In Bangladesh, individuals – especially founders or leaders – have a tendency to overshadow the institutions and organisations they build. This is true in politics, in the for-profit and non-profit industries and even in media organisations. That is why organisations end up in the wilderness not long after the powerful and charismatic individuals who lead them leave, retire or pass away.
BRAC, however, is very unlikely to end up that way, thanks largely to the way Sir Fazle Hasan Abed ran the institution. A shy, self-deprecating man, it would be an understatement to say Abed simply avoided the limelight. Abed literally institutionalised the practice of keeping organisation ahead of the individual. He made it a rule that no one at BRAC addresses him as 'Sir'; hired the best men and women from different industries to run the various branches of BRAC and is not known to have ever been threatened by their presence. It is arguably the best-run institution in Bangladesh and the largest, second only to the government of Bangladesh. In an interview a decade back, just months after he had been knighted, I posed a question to him on how he managed to create that culture in a country where pioneers appear particularly averse to building institutions.
'Management,' he answered simply. 'Some people cannot even manage three people while some people manage millions successfully. It is all about developing systems, procedures, disciplines and providing the right kind of training'.
Abed the individual was a rare combination of deep empathy married to clinical efficiency. Abed had left behind a comfortable job at a multinational oil company moved by people's suffering in the 1970 Bhola cyclone and the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh. But from the very beginning his charity work was based on the management culture that governed multinational companies.
"I had hired a team of 120 staff, many of whom held master's degrees from Dhaka University at the very beginning," Abed told me during the interview.
"We made sure that these town boys would spend time in the villages, live with the poor and gather firsthand knowledge about how the poor lived, before they started working at the policy level."
Abed's appreciation of the value of efficient systems and management comes from his training as a naval architect and then as a chartered accountant. At the age of 18 he left for Glasgow University in 1954 to study naval architecture, but switched to management accounting three years later. Over the next decade he lived like very few Bangladeshis did at the time. He lived in his own apartment in London, travelled to France, Spain, Germany and Italy, read Proust and Rilke, visited exhibitions and museums, watched plays. In 1970, he had been sent to Chittagong by the Shell Oil company when the cyclone hit. It changed his life forever.
'Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives and livelihood. I saw the fragility of life from up close, and the perks of the corporate executive's life ceased to have a meaning for me,' Abed told me during the interview.
A few months later, Abed would witness human frailty again, this time during the Liberation War. As soon as the war ended, Abed sold his apartment and left London. Back in Bangladesh he set up BRAC with the money he got from the sale, and chose a remote village in Sunamganj of Sylhet with a Hindu majority population for his first project, as they had been affected the most during the war. By 1972, Abed was living in a single room in the BRAC office premises, working without a salary and being provided meals from the office.
Abed would eventually start receiving a salary in 1977 after his marriage (it was forced on him by the board, Abed told me). Till 2000, his salary would be Tk35,000.
However, despite imposing such a frugal lifestyle upon himself, he made sure Brac maintained the highest standards in management and accounting.
"Oxfam gave us 280,000 pounds to conduct our first project. When the project was completed we were left behind with Tk 500,000 and I wrote to them asking whether they wanted it back," Abed said.
"They wrote back to me that nobody had ever said anything like this to them and that I should keep the money to fund the next phase of the project."
During the interview, I asked Abed about the now common criticism against NGOs – that they implement the agenda of donors.
"Not for us," said Abed. "From the very beginning we made sure that it was us who created the projects and then set out to raise funds. Before taking it to the donors we conducted pilot projects from our own funds."
Another criticism coming the way of NGOs is they often overlap with the work of elected representatives and the government. "Elected representatives make promises, they don't do such work,' retorted Abed. "As for the government, we realised that there was so much to do, the government could not do it alone."
"Also, the government would never do things like empowering and organising poor people. An empowered population puts pressure on the system," he added.
But did he not face any resistance from them? "Every now and then we made many local representatives unhappy, but they couldn't really do much about it. However, there wasn't any serious resistance, I guess we did not trouble them enough," chuckled Abed.
But did Abed ever envision BRAC becoming so large as an institution? "Yes," said Abed. "From the very beginning we knew that if we wanted to have an impact in alleviating poverty, we had to be big and effective as opposed to small and beautiful."
"Even our first BRAC head office that we built in Mohakhali with over 12 stories was to display our permanence – that we were big and here to stay."
During the interview when I tried to credit Brac for playing a pivotal role in development of the country, he readily deflected the praise and credited the whole country for it.
"When we started, people used to walk barefoot in villages, women used to walk without blouses. The entire country has progressed and not just because of the work of BRAC."
Abed defined poverty not just as a lack of income, but as a sense of powerlessness from not being able to change, being discriminated against, exclusion from necessities such as education and health, as well as exclusion from rights such as legal rights. Hence, according to Abed, poverty requires different forms of intervention at different levels.
Talking about his childhood, Abed described himself as a 'sensitive' and 'introvert' child, un-sporty and immersed in literature and poetry. When I interviewed him on that cold winter morning in 2009, he seemed very much the same even at the age of 73. He loved talking about BRAC and his passion for art and literature, but very little about himself.
"I had kept myself aloof for many years as I felt it would serve as a distraction. However, I have only recently come out as I realised I had to open up so that people know about the work we do at BRAC, and also to dispel the myths along the way."
Abed passed away on December 20 at the age of 83. As soon I heard the news, I returned to the time I interviewed him almost exactly 10 years back. His most obvious legacy is Brac and the millions of lives it touched. But as the nation mourns one of its finest sons I realise Abed's other enduring legacy will be the lessons he left behind in the way he conducted himself - how he sacrificed comfort for compassion, how he put organisation over individual, how he prized efficiency in charity. In a country where you apparently cannot succeed without political connections, Abed built the world's largest NGO without ever having a political stamp attached to him.