“Small is beautiful, but scale is necessary” – Fazle Hasan Abed

On the evening of 20 December 2019, the world said goodbye to a great leader and a giant of humanity – Sir Fazle Hasan Abed who was the founder of one of the world’s largest non-governmental organizations. – BRAC (originally known as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee).

Abed was born on 27 April 1936 in the village of Baniachong, located in what is present-day Habiganj District, Sylhet, Bangladesh. He belonged to a Bengali Muslim family of Zamindars, known as the Hasan family, and was one of eight children of Siddiq Hasan and Syeda Sufia Khatun. Abed’s maternal grandfather, Syed Moazzem Uddin Hossain, had served successively as minister for agriculture and education for Bengal during the last years of British rule. His paternal great-uncle was Sir Syed Shamsul Huda, a member of the Imperial Legislative Council.

After passing intermediate from Dhaka College in 1954, Abed left home at the age of 18 to attend the University of Glasgow, where, in an effort to break away from tradition and do something radically different, he studied naval architecture. He realized there was little work in shipbuilding in East Pakistan and a career in Naval Architecture would make returning home difficult. With that in mind, Abed joined the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants in London, completing his professional education in 1962.

Abed returned to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to join Shell Oil Company and quickly rose to head its finance division. His time at Shell exposed Abed to the inner workings of a large conglomerate and provided him with insight into corporate management, which would become invaluable to him later in life.

It was during his time at Shell that the devastating cyclone of 1970 hit the south and south-eastern coastal regions of the country, killing 300,000 people. The cyclone had a profound effect on Abed. In the face of such devastation, he said the comforts and perks of a corporate executive’s life ceased to have any attraction for him. Together with friends, Abed created HELP, an organisation that provided relief and rehabilitation to the worst affected on the island of Manpura, which had lost three-quarters of its population in the disaster.

Soon after, Bangladesh’s own struggle for independence from Pakistan began and circumstances forced Abed to leave the country. He found refuge in the United Kingdom, where he set up Action Bangladesh to lobby the governments of Europe for his country’s independence.

When the Bangladesh Liberation War ended in December 1971, Abed sold his flat in London and returned to the newly independent Bangladesh. Hundreds of refugees who had sought shelter in India during the war had started to return home, and their relief and rehabilitation called for urgent efforts. Abed decided to use the funds he had generated from selling his flat to initiate an organisation to deal with the long-term task of improving the living conditions of the rural poor. He selected the remote region of Sulla in northeastern Bangladesh to start his work, and this work led to the non-governmental organisation known as BRAC in 1972.

BRAC grew to become one of the largest development organisations in the world in terms of the scale and diversity of its interventions. The organization now operates in all 64 districts of Bangladesh through development interventions that range from education, healthcare, microfinance, skills, human rights, agriculture and enterprise development. In 2002, BRAC went international by taking its range of development interventions to Afghanistan. Since then, BRAC has expanded to a total of 10 countries across Asia and Africa, successfully adapting its unique integrated development model across varying geographic and socioeconomic contexts. It is now considered to be the largest non-profit in the world – both by employees and people served.

However, BRAC’s earliest work focused on improving the lives of girls and young women – well before the movement to “let girls learn”. BRAC’s rehydration programs taught some 14 million mothers how to make an oral rehydration solution out of salt, sugar and water, important medicine for children with diarrhoea. The result was a reduction in children mortality from 25% to 4%. BRAC’s programs grew into education and the organization supported 34,000 schools. And BRAC was one of the earliest proponents of microfinance, providing four billion dollars in microfinance annually.

As a visionary, Sir Abed founded Brac University as an institution for a new generation of students who think critically and who are empowered by an outstanding educational system. Brac University has been incepted only a little over a decade ago, it already is one of the most reputed educational institutions in Bangladesh. The motto “Inspiring Excellence” has been the driving power of the University with the mission to produce competitive students who can keep up with their peers on an international level.

Abed’s work started a legendary organization – you cannot work in this space without at some point being in awe of the scale and progress that BRAC has made in Bangladesh. One of the earliest quotes I read of Abed’s was:

“Small is beautiful, but scale is necessary”

This rings true and inspires AfriALUMNi.org The African Alumni Alliance, Inc. today, as AfriALUMNi embarks on a journey to forge and foster an Alliance of the largest of Africa’s untapped Network, The Elite families of African Alumni. We are on a mission to create, fund and scale up opportunities that would empower Africans Worldwide.

“May we join hands today to do so in the shadows of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, and his likes, in their footprints, and in their memory”. –  Co-Founder AfriALUMNi.org


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