The development of Bangladesh: Our debt to Sir Fazle Hasan Abed

Three years since his passing, Scott MacMillan's biography sheds light on the genius and contributions of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed

In a new biography published by Rowan and Littlefield, Scott MacMillan has captured the life and work of one of Bangladesh's most remarkable citizen-leaders. The book, Hope Over Fate: Fazle Hasan Abed and the Science of Ending Global Poverty, provides an absorbing account of what made Sir Fazle Abed such a unique and compelling figure in the history of the economic development of Bangladesh.


Through his work, he left an indelible mark on story of how Bangladesh emerged from the global “basket case” and the “second poorest nation in the world” to emerge as a credible candidate for the “middle income nation” status, a shining example, a role model for nations caught up in the proverbial poverty trap.


The book by an insider chronicles the many challenges Abed faced over a span of five decades, in building Brac from a small disaster-relief organization into a large and powerful development organization known for its innovative science-based approach to ending global poverty, and a unique ability to rapidly scale-up operations, once they are tested and found to be effective.


So what explains the success of Brac and its massive size and scale of operations?


According to MacMillan, Abed intentionally pursued size because from early experience he came to believe that in the context of the entrenched power dynamics of rural Bangladesh, being big is a virtue. Personally, he was a well-read and scholarly person who not only loved literature and poetry but also kept up with the latest thinking and ideas in poverty alleviation, his passion. Given this, he was aware of the ideas in the 1973 book, “Small is Beautiful” by the British economist, EF Schumacher, who argued for a people-centric approach to development.


Abed was unconvinced of the central thesis that smaller operations work better for an organization whose mission is to comprehensively improve the lives of the poor. During the great famine of 1974, as he struggled to discover the right formula to help the poor in the village of Rowmari, he realized that an organization dedicated not just to relief but to long-term development of the poor, will invariably face resistance from those in power.


For Brac to succeed in the face of stiff resistance from the rural elite, it must possess the size and heft to withstand and overcome the inevitable pushback. Years later, speaking of his experience, Abed said, “A lot of people wanted us eliminated, I decided at that point that I could not remain small and beautiful. The thing to do was to become large and powerful enough to be reckoned with.”


Abed had a firm commitment to scale, even though it meant greater risk and losing some fellow travelers, who did not appreciate the rapid growth, the businesslike approach, and the multi-pronged strategies to attacking the problem of endemic poverty.


Abed felt that given the scale and depth of poverty, you would need a comprehensive strategy to attack the problem from several dimensions for eventual success and impact. He was convinced that size and scale empower the organization to be more effective and even respected. Big, entrenched problems such as rural poverty demand smart, creative, solutions on a massive scale.


Guided by this philosophy and the backing of donors such as Oxfam, Brac adopted the strategy of experimenting with different solutions, carefully measuring results, starting small, since initial experiments will likely fail. However, once the right formula emerged, and is found to be robust and scalable, don't be afraid to replicate across the country to maximize the impact.


An eventful decision about the future of Brac was made in 2001. Despite much goodwill, a proposed merger with Oxfam International was explored seriously, but never materialized, largely because of incompatibilities between the culture, and long-term vision of the two organizations. The rank and file as well as the leadership of Brac decided that the organization will keep its name and independence, even as it continued to work closely with Oxfam and other global development organizations, with whom Brac had a great deal of mission-overlap.


What are the main ingredients in the “secret sauce” which made Brac so successful? How did Brac succeed in developing a highly respected brand as a well-managed, and innovative organization in the arena of reducing global poverty?


A number of factors can explain this. First, the insight that in order to change members of a poverty-stricken community, one must work with the people directly.


Second, to change the condition of the poor, one must first educate to change the mindset which results in seeing the world differently -- education and critical thinking makes the person more hopeful that the poverty that surrounds and traps her does not have to define her future.


Third, finding the right people for the core team, and letting go people who were no longer committed to the vision and the strategy.


