The organization was always his top priority in life
It was in 1993 when I first met Abed Bhai while I was working in Dinajpur for BRAC in the Women’s Health Development Program. Back then, the BRAC office in Dinajpur served as an office cum residence for its BRAC employees.
We all lived, ate, and worked together. Every morning, our resident chef would cook us a traditional breakfast of daal, shobji, bhaat (lentils, vegetable, and rice) after which we would head straight to the field. The saying was “sokal belar muthi, sara diner khuti,” (The work that you take on in the morning, will shape the rest of your day).
Our daily lunch and dinner menu was lentils, vegetables, fish, and rice. It was only on weekends, that too maybe once or twice in a month, when we would be served any other kind of meat. My supervisor back then was the Area Coordinator Abdus Salam Sarker, who had informed me that Abed Bhai would be visiting us in Dinajpur. The news of his visit was a matter of excitement for this young budding researcher.
After all, the founder of BRAC was coming for a visit! I had always looked forward to the day I would meet Abed Bhai, and today would be that day. As he would be our guest, I asked the chef what was being prepared for him, as I thought that something nice should be cooked, like biryani.
When I entered the kitchen, to my surprise, I noticed that our chef was preparing our usual meal: Bhaat, daal, shobji. I quickly ran over to inform my supervisor Salam Bhai of what was happening. Salam Bhai chuckled and told me something I will always remember: “Do you know what is the first thing Abed Bhai will say if he is served biryani?” I shook my head, not knowing the answer. “He will say, 'Where did the money for this food come from?'”
For Abed Bhai, the organization was always his first priority in life. He believed that if there could ever be an alternative to use resources to help the less unfortunate, then that is the route that should always be taken.
The next day Abed Bhai joined us for a field visit, and I sat right next to him in the car. The road to the field location had many trees growing on the sides. Many women were standing next to some of these trees. Abed Bhai pointed at one of the trees and asked me if I knew what tree it was, and why the woman was standing next to them. I replied saying it was a “Toont (mulberry) tree” and that I had heard that women stand next to Toont trees to protect them from being eaten by goats.
He then asked if I knew what the Toont tree was for, and what BRAC program the Toont tree was a vital part of. I looked at him and said: “I do not know.” He then took his time to explain to me that silkworms consume the leaves of the Toont tree to produce silk, which is then sold. Thus, the women guarding the trees are paid Tk25 every day for their services to BRAC.
Abed Bhai asked me again if I knew about the BRAC non-formal primary school, the type of education given at the school, and also the number of enrollments? Unfortunately, my response was the same as before: “I don’t know.” Abed Bhai again explained in detail about the BRAC non-formal primary school; a one-class concept, where adolescent dropouts are provided with a non-formal education and trained accordingly.
When we reached our field location, I had understood two important qualities of Abed Bhai that were integral to the success of BRAC. Firstly, even though Abed Bhai lived in Dhaka, he knew exactly what was going on not only in Dinajpur, but all BRAC programs nationwide. I also felt that through our conversation, Abed Bhai was able to make me realize that as an employee of BRAC, it was important to not only know about the health program that I worked for, but also the many other different programs of BRAC as BRAC is a family.
As a part of the organization, it is crucial to be well acquainted with all members of the BRAC family and have a sense of ownership towards the work that we do here.
Over the years, I was fortunate enough to meet Abed Bhai in different capacities in many different locations. Every time I visited Dhaka and the BRAC head office, I would make sure to pay a visit to Abed Bhai. To the outside world, he may have been the founder of BRAC, one of the many global health leaders, and a philanthropist. However, to me, he was all those things and much more. He was my idol, someone who I looked up to, whose vision I truly believed in.
After successfully completing my PhD from Germany, Abed Bhai called me, not to congratulate me but to inquire when I would be returning to Bangladesh to rejoin BRAC. I had to politely decline Abed Bhai’s offer, as my son was close to completing his education and I had to stay back in Germany for the time being.
In 2011, I joined the BRAC family once again. The source of my inspiration for setting up the Centre of Excellence for Science of Implementation and Scale Up was the famous quote of Abed Bhai’s: “Small is beautiful but big is necessary.”
I never needed an appointment to meet him. After the field visit in Dinajpur, every time I met him, I would always greet him with a pronaam (the act of touching an elder’s feet as a mark of respect). While many of my colleagues would tease me about this, for me it was the most natural gesture of respect that I could show him. He would always ask about my son, Ayan, and was really happy when I told him that he had become an actuary.
Abed Bhai was a visionary leader who had aspirations to lift up and help the masses, especially those who lived in poverty. His vision not only focused on Bangladesh, but extended towards the rest of the world through his BRAC international programs. Whoever I am today, the foundation of my work is my field experience at BRAC, the rest is just the cherry on top.
The world, Bangladesh, the BRAC family, and many individuals like myself, will always be indebted to Sir Fazle Hasan Abed.
Dr Malabika Sarker is a Professor and Associate Dean of BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, Bangladesh. In her 30 years’ public health career, she has spent 10 years implementing community-based programs at BRAC, the world’s largest NGO. All views expressed are solely of the author.