The World Has Lost a Pioneer in the Global Effort to Help the Poor

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed was an anti-poverty pioneer whose work benefitted people around the world. Photo: BRAC
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed was an anti-poverty pioneer whose work benefitted people around the world. Photo: BRAC

By Bart Édes

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed dedicated his life to social development, establishing practices that will continue to help the poor for decades to come.

One of the world’s greatest anti-poverty leaders passed away on 20 December 2019. Sir Fazle Hasan Abed died in Dhaka at the age of 83. He will be best remembered as the founder of BRAC, initially known as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee and later as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. He formed BRAC nearly half a century ago in the early days of Bangladesh’s independence when the country began to rebuild after war.

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed was inspired to dedicate much of his life to social development by a horrific disaster – the November 1970 Great Bhola Cyclone that killed an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people in Bangladesh. As he said to Professor Tarun Khanna in an interview conducted for the Baker Library of Harvard Business School in 2014: “The scene was just horrendous – bodies strewn everywhere – humans, animals, everything. That shocked me to an extent that I felt that the kind of life I led [working in Chittagong for a global oil company] hardly had any meaning in a kind of context in which these people lived – the fragility of poor people.” Sir Fazle Hasan Abed’s house soon became the center of a local relief effort.

In January 1972, he established BRAC to provide humanitarian relief to returning war refugees in the northeastern part of Bangladesh. At the beginning, he funded the organization from the proceeds of the sale of a small apartment he owned in England. In its first decade, BRAC focused on the needs of landless poor people. Then, as now, BRAC gave special attention to women, and in its earliest days of operation provided women with vocational training, and health and family planning services.

  Sir Fazle Hasan Abed left a legacy of compassion and innovation to help the poor.

Under Sir Fazle Hasan Abed’s leadership, BRAC soon took on the deadly scourge of diarrhea by teaching mothers how to prepare an oral rehydration solution to treat it. The program spread across the country and achieved great results, contributing to a 30% drop in Bangladesh’s infant mortality rate over a dozen years.

Drawing on his experience in corporate finance, he applied market-based methods to BRAC’s operations. A commercial printing press and chain of handicraft stores (Aarong) were launched within the first few years of operations, and others over time. Today, BRAC funds about three-quarters of its operations through such social enterprises. BRAC continued to innovate and launch new initiatives, such as the Rural Development Program (1986), Centre for Development Management (1992), Information Technology Institute (1999), and BRAC University (2001). It provides microfinance, supports legal empowerment, promotes safe migration, and builds systems for food production and distribution.

In 2002, BRAC tested a new approach to tackling extreme poverty: Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction – Targeting the Ultra Poor. Its methodology, known as the “graduation approach” involves carrying out a series of sequenced interventions to lift families out of destitution. The graduation approach has been adopted by numerous NGOs, governments and development agencies in more than 40 countries on different continents.

In the Philippines, ADB has provided grant financing to pilot test the graduation approach in Negros Occidental. Partners in this work have included the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development, Innovations for Poverty Action, Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, and BRAC USA. 

BRAC expanded its services across of Bangladesh’s 64 districts, and then started programs abroad, in Afghanistan, Uganda, Myanmar, Liberia and other developing countries. It also set up BRAC USA, BRAC UK and BRAC International (in the Netherlands) to raise funds. BRAC employs more than 100,000 people (about 70% of them women) in its offices and field operations.

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed saw an interconnectedness among those struggling with limited means the world over. He concluded the interview with Professor Khanna with the observation “that poor people, their dreams, aspirations, and struggles are almost the same everywhere. Whether it is in Africa or Bangladesh or Pakistan or Nepal, it will be more or less the same. They are neglected, disenfranchised people who need help…”

Few people live to make such a substantial contribution to improving the condition of those living in poverty. The pioneering poverty fighter did not see himself as a visionary when he began working with the vulnerable and destitute. But vision he certainly developed, as his very localized effort to help people in need grew into something much, much larger than he could ever have imagined.