the water along with the carcasses of animals. I has deeply moved and thought how it was the poor people who lost their lives the most. I realised how far removed I was from the lives and the world of the poor.
Then our Liberation War came began and I saw thousands of people giving their lives. All these events changed me completely. Some friends and I formed an organisation in London, Action Bangladesh and collected funds for the liberation war. We also endeavoured to convince the governments of Britain and various European countries to accord support and recognition to Bangladesh.
I returned from to the country towards the beginning of 1972 and began work on relief and rehabilitation for around 200,000 people in the remote area Shalla of Sunamganj in war torn Bangladesh. Bangladesh was then the second poorest country of the world and our per capita income was less than 70 dollars. Population growth rate was 3 per cent with women giving birth to 6 children on average. Family planning methods were hardly followed. Poverty alleviation loomed large as a tremendous challenge.
When I began BRAC in the newly independent war-torn country, my only thought was that the people must survive. I never imagined that BRAC would become the world’s largest NGO one day or that it would cross borders and work on an international scale.
We call BRAC a ‘learning organisation’. During the course of work we learnt from our everyday experiences. We saw how, along with the passage of time, how people’s demands and aspirations changed.
At present youth is the largest demographic component of the country. Our target now is to create ample opportunities for them and to equip them for the future. That is why, in order to keep up with the times, every day BRAC is bringing about changes in its work strategy, in ways of providing service, generating funds and so on.
Prothom Alo: You have seen the bad days of Bangladesh where there were disasters, famine, refugees and economic mismanagement. Then you have seen the good days with the economy surging ahead and many social indicators faring better than other countries. How would you evaluate Bangladesh? What has BRAC’s contribution been towards this advancement?
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed: Our country has seen success in several sectors. Over the past 47 years our infant mortality rate has fallen from 200 to below 40, maternal mortality has dropped from 800 to below 155 and life expectancy has increased from 40 to 70 years. The country’s birth rate in 1972 was 6.5 and it is now 2.2.
No single institution can take credit for Bangladesh turning around. But we are proud that BRAC has always extended its support to various programmes and initiatives of the government. BRAC has played a vital role in implementing the child immunisation programme, in promoting oral saline, in building up health workers, in arranging safe delivery for expectant mothers, tackling tuberculosis, ensuring sanitation, hygiene and and public health.
Over the past 44 years, the literacy rate in Bangladesh has increased from 25 per cent to 65 per cent. BRAC has played a vital role in the overall advancement of the health and education sectors. So far over 12 million children have studied at the BRAC primary and pre-primary schools and 60 per cent of them are girls. We also have the BRAC University which has won the reputation of being a centre of excellence in higher studies and research.
Though the population of the country has doubled in these 47 years, the workforce has creased 3.5 times. The entrance of women in the labour market has expanded the work force. We have helped creating employment for thousands of poor people by means of microcredit, training and other forms of support as well as creating the scope to enter the labour market. In creating employment for the poor, we have played a leading role in setting up the handicraft industry, the poultry industry, dairy products, seed production and more.
Bangladesh has been very successful in many areas of development and, along with other organisations, BRAC has always been at the forefront of this development journey.
Prothom Alo: There is BRAC Bank, BRAC University and Aarong. Why did you venture into these set-ups?
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed: Let me explain why we established BRAC Bank. We carried out a study in 1997 where we saw 10 per cent of the ultra poor could not avail microcredit. Then again, small businesses did not get loans. These business persons were not poor, not ultra poor, but not well-off either. Poor people could get loans and so could the wealthy. But what about these people? That led us to form BRAC Bank, so small and medium entrepreneurs could get loans.
The objective behind setting up the university was to build up educated persons who would be interested in working with the poor. This would create more people like us, people who wanted to play a responsible role in society. The country would benefit if we could do this through the university, if we could raise the standard of education through our institution, give degrees to our civil servants to establish good governance.
From the very outset we have endeavoured through our development activities to render the poor people self-reliant. It was evident that the poor people could change their predicament and become self-reliant through involvement in income generation activities. We supported them in these endeavours. In doing so, we built up several social enterprises.
For instance, rural poor women took loans from BRAC to rear poultry. We brought in high quality chicks from abroad so that they could do so profitably. As demands grew, we eventually created a huge hatchery farm. We arranged for vaccines to prevent poultry diseases. Innumerable women were training as vaccinators. We set up feed mills for improved quality feed. We encouraged corn cultivation for the feed mills. When so many people were successfully rearing poultry, we established BRAC Poultry to ensure a market for them. This small initiative soon took on national proportions.
As for Aarong, we began work at the start of 1976 in Manikganj. Our objective was to involve the poor people there, women in particular, in income-generating activities. We saw a potential of silk production there. The bherenda plant grows naturally in Manikganj and silkworms feed of the bherenda leaves. These worms produce ‘endi silk’. We began growing bherenda in the area and trained poor women in rearing silkworms. Around 300 women began producing endi silk thread from the cocoons and this was woven into silk fabric. This fabric was sold in a number of shops in Dhaka. They would pay for the product after two or three months. It was not possible for poor people to wait so long to be paid. So we thought of opening our own outlet where the producers would be paid immediately for their products. We then established Aarong in 1978.
