In Bangladesh, individuals – especially founders or leaders – have a tendency to overshadow the institutions and organisations they build. This is true 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, did not end up that way, thanks largely to the way Sir Fazle Hasan Abed ran the institution. 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'. He 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, which is also the largest, making its efficiency significantly more impressive. 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. It is clearer than ever now in retrospect, because at one end he felt an urgency to create a poverty-free society, and at the same time possessed the skills to translate this dream into reality. He felt for people with his heart, and went about addressing their problems with his head. That is how he implemented so many highly successful projects, allowing BRAC to become such a gigantic force for good.
Everything BRAC invested in, be it a bank, a financial institution, or simply a fashion house, the purpose was always to achieve sustainable growth for the people, which was the core of Abed's vision. BRAC's steady direction throughout the years was only possible because of his resolve.
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, and 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 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."
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 the 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."
But the contribution of BRAC in the health and education sectors alone demonstrates how instrumental the organisation has been for Bangladesh's development. In the 1980s, BRAC, working alongside the government, helped build the healthcare backbone of the country. It became a household name through the nationwide promotion of oral saline.
It took on the responsibility of immunising half the population of the country while the government completed the other half. These two interventions played a massive role in bringing down child mortality, which in turn had a dramatic impact in controlling population growth – Bangladesh's biggest headache in the first two decades of its existence.
In the next decade, BRAC took the rate of literacy head on.
BRAC designed a single room, 30-student schools with a curriculum designed to equip poor children, especially girls, with basic, writing and numeracy skills in just three years (later expanded to four).
In 1985, there were only 22 BRAC schools in the country, by 2009, there were 64,000.
Many of the impressive achievements that Bangladesh flaunts today on international podiums – the drop in child and maternal mortality, 100 percent enrollment of girl children in schools, drop in poverty rate – would have effectively been impossible without the presence 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, 2019 at the age of 83. His most obvious legacy is BRAC and the millions of lives it touched. But his other enduring legacy are the lessons he left behind in the way he conducted himself - how he sacrificed comfort for compassion, how he put organisation over the individual, how he prized efficiency in charity.
Brac founder Fazle Hasan Abed's life and work
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed's work has overshadowed his stature, yet the history behind how this Bangladeshi man became a global icon is intriguing.
Abed came from a privileged background, but decided to devote his life to finding solutions for poverty.
This timeline provides a snapshot of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed's life and work.
Abed was born on 27 April 1936 in Baniachang village of Habiganj district to Syeda Sufia Khatun and Siddique Hasan.
Born into the wealthy Hasan family, the members of his larger family were educated and influential. His father Siddique Hasan was an educated man who went to St Xavier's School and College in Kolkata.
His maternal grandfather Khanbahadur Syed Moazzem Uddin Hossain was a provincial minister under British rule.
He passed the matriculation exam from Pabna Zilla School and then completed his higher secondary education from Notre Dame College in Dhaka.
Sir Fazle went to the UK to attend University of Glasgow in 1954. He did not finish the naval architecture degree at the university, but instead joined the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants in London.
He completed his education at the Institute in 1962.
He came back to the erstwhile East Pakistan after his studies and joined the Shell Oil Company and quickly became the head of its finance division.
The devastating cyclone on 12 November 1970 that hit the country's coastal area and killed approximately 300,000 people, left a deep impact on Sir Fazle, who along with few friends formed an organisation called HELP to provide relief.
During Bangladesh's War of Liberation, circumstances forced Sir Fazle to leave the country and seek refuge in the United Kingdom. He established Action Bangladesh in the UK to lobby the governments of Europe for his country's independence.
In 1972 he returned home to an independent country. He sold his flat in London to fund relief work for refugees coming back from India. To aid the relief he founded the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC).
By 1973, BRAC began giving out small loans. Sir Fazle was among the first proponents of microfinance in the country.
As Sir Fazle began to gain increasing prominence in the area of development, he became involved with numerous organisations in leadership roles.
He acted as the chairperson of Association of Development Agencies in Bangladesh (ADAB) between 1982 to 1986.
He became Senior Fellow with Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) in 1982.
In 1986 he became a member of the NGO Committee of the World Bank in Geneva.
In 1987 he became a member of the International Commission on Health Research for Development under Harvard University, and Chairperson for the South Asia Partnership (SAP).
In 1992 he became a member of SAARC's South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation.
In 1998 he was made a member of the board of governors at the Institute of Development Studies of Sussex University in the UK.
In 1999 he became a member of the board of governors of International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.
The 90s paved the way to great achievements for BRAC and Sir Fazle Hasan Abed.
Sir Fazle founded BRAC University in 2001, serving as the first chairman of its board of trustees.
He also founded BRAC Bank in 2001.
These two organizations became instrumental in Bangladesh's development, particularly the bank.
In 2002 he became the Global Chairperson of the International Network of Alternative Financial Institution and remained in the position until 2008.
