Not many people have the courage to leave a cushy job in a good company, but a devastating cyclone and intense relief work in Bangladesh opened Fazle Abed’s eyes and heart to the country’s extreme level of poverty prompting him to take serious action

Fazle Hasan Abed is the founder and Executive Director of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), a non-governmental development organisation working to assist the landless poor in Bangladesh. BRAC was founded in 1971 during Bangladesh’s war of liberation and has achieved worldwide recognition for its work in disaster relief, village-based basic education, micro-enterprise lending and primary health care.

Fazle Abed admits to being a shy person who is somewhat of an introvert and does not like talking about himself. The fact that he heads the world’s largest non-governmental organisation, and bears on his shoulders the onus that comes with it, is not at all apparent. He is known for his pleasant disposition and the unflustered equanimity of his personality that puts everybody around him at ease.

“My father was a government official with the British-Indian government, having opted for Pakistan at the time of the partition of India in 1947,” he explains. “I was about 11 then and would normally have followed in my father’s footsteps while growing up and choosing a career. But by 1947, when we became independent of the British Raj, we started thinking differently and had ambitions to break out into the yet-unexplored fields and disciplines in order to make a career away from government jobs.


“When the time came for me to decide what to study in 1954, I chose naval architecture, as there was no naval architect in the country at the time. As a naval architect, I would have to live in England, Scotland, Japan or any other country engaged and excelling in shipbuilding. Hence, coming back to the country to pursue a vocation in shipbuilding would be out of question. After three years of studying naval architecture, I switched to chartered accountancy. That’s how the thinking process regarding careers worked in those days.”

Bangladesh began life with a wrecked economy, with no infrastructure. Colonised for centuries, brutalised by war and natural calamity, its people were poorly equipped for the sudden task of forming a nation. Schools, health facilities, communications and industry, stunted from the outset, all lay in ruins. Against insurmountable odds, however, Bangladesh has done more than simply survive. Food production has almost doubled. Life expectancy has increased by almost 30 per cent and child mortality has decreased by 40 per cent. Infrastructure has developed, new industries have come up and the people have reaffirmed their commitment to democracy.  “I was working for the Shell Oil Company when we had the 1970 cyclone. The idea didn’t come at one go. We were doing relief work and suddenly it occurred to me that life and death are such realities that can unexpectedly take hold of you. You suddenly realise that the kind of life you lead is actually unreal. The shock and awe of the devastating cyclone woke me up to the real world. The second shock was Bangladesh’s war of liberation when thousands of innocent people were killed. We were all out to mobilise our resources,” he adds.

Suddenly Fazle’s outlook on life changed. “I felt that there was more to do than living the cushy life of a covenanted executive in a multinational corporation. That’s when I came back and it wasn’t difficult to make the choice to serve my country. It was a natural transition, from participating in the liberation war and coming back to start something for underprivileged people. That’s how BRAC emerged as an organisation. “Our relief and rehabilitation was over in a year, but the people we served remained poor and vulnerable. We felt that we could not walk out on these people leaving them to their own devices to fend for them. We felt that we needed to commit ourselves to the long-term development of rural Bangladesh – in the provision of education, healthcare, family -planning services, building organisations of the poor – and empower them to demand services from the state. We needed to develop new avenues and work opportunities for our poor people, particularly for our women. That was how a holistic approach to bring about change and development in rural Bangladesh was conceived and initiated by BRAC.” The problems faced by Bangladesh are so numerous and of such magnitude that the government alone cannot effectively address all of these at once. The need for other organisations to remain involved became increasingly apparent. The failure of the state to manage development in an effective manner at the grassroots has led many donor agencies in search of alternatives.  “Initially, we began with rehabilitation programmes, then we thought of long-term development and extended into poverty empowerment, employment and family planning programmes,” he explains.

Empowerment of the poor and poverty alleviation are the two facets of BRAC’s primary goal. Social mobilisation is the sine qua non for the empowerment of the poor. It is also the most cost-effective way of reaching large numbers of households. BRAC looks at poverty from a holistic viewpoint.

In the words of Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate economist: “The point is not the irrelevance of economic variables such as personal incomes, but their severe inadequacy in capturing many of the causal influences on the quality of life and the survival chances of people.”

BRAC has four core programmes: BRAC Economic Development Programme; BRAC Social Development, Human Rights and Legal Education Services Programme; BRAC Education Programme and BRAC Health Programme.

Along with income and employment generation, BRAC helps in forming organisations of the poor, awareness building, gender equity and training for human resource development. The logic of these programmes is the creation of an ‘enabling environment’ in which the poor can participate in their own development. But increasing awareness alone cannot bring change. Economic empowerment is at the heart of other forms of empowerment.

The image of Bangladesh is slowly being redrawn. Depressing statistics of natural disasters, runaway population growth, high maternal and infant mortality, malnutrition and poverty are gradually being replaced by encouraging examples of success. Over the last decade and a half Bangladesh has achieved outstanding results in many fields.

The private sector has also grown substantially, particularly the ready-made garments industry. With over 2,500 factories employing over a million workers, most of whom are women, it has already become one of the country’s major export earners, with long-term implications for the empowerment of women.