Each and every activity emerged from the effort to meet some social requirement or the other.
Prothom Alo: You have taken BRAC to Afghanistan too. How has the experience been there?
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed: We began work in the war torn Afghanistan just as we did in war torn Bangladesh. But Afghanistan was in an even worse state. There were mines everywhere. Education, health, agriculture, everything was in shambles. We began in 2002 with 90 primary schools for girls there. Then we expanded to microcredit, health and other areas.
At present we have programmes in around 95 districts of 14 of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces. We work in the health and education sectors and with the government in several provinces to strengthen the local government system. We mobilise public awareness on gender equality, women and child rights and such issues for social empowerment. We run several technical and vocational programmes to increase their competence and skills.
We have placed emphasis on increasing women’s participation in social activities. Mostly women work with BRAC at the field level. They now wear their burqas and travel to the villages alone by bus. They weren’t easy with this initially, but it is often a matter of self-confidence. Our Bangladesh experience taught us that women were equally capable in any work.
Afghanistan taught how to adapt our Bangladesh development initiatives and experiences in other countries. These experiences gave us the courage to expand our programmes to many more countries in the world.
Prothom Alo: You have brought a change in leadership. What should others in Bangladesh take into consideration when they take such measures? What is the best way to change leadership?
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed: When I reached 65 years of age in 2001, I decided that I would have to hand over BRAC leadership to others. I resigned as executive director and became a board member. Syed Humayun Kabir was BRAC chairman at the time. He suggested that the founder of BRAC become its chairman and I was the BRAC chairman since then.
I had pondered over the next BRAC leadership for some years and prepared accordingly. I always wanted to establish BRAC as an organisation that was not dependent on an individual. I always wanted a BRAC that would retain its excellence even in my absence. That is why I wanted to ensure a professional and orderly handover.
I felt it was the right time to step down as chairperson and from my active role on the BRAC International board. That is why I resigned from the BRAC Bangladesh board of directors and from the BRAC International supervisory board. The BRAC board of directors have elected me as the BRAC chair emeritus. I will now concentrate on BRAC’s future work strategy and management structure.
It is vital to to create the next leadership within the organisation. The precondition to creating leadership is to have a strong institutional culture. We have always focussed on this. I have wanted to build BRAC as a value-based institution. We managed to impart an entrepreneurship mindset in all the staff members, to create an innovation-friendly environment, to be able to question everything and to learn from experience. I believe the new leadership continues in its efforts to uphold this culture and will be successful. They will work to uphold BRAC’s values.
Prothom Alo: What do you aspire from the new leadership?
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed: Two very competent persons have been appointed as chairpersons of BRAC Bangladesh board of directors and BRAC International’s supervisory board. Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman and Ameera Huq from now will be the chairpersons of BRAC and BRAC International. Dr Muhammad Musa is now the executive director of BRAC International and Asif Saleh the executive director of BRAC Bangladesh. The executive directors of BRAC and BRAC International will now be in charge of the overall management. They will provide advice and directives to the new chairperson and board.
Selecting appropriate leadership to take BRAC forward was an important part of my decision. I took this decision with pride and confidence. I have full confidence in the competence and wisdom of Dr Muhammad Musa and Asif Saleh. I have a lot of hope in this new leadership. I believe, under their leadership BRAC will take the world ahead on the path towards an exploitation-free world. The new leadership was created from within BRAC and this culture will continue.
Prothom Alo: What is your dream for Bangladesh?
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed: While Bangladesh has made significant strides in many areas, our backwardness in one area has questioned all our other achievements and that is gender equality. Despite all our efforts, patriarchy remains deep-rooted in our society.
I dream of seeing equality between men and women in the future in our country. I perhaps won’t see this in my lifetime. This will possibly be an unfinished agenda in my life. I am pained when I see women still being oppressed and tortured. Women still work for lesser wages than men and are systemically kept away from certain professions and programmes. Child marriage is still prevalent and over one third of these girls are victims of marital violence. Gender equality is essential for social development and for peace and happiness within the family. But I believe our country will rapidly progress towards equality between men and women which will accelerate our social advancement.
Prothom Alo: What is your dream for BRAC?
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed: BRAC has a lot of successes but also a lot of challenges ahead. The challenges will steadily grow more and more complex. But it is important that that we have managed to identify our priorities. Population pressure, urbanisation and climate change will pose fresh problems before us. We will have to come up with new and innovative solutions to address the future challenges in Bangladesh and the other countries were we work. And we must put to use the huge potential of our young generation.
Over the next 10 years we want to spread our influence to more people around the world. By 2030 BRAC should reach 250 million people of the world. I dream of BRAC becoming even bigger in the future, come forward with further innovations and with more solutions for the days to come.
Prothom Alo: Who has been an influence in your life?
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed: My mother Syeda Sufia Khatun.
Prothom Alo: You favourite poem, song?
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed: My favourite poem is Tagore’s ‘Shahjahan’ and favourite song, Tagore’s ‘Tumi robe nirobe’.