Other factors include keeping the funding/donor community happy with transparency and results. Integrity in all you do. As a leader of the NGO, one must accept failures, take responsibility, and learn from mistakes. Above all, use scientific methods to measure impact, both positive and negative, and find appropriate solutions. Stay away from national politics to the extent possible. Finally, don't seek the limelight or credit for yourself. Keep your head down and do the work.


The subject of the book is of great interest and significance, not just for development of professionals worldwide, but for leaders -- working in government and in the non-profit world of civil society -- who are interested in strategies to end poverty as we know it by assisting the poor, especially poor women, break free from the cycle of poverty by building their confidence and "hope" in a future which is free of poverty.


Abed's life and work has demonstrated that by liberating the minds of those trapped in poverty for generations, and building their trust and confidence in a hopeful future, communities and nations can attain meaningful reduction in poverty.


This is also a case study with extremely valuable lessons for others. As MacMillan writes, Brac presents a road map for others dedicated to this noble cause. Having said this, one must note the organization is somewhat unique and stands apart. Given its enormous size and reach, with over 100,000 employees, whose work benefits perhaps an estimated one hundred million people in Bangladesh and globally. The Economist magazine wrote that Abed's work gave rise to “some of the biggest gains in the basic condition of people's lives ever seen anywhere.”


Finally, how does one measure the true magnitude of the impact of Brac in helping graduate millions from extreme poverty? How great was Brac's impact on Bangladesh's remarkable economic development and GDP as measured by economists?


The Economist goes on to say that Abed's methods influenced the thinking of policymakers and politicians worldwide on how to approach the great riddle and challenge of poverty reduction. Arguably, through his work, Abed has earned a global reputation as the most innovative and successful innovators in arena of development, and a peerless anti-poverty crusader. 


The genius of Sir Fazle Abed, and his contemporaries like Professor Yunus of the Grameen Bank, was that they worked in the trenches with the poor in thousands of villages. The emphasis was more on the people, influencing their mindset, giving them training and the tools to build their confidence so that they can hope for a better future. They would dare to borrow and invest in small enterprises, and gradually develop their skills and resourcefulness.


This approach to development -- people-centric and grassroot level is markedly different than the approach of multi-national organizations. Hence, they cannot appreciate or measure the impact of Brac or a Grameen Bank as thoroughly.


However, based on the evidence, the narratives, the massive expansion and statistics on education, women empowerment, and explosion of rural entrepreneurship, especially the participation of women, is compelling.


These lead us to believe that something unique and magical happened for the poor women in Bangladesh, thanks to the work of Brac and other NGOs. Millions came to believe in “hope over fate,” that they are the captains of their fate, and with sufficient effort and discipline, they are dug out of ruinous poverty. Sir Fazle Abed and his fellow travelers had indeed discovered and unleased a powerful force which had eradicated much poverty in Bangladesh and abroad.


A talented writer, MacMillan paints a moving and honest picture of the subject, often with intimate personal details, which makes this such a compelling read. He takes you behind the scenes of Abed's larger-than-life public persona as the leader of the world's largest and one of the most visible development organizations.


No doubt, this tone of honesty was set by the subject himself, who was known for his high ideals, a curious and brilliant mind but someone who possessed genuine honesty, humility, and empathy. I remember him saying (to the reviewer) in December 2018, “I have never cared for recognition or awards. I have done my work because I felt this is important.”


Sir Fazle Abed, the founder of Brac, passed away on December 20, 2019, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Thousands attended his funeral services in the Army Stadium in Dhaka. With Abed's passing, Bangladesh lost one of its most distinguished visionaries, whose contributions to building a just and equitable society and a modern Bangladesh by enabling millions of women to graduate out of extreme poverty, remains unmatched.


A statement from the Chair of Brac Global Board captured the essence of his character and his amazing impact: “Unfaltering dedication, focus, and work ethic are what we have always experienced in Sir Fazle, or Abed Bhai, as the Brac family calls him lovingly. He always put others before himself and let his work speak for itself. Even when Brac attained its global stature, his concern and focus were on the less fortunate in society and those whose potential needed nurturing. He embodied the highest level of integrity, humility, and humanity, which continues to be the essential guiding spirit of Brac.”


