Fazle Hasan Abed: architect of poverty reduction

6 juli 2017, 09:00
Photo's Fazle Hasan Abed: copyrights by Edwin Venema | De Mooilichterij (www.demooilichterij.nl)
Photo's Fazle Hasan Abed: copyrights by Edwin Venema | De Mooilichterij (www.demooilichterij.nl)
He holds the number 37 position on Fortune’s List of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders and has won an incredible number of prestigious awards. He is the founder and chairperson of the world’s largest private development aid organisation, with 100,000 employees in 11 countries and a budget of one billion dollars. He is 81 years old, and his biography reads like an adventure novel. After 45 years, the ongoing success of his NGO called BRAC offers a convincing response to those cynics who declared development aid a thing of the past. His name is Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and De Dikke Blauwe spoke to this architect of poverty reduction during his visit to the Netherlands in mid-June.

The original text was written in Dutch by Edwin Venema
Photos: ©Edwin Venema | De Mooilichterij

English translation by Andrew Rogers, Writewell
2017 Lenthe | De Dikke Blauwe 

Agile mind

Fazle Hasan Abed is briefly in The Hague to visit the Dutch BRAC International satellite and, very smartly dressed, he appears right on time in the lobby of his hotel, less than 100 metres from the seat of Dutch government, where we agreed to meet. Although he now needs a cane to support himself physically, his mind is as agile, energetic and self-mocking as ever. ‘The fat blue’? The quirky name gets a generous laugh. The Dutch have a special place in his heart, he says during the photoshoot: he is a great admirer of both our art and straight-forward mentality. 

Accounting in London

Abed was born on 27 April 1936 in Baniachong in what was then still British India. His father Siddiq Hasan and mother Syeda Sufya Khatun ­– who died at the young age of 44 – made sure he received a good education. After attending Dhaka College, Fazle Hasan headed to the University of Glasgow in 1954 at the age of 18 to study naval architecture. The course offered him little perspective so two years later he left for London to study accounting.  

Return to Bangladesh

After returning to East Pakistan – now Bangladesh – he started working for the Shell Oil Company where his career quickly took off. This introduction to the corporate business would define the future course of Abed’s life, which took a crucial turn in 1970. In this disastrous year, nearly half a million of his fellow countrymen and women perished in a catastrophic flood that touched the world. Shortly thereafter, Abed was forced to leave his country when the war of independence broke out. He temporarily moved back to London. When the war had been decided in favour of the independence party, Abed sold his apartment and returned to his new motherland Bangladesh together with many other refugees and exiles.

Echternach procession

Abed decided to invest the money from the sale of his London apartment in a fund that would help the poorest residents in his country; initially with emergency funds, and later structurally to help improve their living standards in the long-term. As a home base, he chose remote Sulla in the northeast of the country, and in 1972 established an NGO he called BRAC: Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. Abed was aware of one thing: it would be a long and difficult battle. And it was and still is today – he emphasises: development aid is like an Echternach procession, in which the steps forward are slightly greater than the steps back.

Shameless self-enrichment

Abed: “When I started BRAC in 1972, my colleagues and I were rookies in the field of development aid. The history of aid in South Asia was brimming with well-intended but hopelessly unsuccessful attempts to help the poor. We were very aware of that and quickly realised the reasons behind it: corruption and mismanagement winning over good intentions. We saw that the local elite – the land owners, profiteering banks, village elders and police, often in collaboration – developed a variety of oblique constructions to steal money from the poorest of the poor. They shamelessly enriched themselves to the benefit of their friends, family and politicians at the expense of progress.”

An idealistic bachelor

Abed’s eyes glow when he talks of the early days: “I was an idealistic bachelor in my mid-thirties, and had the cocky idea that I could develop an approach that would be effective. My friends and family thought I was mad, but I was sure: I can make the difference, mainly based on very down-to-earth management skills. I based this on my knowledge as an accountant and experiences at Shell.”
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