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PROFILE-Why helping the poor is an obsession for BRAC founder Fazle Abed

by Belinda Goldsmith | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 18 November 2014 18:29 GMT

Fazle Abed's work led him to win the 2014 Trust Women Hero Award, chosen from 150 nominations

By Belinda Goldsmith

LONDON, Nov 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For Fazle Abed, giving the rural poor in developing nations the chance of a better life is not just a dream but an obsession that has become his life's work.

Founder of Bangladesh-based BRAC, the world's largest non-governmental development organisation, Abed has spent nearly 45 years helping the landless poor by educating children, teaching women about healthcare and funding small businesses.

His work has made him the recipient of the 2014 Trust Women Hero Award, chosen from 150 nominations for the prize given annually by the Thomson Reuters Foundation to recognise bold thinking and high-impact work that has helped women.

Abed, 78, said BRAC may have started small in 1972, focused on helping just one village in Bangladesh, but he always knew the organisation had to grow to make a real difference.

"I always had the view that small and beautiful would not be very helpful for Bangladesh. You need to grow to have impact," Abed told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of an award ceremony at the Trust Women Conference in London on Tuesday.

Abed said dealing with poverty was a stark contrast with his upbringing in a wealthy family in what was then British India.

Educated in Dhaka and then at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, Abed trained as an accountant before returning to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, to join the Shell oil company.

He rose quickly through the ranks and a successful corporate career stretched before him, but in 1970 everything changed.

A devastating cyclone hit the south of the country, killing 300,000 people, and upsetting Abed so much that he quit corporate life to set up the organisation HELP to provide relief and rehabilitation to victims of the disaster.


Then came East Pakistan's nine-month fight for independence from Pakistan in 1971, which left the new nation in ruins.

Some 10 million refugees flooded back into Bangladesh and a further 30 million people were displaced.

"The death and devastation that I saw happening in my country made my life as an executive in an oil company seem very inconsequential and meaningless. From then on I was committed to helping change lives," Abed said.

Selling his flat in London, Abed founded BRAC, originally the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, then the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, with the aim of improving the lives of the landless poor, particularly women.

"People thought I was crazy," he laughed.

At first BRAC focused on improving the lives of the poor in just one remote village in Bangladesh but it quickly grew as it saw the need to address crucial problems in Bangladesh, like infant mortality and illiteracy, that no one else was tackling.

BRAC staff started going from door to door, teaching mothers in 16 million homes how to cope with dehydration caused by diarrhoea, a major cause of child mortality.

BRAC also ran a four-year programme to encourage child immunisation, during which the immunisation rate rose to 70 percent of all youngsters from four percent.

"We were different from other organisations as we went from house to house to get the message across, largely to women," Abed said.

"I observed in villages that young girls looked after children, cared for household animals and collected twigs for cooking. The management of poverty was done by women in rural Bangladesh, so why not the management of development?"

The organisation also developed sustainable business models that can be replicated, creating networks of self-employed micro-entrepreneurs using microfinance to build business.

For 30 years BRAC focused its efforts on Bangladesh but in 2001, as millions of refugees started to stream back into Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, Abed realised his experiences in his home country could help other nations too.

"We found programmes that worked in Bangladesh worked well in Afghanistan too, so we then went to Africa with our same strategies but with some cultural adaptations," Abed said.

After more than four decades, BRAC has grown to become the world's largest development organisation, in both its breadth - serving an estimated 135 million people - and its workforce of 100,000, of whom about 70 percent are women.

BRAC operates across Bangladesh and has expanded to 11 countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean - Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, South Sudan and Uganda.

Abed's work has earned him a string of awards, a knighthood in 2010, and this year he was ranked 32nd in Fortune's list of the World's 50 Greatest Leaders.

Looking back, he said the achievement he is most proud of is BRAC's education programmes which have given seven million children the chance of schooling.

"My only regret is that I should have gone faster and maybe I should have gone abroad earlier because it took us 30 years to come out of Bangladesh," Abed said. (Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Tim Pearce)

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