This book is highly recommended to all those who are interested in Sir Fazle Abed's vision to build a just and equitable society where growth and development will be inclusive and bottom-up, improving the lives of not only the rich and educated but of all citizens, especially landless women in trapped in extreme poverty, and those who are victims of exploitation and neglect by the society.


Sociologists term poverty a "wicked" problem, given the complex nature of the intertwining factors entrap the poor. Sir Fazle Abed's lasting legacy is a commitment to outside-the-box thinking, analysis, experimentation, measurement and data collection, and continuous improvement. Hence the word "the science of ending global poverty" is most appropriate.


He was meticulous and methodical about his work. The world of the poor was a laboratory for him. Adopting the mindset of a scientist, he was fearless in his commitment to tinkering, to borrowing ideas, to learning from the best in the world, to inviting them to partner with him, to share credit, and to be a persistent champion for the greater good of the society.


Indeed, Bangladesh is most fortunate to have had leaders such as Fazle Hasan Abed dedicate their lives to the cause of the poor. During the most difficult period in the nation's existence, just after a hard-fought liberation war and independence, he emerged to serve the nation and its people. His monumental contributions have greatly contributed to the inspiring transformation of Bangladesh from the second poorest nation in the world to a middle-income nation by some counts.


His work changed the face of poverty in Bangladesh. We might add that his ideas and work had a global impact, with a number of proven strategies in Bangladesh on girls' education, microfinance, and healthcare, transplanted by Brac to a dozen other developing nations across the globe with equal success.


During the golden anniversary of Bangladesh in 2021, much credit has been given to political leaders, the business sector, and the public sector. However, perhaps the most powerful weapon Bangladesh had during its struggle for social and economic development were innovative non-governmental organizations like Brac and its founder, Fazle Abed.


The conventional wisdom on development, pushed by the World Bank and IMF, measures development in terms of the GDP and physical infrastructure and other visible assets. Yet one can credibly argue that the true force powering growth and development may be the millions of poor, especially women, who gained “hope over fate,” and liberated themselves from poverty through small businesses nurtured by microfinance loans, whose daughters, attended informal schools which often provided a better education than regular schools, and the lives saved through the brilliantly effective health interventions. 


Consider the statistics (annual impact) -- 80 million reached annually through community health education and services; 1.6 million mothers counselled on breastfeeding and complimentary practices; 700,000 pregnant women served by skilled attendants during childbirth. Multiply these numbers with 30, 40, or 50 years, and you get a sense of the enormous impact of Brac. Essentially, the work of Brac (and Grameen Bank and other developmental NGOs) in Bangladesh demonstrates that if we focus on the poor -- empowering one woman at a time -- economic growth and development will take care of itself.


It is a wonder that in a society rife with corruption in the public sector, such astonishing results in poverty reduction and societal engineering were achieved by a non-government organization. On the other hand, it is to the credit of successive governments that provided the necessary space, such as Brac and other NGO leaders, who experimented with ever-more effective tools to uplift the poor. In some instances there was fruitful partnerships between the private NGO sector and the state agencies.


The book is also a reminder that we as a nation owe a great deal to friends of Bangladesh among the global donor community -- from Oxfam to other multinational developmental and charitable organizations, and indeed, national governments -- who over decades trusted and supported Brac and other NGOs with their taxpayers' dollars.


This global support to the public sector (foreign aid) and private non-profit sector, played a critical role enabling Bangladesh to climb up the ladder from the disaster caused by a brutal civil war, great destruction in the infrastructure, massive dislocation of people, mass starvation (famine), and tens of millions of citizens mired in oppressive generational poverty.


There is much to appreciate and be thankful for in the story of Sir Fazle Abed. This book captures many aspects of his genius. Given his stature and impact, I am sure there will be other biographies written in future, but Scott MacMillan must be congratulated for writing such a fine biography of a great man.


Munir Quddus serves as a professor of economics and dean of the business school at Prairie View A&M University near Houston, Texas. He is President of the Bangladesh Development Initiative (BDI), a research Think Tank based in America. He can be reached at:  [email protected]