In 2009 Sir Fazle was appointed Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George by the British Monarchy in recognition of his services to reducing poverty in Bangladesh and internationally.
In 2012 Sir Fazle became a member of the UN Secretary-General's Lead Group of the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement.
Sir Fazle was named in Fortune Magazine's list of World's 50 Greatest Leaders in 2014 and 2017.
In August 2019, he retired as the chairperson of BRAC Bangladesh and BRAC International.
Sir FazleHasan Abed died at the age of 83 on 20 December 2019 in a hospital in Dhaka while undergoing treatment for a malignant brain tumor.
'Very few like him in the history of the world'
An iconic figure in the world of development and poverty alleviation, Sir Faz leHasan Abed was seen as a hero by his peers. As much as his genius impacted Bangladesh and the world, his personality and originality touched many in profound ways.
Here is a collection of quotes about Sir Fazle by some of the most important figures in the country and from around the world that show how far reaching his impact has been.
"Over the course of three decades, under Sir Fazle's inspiring leadership, the humanitarian organization he founded, BRAC, has become one of the world's leading development organisations. From its humble beginnings in Bangladesh – the country he loved so well – to its expansion to 10 countries across Asia and Africa, BRAC has stood as an inspiring example of how we can gather people together in common cause to improve the lives of the most vulnerable… All of us at UNICEF will miss his ideas and advice. We will never forget the example he set."
Henrietta H Fore, former Executive Director, UNICEF
"Sir Fazle Abed is the most respected person in my life next to my late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. I spent many meetings learning his humility and simple wisdom …Abed reminds us that service to humanity is the highest value for our time on this planet."
Jack Sim, founder, Restroom Association of Singapore, World Toilet Organization, and the World Toilet Day initiative
"The scale and impact of what he has done, and yet the utter humility with which he has done everything, is a lesson for every single one of us."
Jim Yong Kim, Former President, World Bank
"Sir Fazle was an extraordinary person and he created an institution which mirrors his vision, commitment, and values. All of us at Save the Children are saddened by the news of his passing, but inspired by his legacy."
Kevin Watkins, former Chief Executive Officer, Save the Children
"...I have worked with him closely both as a researcher and also as a regulator …The world will certainly remember him as a great innovator of various low-cost development solutions for the wretched and the disadvantaged, particularly the rural women.
His leadership in promoting pro-poor education, health and finance has been simply unparalleled."
Atiur Rahman, former Governor, Bangladesh Bank
"Sir Fazle believed and practiced that development starts with the individual, that development is about helping people help themselves by providing them access to better education, health and skills training. Although the world no longer has Sir Fazle to show the way, we have his living and growing legacy in BRAC and the millions of people who benefited and continue to benefit from his vision and work."
Dan Mozena, former US Ambassador to Bangladesh
"...Sir Fazle Hassan Abed [is] a true giant and icon of rural development, and one of my all-time heroes. Someone who dedicated his life to help the poor, achieving extraordinary impact through his organisation – BRAC. In spite of countless international awards, he remained one of the kindest, most humble and gentle persons I have ever known."
Nigel Brett, Director for the Asia and the Pacific Division, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)
"Sir Fazle Abed's life was a great gift to humanity. His nearly 50 years of visionary leadership at BRAC transformed millions of lives in Bangladesh and beyond, and changed the way the world thinks about development. Driven by an unwavering belief in the inherent dignity of all people, he empowered those in extreme poverty to build better futures for themselves and their families… His legacy will live on in all the people whose lives are better, healthier and more secure because of his remarkable service."
Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the United States and Founder and Chair, Clinton Foundation
"In 1972, after Bangladesh's war of liberation had left many homeless, Fazle Abed left his job as a London oil executive and returned to his home country with £16,000 in his pocket — and the ambitious goal of building 10,400 houses. He ended up raising enough money to build 16,000 houses for some of the poorest people in Bangladesh and still had enough left over to start his next project. That's who Sir Fazle was as a humanitarian, and that's what he helped us learn about development work: How to build a big, efficient organisation, while never forgetting who you were doing it for."
Melinda Gates, Co-Chair, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
"I can think of few people who have done so much for humanity as Abed. He was a friend and someone I deeply admired and learned from: While US aid efforts in Afghanistan often flopped, his succeeded. Reflecting his humility, no one called him Sir Fazle. He was simply Abed."
Nicholas Kristof, New York Times Columnist
"The hundreds of millions of lives he transformed will remember him as the spark of hope, especially by those from the most vulnerable and poorest communities now enriched by new possibilities. "
Dr Charles Chen Yidan, Founder, Yidan Prize Foundation
"Abed was one of the foremost leaders of thought as well as action of our time… An astonishing combination of clear-headed thinking and sure-footed execution made Abed the great leader that he was. We have had very few like him in the history of the world."
Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics