Sir Fazle Hasan Abed: The man who taught the world how to scale development interventions

December 20, 2022

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Today marks the third anniversary of the passing of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of Brac, an organisation that today employs over 100,000 people and has reached 11 countries across the globe, directly impacting the lives of more than 100 million people through education, healthcare, microfinance etc.

The Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS), a life-saving drink made with water, salt, and sugar, was formulated by Bangalee and American doctors and researchers in the late 1960s in Dhaka’s International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research ICDDR, B.

In the last 30 years, the ORS has saved around 50 million lives worldwide. It impacted Bangladesh greatly, as it reduced child deaths caused by diarrhoea from 20% (1988-1993) to 2% (2007-2011).

Today, after 51 years of Bangladesh’s independence, it may not sound like much, but the making of the ORS into common knowledge, delivering the easy, life-saving homemade treatment far into villages and remotest parts of the country was indeed a mammoth achievement.

This tale of the successful integration of ORS into Bangladeshi households cannot be complete without talking about Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of Brac. Under his active leadership, thousands of field-level officers, trainers, and monitors went to every household in every rural area to make sure parents knew how to make ORS with simple household ingredients and save their children’s lives.

His approach was highly focused on ensuring that the efforts were indeed paying off and people were being truly helped. At one point, 37 field-level monitors were fired for fabricating results.

“Unless people are checked, they become sloppy,” Sir Fazle once told the New York Times while sharing the experiences of how he focused on the results – his priority lied in ensuring that every person Brac reached out, remembered what s/he was told, and not in reaching more households with less effectiveness. But that does not mean he did not want his initiative to scale.

In another interview titled ‘We had to be big and effective, not small and beautiful’ published in The Business Standard, he gave a candid reply when asked if he envisioned Brac becoming such a large institution.

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. Sketch: TBS

“Yes,” Abed said, adding, “from the very beginning we knew that if we wanted to have an impact in alleviating poverty, we had to be big and effective as opposed to small and beautiful. Even the first Brac head office that we built in Mohakhali with over 12 storeys was to display our permanence – that we were big and here to stay.”

He made it big, and effective. His approach to ensuring high-quality instruction that duly penetrates into the minds of people and rigorous monitoring of results from door-to-door visits have, consequently, saved millions of lives.

Abed’s lifelong works have changed what was once perceived as part of human nature, such as the oppression of women, marginalisation, poverty, and hunger. “I have met many defeated men in my life. I have never met a defeated woman,” Abed was often quoted, in reference to his work for improving the lives of women and girls.

Sir Fazle’s organisation, today, employs over 100,000 people. It reaches 11 countries across the globe, directly impacting the lives of more than 100 million people through education, healthcare, microfinance etc.

He was one of the first proponents of microfinance in Bangladesh. Brac provides around $4 billion in microcredit annually. Nobel Laureate Dr Yunus, who won the Nobel peace prize in 2006 for expanding microcredit, described Sir Fazle as, “An extraordinary craftsman of the social and economic emancipation of the poor.”

“Abed defined poverty not just as a lack of income, but as a sense of powerlessness from not being able to change, being discriminated against, exclusion from necessities such as education and health, as well as exclusion from rights such as legal rights. Hence, according to Abed, poverty requires different forms of intervention at different levels,” The Business Standard article reads.

His contribution to Bangladesh’s education has also been far-reaching. The 30-student single room schools that Brac designed to equip poor children were only 22 in number in 1985. By 2009, the number of Brac schools increased to 64,000.

Abed’s journey in helping the vulnerable began when was sent to Chattogram in 1970 by the Shell Oil company, where he worked back in the day. The experience would later transform him into the person we know him today.

“Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives and livelihood. I saw the fragility of life from up close, and the perks of the corporate executive’s life ceased to have a meaning for me,” he said.

When the Liberation War broke out, he came back to London where he studied, and formed two organisations – Help Bangladesh and Action Bangladesh to assist the war. He returned to Bangladesh in 1972 after selling his flat in London and established Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (Brac) with the money he got from the sale.

“Oxfam gave us 280,000 pounds to conduct our first project. When the project was completed, we were left with Tk 500,000 and I wrote to them asking whether they wanted it back,” Abed said. “They wrote back to me that nobody had ever said anything like this to them and that I should keep the money to fund the next phase of the project.”

And ever since, his institution has never had to look back. With leadership that was blessed with the combination of efficiency, astute deep procedural knowledge, and a deep sense of empathy that drove him to engage in sustainable help for the poor and marginalised in the first place, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed created one after another marvel for the cause of humanity. The impacts of his work will be felt and remembered dearly for generations to come.

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