I had my first encounter with Sir Fazle Hasan Abed in 1971 in Oxford. Abed called to inform me on the efforts by him and his group in London in support of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle. He sought my advice on how to further enhance the impact of their struggle. He also looked ahead and discussed what might be done to serve the deprived masses in post-liberation Bangladesh. I was then impressed by his dedication and foresightedness. Unlike many who talk of serving the masses but do little in practice, in the immediate aftermath of liberation Abed put his dedication and foresight to work in the service of the deprived of Bangladesh.
We kept in touch in the post-liberation years but had little interaction. In 1993 when I decided to set up the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Abed was one of the first persons I approached to join me as one of the founding trustees. He remained an active member of the CPD Board ever since where he not only gave us sage advice on issues of governance of the institution, but encouraged institutional interaction between CPD and Brac in a number of programmes and campaigns. As his end approached, as part of his disengagement from his many engagements around the world, he wrote us a formal letter of resignation from the CPD Board.
Just as it is painful for me and CPD to say farewell to one of our most valued colleagues, it is difficult to imagine a Bangladesh without Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. He leaves a larger than life footprint with its imprint visible not just around the country but across the world. I can think of few people who have done more for the world’s deprived population than Abed. His contribution spans Bangladesh where Brac, the organisation founded by him in 1972, services close to 10 million of the country’s underprivileged households. Through Abed’s commitment to serve the deprived, Brac has now extended its reach across the globe. It has invested its experience in rehabilitating Sidr victims in Sri Lanka and the war-ravaged population in Afghanistan where two of its officials, working in high risk areas, were once held hostage by the Taliban. Brac has now reached out on a large scale to serve the underprivileged of Africa where they have been actively engaged in Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Brac has even extended its reach to Pakistan and across the Atlantic to Haiti.
Abed’s extraordinary engagement with the deprived has transformed Brac into the largest NGO in the world with an annual budget of over a billion dollars and a workforce of around 200,000. Abed’s singular contribution to the world for serving its deprived communities has been his ability to take Brac programmes to scale so that they graduate from micro-welfare projects to the transformation of entire communities. Brac is today more than an NGO. Its scale of operations would suggest that it is now a corporation for the deprived. Abed’s organisational capacity has invested Brac with a market recognition comparable to any of the top international NGOs such as Oxfam and his management contribution has been recognised in case studies in the best business schools.
Abed was a strong believer that Brac should liberate itself from dependence on external donor financing and should become a self-financed facility. To this end, he established a number of programmes which could generate financial surpluses that could be reinvested in other Brac projects. The biggest of such projects was Brac’s flagship micro-finance programme which could recycle its surpluses and expand its clientele of women borrowers to around 8 million so that today it presides over one of the world’s largest microfinance programmes. Abed further drew upon Brac’s brand name and market reach to invest in a variety of other socially oriented income generating investments such as Brac’s stake in Bkash and commercially competitive entities such as Brac Bank which is today one of the best run and most profitable banks in Bangladesh. These investments generated revenues which have further enhanced Brac’s internal income generating capacity and enabled it to expand its programmes to reach even larger numbers of the disadvantaged.
The remarkable growth and reach of Brac owes in large measure to the herculean endeavours of Fazle Hasan Abed, its founder. Abed combined extraordinary entrepreneurial and management skills with a genuine passion for public service which began with a commitment to the dispossessed of his own country, but has now been extended to the underprivileged across the world. Abed, who began his professional life as a highly paid executive of a multinational company in Bangladesh, went through the life changing experience of direct involvement, first during the cyclone of November 1970, one of history’s most devastating natural calamities, and then through his response to the genocide inflicted on the Bengalis in 1971. Abed’s exposure to the human consequences of such acts of violence by man and nature persuaded him to invest the rest of his life in helping not just the victims of devastation but those whose entire life is engaged in coping with the uncertainties of nature and the injustices of society.
In responding to the challenge of deprivation, Abed demonstrated a renaissance vision which equipped him to recognise its holistic nature in Bangladesh. He constructed a multi-faceted agenda for change which incorporated credit, women’s empowerment, legal literacy, healthcare, education and skills development so as to empower the excluded to stand on their own feet. His approach of transforming the excluded from victims into masters of their own fate encouraged him to build an organisation which could graduate from aid dependence to fiscal self-reliance through building up the market competitiveness of its income generating programmes. Today Brac is no longer dependent on the generosity of donors. Its internally generated revenues underwrite around 80 percent of its total budget. The growth and transformation of Brac has made it a role model for other NGOs not just in Bangladesh but across the world. These achievements have been recognised through a plethora of awards and prizes which have been showered on Abed which gave him direct access to global political leaders, heads of international institutions and CEO’s of the corporate world.
Abed invested 47 years of his life in serving the deprived at home and abroad. His humility and understated projection of his remarkable achievements concealed a quiet determination to let his actions speak louder than his words. He was not inclined to self-promotion but such was the weight of his achievements as a champion of the deprived that he and the organisation he built, came to be recognised across the world by those in need as well as among global and business leaders.
At the end of his days on earth, he left the world he inhabited in a better place with millions of people whose lives were improved through his efforts. Few people may depart with such a sense of satisfaction at their life’s work. He knew his work was unfinished but he laid down a path through which it can be continued by his successors.
His final contribution to posterity was manifested in the meticulous effort he invested in preparing for his final departure. Abed was determined to ensure Brac would outlive him and continue the transformative journey he began 47 years ago in the small village of Sallna, in Sylhet. His goal was to end poverty by empowering the deprived and his soul will not rest in peace until such a day dawns, at least in Bangladesh, with Brac playing a vanguard role in this process.
Rehman Sobhan is Chairman, Centre for Policy Dialogue.