Today is the 80th birthday of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed KCMG, the founder and chairperson of BRAC. He was born into the distinguished Hasan family of Baniachong under Habiganj district on April 27, 1936. Two years before Rabindranath Tagore's knighthood, another member of the Hasan family was bestowed with that title.
Passing out from Pabna Zilla School and Dhaka College with flying colours, Abed moved to the University of Glasgow at the age of 18. After completing professional education in 1962, he joined the Shell Oil Company in the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). He quickly rose to head the finance division of the large conglomerate.
It was during this time that the devastating cyclone of 1970 hit the south and south-eastern coastal belt of Bangladesh; thousands of people were killed and the coastal belt was completely devastated. This had a profound effect on Abed. Leaving the comforts and perks of a corporate life behind, he rushed to the coastal areas to serve the suffering humanity. He set up HELP, a humanitarian organisation, to provide relief and rehabilitation to the worst affected people of Manpura island.
Then came the war of liberation in 1971. He returned to the UK, formed Action Bangladesh and lobbied the governments of Europe to support the cause of independence of the people of Bangladesh. Active involvement in the liberation war changed him completely. After independence of the country, he sold his flat in London and returned home to serve the poor people. Initially, the idea was to carry out relief and rehabilitation in Sulla upazila of Sunamgonj district. Learning from the Sulla experience he devoted himself to development work among the poor to make them self-reliant. Eventually he established BRAC, the largest non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the world. One is tempted to think that Abed drew his inspiration from the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore who said: "The most important lesson that man can learn from life is not that there is pain in this world, but that it is possible for him to transmute it into joy". It was a long and arduous journey which few would like to take up voluntarily. But once the challenge is taken up, he would become a 'hero' in the eyes of the 'have-nots'. Sir Abed has eventually become such a hero. His innovative and visionary ideas have lifted millions of people out of poverty at home and also in many countries of the world.
Abed achieved the miracle not merely by microcredit but by 'credit plus' approach. Under his dynamic leadership, Women and Human Resource Development have long been the cornerstone of BRAC that grew as the 'Brand' of Development for the poor all over the world.
To substantiate the above-mentioned hypothesis, we can possibly cite a few examples. While presenting the Human Development Prize of the UNDP to him in 2004, the chief of UNDP observed: "We first gave this prize to the President of Brazil for carrying out huge human development activities in the country. When evaluating the activities of the Presidents and Prime Ministers of different countries for awarding the prize second time, we noticed that, compared to them, more important works were done by Fazle Hasan Abed of BRAC. Therefore, we decided to award the prize to a 'President of the People' rather than President of a country".
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed has been honoured with numerous national and international awards for his achievements including the prestigious World Food Prize 2015- also known as Nobel Prize for Agriculture. He pioneered a new approach to development that has effectively and sustainably addressed the interconnectedness between hunger and poverty. While receiving the prize, he made a cogent comment: "I must acknowledge that the award does not belong to me alone, it is the recognition of BRAC's work over the last 43 years in providing pathways out of poverty for millions of people in Bangladesh and other countries in Africa and Asia…..The real heroes are the poor themselves and in particular, the poverty-hit women who overcome enormous challenges each day of their lives ….Throughout our work across the world, we have learnt that countries and culture vary; but realities, struggles, aspirations and dreams of poor and marginalised people are remarkably similar."
Besides receiving the famous Food Prize in 2015, he was also bestowed with the Trust Women Hero Award (2014), Spanish Order of Civil Merit (2014), Leo Tolstoy International Gold Medal (2014), CEU Open Society Prize (2013), Inaugural WISE Prize for Education (2011), Entrepreneur for the World Award (2009), David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award (2008), Inaugural Clinton Global Citizen Award (2007), Henry R. Kravis Prize in Leadership (2007) and so on.
In 2009, he was appointed Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George (KCMG) by the British Crown. This was in recognition of his services to reducing poverty in and beyond Bangladesh. In 2014, he was named in Fortune Magazine's List of the World's 50 Greatest Leaders. He has received many honorary degrees such as from Yale University (2007), Columbia University (2008), the University of Oxford (2009) and Princeton University (2014). Not only he remains an iconic presence in the realm of the fight against poverty, he is one of the most revered social activist having perceptible influence in policy making around the world. Truly, Fyodor Dostoyevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov: "The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for."
The hero of the 'have-nots' has today reached 80. He is still active and agile, batting bravely as if men can be destroyed but not defeated. We hail the hero and wish him a long and productive life. Following Jonathan Swift we say: May you live all the days of your life.
The writer is a Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University