However, in spite of these successes Bangladesh still remains one of the poorest countries on earth according to the World Bank’s new system of measuring the wealth of nations.

The income generating programmes and other activities in the economic field have brought BRAC into the world on the free market economy. Until quite recently, the conventional wisdom was that NGOs are inherently incapable of entering the rough and tumble world of business. Although BRAC has had its fair share of failures, it also proved its ability to create economic institutional value without sacrificing its own values.

“We faced quite a few challenges, like getting a good people, educating them about the right kind of skills, etc. We also had scaling up issues regarding handling a countrywide programme and expanding it. Every time a challenge is overcome another one crops up.

“My experience with Shell helped me and I knew that a large organisation can be run properly and professionally,” he adds.

For many years, development meant macro-economic development. “Trickle down” inherently meant that the poor would be at the very end of the benefit stream. Reality was even worse, for those who benefited from development had other assets that worked in conjunction with the new inputs. Through this process the rich become richer, and the poor, poorer. If it is hard work for a rich person to become richer, it is infinitely more so for a poor person to break out of the prison of poverty.

Reaching the poorest of the poor, households headed by women with small children and no ostensible means of income, or where the head of the household is chronically sick, is an extremely difficult challenge. These “ultra poor” who constitute the bottom 10 per cent of the population (about 12 million people) are unable to take advantage of the traditional development programmes of the government or even the more grassroots programmes of the NGOs. Still, BRAC believes that they are not entirely beyond reach. Whatever BRAC can do to help them would make a critical difference in their lives.

Providing credit to the poor is an important component of BRAC’s Rural Development Programme (RDP). An equivalent of US$750m has been given as loans to rural poor women without collateral. The repayment rate is 98 per cent and the members have accumulated savings of over US$51m. Consciousness, peer group dynamics and BRAC staff supervision are important factors for the success of the credit programme.

Realising the fullest potential of micro-credit to improve the lives of the poor, on a sustainable basis it had been held back by the virtual absence of modern production technology in rural Bangladesh. Much of the micro-credit has been used for traditional activities and not enough has been done to include new technology. The profit made from traditional activities is modest, not enough to generate an investable surplus.

”In the case of BRAC, 70 per cent of its loan portfolio is in traditional activities. The need for infusion of more productive technology is being gradually recognised and BRAC has made a significant commitment towards this. BRAC provides training, improved raw materials and marketing support in certain sectors.”

Wherever possible, BRAC seeks vertical and horizontal integration in its income generating projects. “For example, in the case of its poultry programme, activities cover the whole process – from eggs to chicken to eggs,” explains Mr. Abed. “BRAC financed hatcheries and sell day-old chicks to women who rear them as broilers or layers. The eggs and birds are then sold to consumers as well as to BRAC hatcheries. BRAC is also involved in such ancillary activities as training, veterinary care and feed. BRAC pioneered poultry raising in Bangladesh.

“Today, it is a thriving industry and eggs and chickens are no longer the food of the fortunate few. Similar backward and forward linkages have also been successfully established in other programmes. Before taking up a new experiment, we do consider whether it would be financially and operationally feasible on a national scale.”

In 1986 BRAC started experimenting with non-formal primary education programmes for children from poorer families. Accordingly, BRAC developed the Non-Formal Primary Education Programme (NFPE) that best suited the realities of rural Bangladesh. The results have been more than satisfying. ”We are humbled by the overwhelming response of the parents and children and proud of our ability to open and operate more than 34,000 one-room schools where more than a million children, 70 per cent of which are girls, are receiving an education that they would have never received otherwise.“

He adds, “Unlike the micro-credit programme, which now supports most of its own costs through interest earning, NFPE requires donor support. Although the unit cost is very low (US$18 per child per year), supporting 1.1 million children requires US$22m a year. We would have liked the government of Bangladesh to fund this programme because this group of children is not covered by the public sector. Unfortunately, we remain totally dependent on overseas donors. “When it became apparent that poverty alleviation and social development needed long-term commitment and that our own work was contributing towards the improvement of the conditions of the poor, we looked at ways to assure our own existence. In order to reduce dependence on donors, BRAC started setting up commercial ventures and developing income-generating assets of its own.

“One of BRAC’s early projects to help women market their handicrafts has turned into the most popular handmade clothing and handicraft marketing operation in the country. ‘Aarong’ has seven retail outlets in the country and a sizeable export business. Thousands of women earn an income from this venture, as does BRAC itself. A number of other revenue-earning projects are at various stages of maturity or development. At the moment, over 60 per cent of BRAC’s budget comes from its own sources,” he adds.

BRAC also has its own enterprises; BRAC industries Ltd, BRAC salt industries, BRAC Printers, BRAC Tea Estates and BRAC Print Pack. It also owns institutions such as BRAC University, BRAC Bank, BRACnet, Documenta Ltd and Delta BRAC Housing Finance Corp. Ltd.

“Ever since our inception, we have followed a reflexive bottom-up approach, which has allowed us to design policies and programmes according to the priorities and needs of the people on the ground. At the village level, the participants of BRAC programmes meet at regular intervals to discuss issues relevant to their lives and voice their problems. These priorities and concerns are taken as the basis of BRAC’s programmes. The series of weekly, monthly and quarterly meetings of the field and headquarter staff ensure a two-way flow and responsive actions.

“In an effort to ensure this connection with the priorities of BRAC’s participants, all programme ideas emanating from management are fine-tuned through a series of focus group meetings with potential participants prior to their implementation.”

In addition, BRAC has entire departments including Internal Audit and Monitoring and Research that are devoted to ensuring the organisation’s effectiveness, accountability and transparency. Moreover, all of BRAC’s activities are carried out within legal and contractual frameworks mandated by both the government and donors that include regular audits by national and international audit firms and the yearly publication of an income and expenditure statements in their annual reports. As these policies demonstrate, BRAC is conscious of the many partners with which it must maintain open and transparent relationships.

Because of its success in implementing pro-poor programmes in Bangladesh, BRAC is often called to serve in international commissions and committees, as well as on the boards of different foundations and academic institutions, like the World Bank NGO Committee, the Independent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation and the International Commission on Health Research for Development. Through such involvements BRAC has been able to influence the agenda and recommendations in favour of the poor.

“Following the success of our international initiatives in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, BRAC launched development programmes in Tanzania and Uganda in 2006,” Mr. Abed explains. “In Africa BRAC will implement its unique integrated development approach to poverty reduction by incorporating education, health, water and sanitation components along with microfinance.

“In order to underline our long-term commitment to Africa, BRAC pledged to raise and spend at least US$250m over the next ten years in Africa, at the Clinton Global initiative in New York in September 2006. In order to help finance BRAC’s global expansion, two non-profit resource mobilisation organisations have also been set up in USA and UK.”BRAC UK focuses on programme implementation among diaspora communities, adapting BRAC’s successful approaches, advocacy for successful development led by the south and fund raising for BRAC programmes, primarily in Africa and Asia. Funding is being sought for primary schools and a women health volunteer programme both in Southern Sudan. In the UK, plans are underway to implement a womens health volunteer initiative with diaspora communities in east London, in addition to financial education for women and young people. Investigation is underway to determine the needs of young Somali people in northwest London and how they can be linked to BRAC UK’s efforts with communities in Tower Hamlets.Resources are accepted from organisations and individuals who believe in BRAC UK’s objectives and ethos. A fundraising strategy is evolving to support programmes being implemented by BRAC, initially in Uganda, Tanzania, southern Sudan and Afghanistan. The board, the staff, volunteers and supporters work collaboratively to take the organisation forward in its endeavours and create a presence in major UK cities.BRAC UK is a member of CIVICUS, BOND (Board member), ACEVO, the UK Network for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG), Directory of Social Change, Drishtipat and Charities Aid Foundation (CAF). This contributes to its advocacy work to promote successful development led by the south and brings a strong southern voice to the policy debate.Abed has received numerous awards for his exemplary work, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, UNICEF’s Maurice Pate Award, Social Entrepreneurship Award by the Schwab Foundation, UNDP Mahbub ul Haq Award for Outstanding Contribution in Human Development, Henry R. Kravis Prize in Leadership and the Clinton Global Citizenship Award.

BRAC celebrated its 35th anniversary this February, despite operating in the face of great political uncertainties. While successive governments, both civil and military, have subjected the country to major policy shifts, Mr. Abed still believes that they recognised BRAC’s immense contributions and allowed them to continue working.

“The problem we face with all governments alike is that we are subjected to a host of regulations and cumbersome procedures in the approval and implementation of our programmes,” says Mr. Abed. “We are also occasional victims of overzealous bureaucrats who believe that they are the final arbiters of what is good for the nation. Their policies, procedures and practices that test our resolve can at times frustrate our efforts.

“We are convinced that the main thrust for development of a country must come from within, but we must remain mindful of the fact that the world community is inseparably linked through interdependent economics and shared socio-political views. There are common problems such as environmental degradation, AIDS, drugs and organised crime that transcend national boundaries. They are not ‘government problems’ to be resolved in intergovernmental conferences. They are people’s problems. The people need to be empowered to deal with them, and for this there will continue to be the need for NGOs.”

Abed doesn’t get much spare time in between his many commitments, but cooking is one pastime he seems to miss. “I think I had a particular latent gift for cooking. Whatever I cooked, my friends seemed to enjoy immensely. I think my rezala was one of the best. I remember cooking rezala for the great novelist E.M. Forster in his Kings College Cambridge flat. He said it reminded him of his time with the Maharajah he had served in India in the early 1900’s.”

He also tries to squeeze in some reading when travelling. “I get little time to read novels. But then recently some Indian writers have been doing remarkably well. Arundhati Roy is wonderful. Her writing is superb. Jhumpa Lahiri is very good. I enjoy Madhavi Mukherjee.”

BRAC believes that every human being, irrespective of his/her socio-economic condition, can contribute to development. This is the essence of BRAC values.

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