Sir Fazle Hasan Abed

Purpose, Vision, Integrity: The Legacy of Sir Fazle Abed

In a time of extraordinary egos, negotiated truth, and unbridled pursuit of self-interest, one person has quietly and tirelessly worked to meet the needs of poor people around the world. Sir Fazle Abed founded BRAC in 1972. For more than 40 years he has led the world’s largest development organisation. BRAC designs and delivers services that help the poor meet basic needs with integrity, respect and humility.

BRAC’s holistic approach to meeting the needs of poor people, and particularly women, now operates in more than a half dozen countries beyond Bangladesh. From microfinance to education, health services to sanitation, agricultural support to enterprise development, BRAC is dedicated to building a world that works for all of us. A man of breath-taking action without self-promotion, how is it possible that this man has touched one in 55 lives on the planet and you do not know his name?

When actions speak louder than words

I first met Abed (as he invited people to call him) in the summer of 2005 on my first visit to Dhaka. He asked whether I had ever been to Bangladesh. When I responded that this was my first visit, he instructed me to go to the ‘field’ and visit BRAC’s operations outside Dhaka and then return to continue our discussion. I spent the next week visiting BRAC’s microfinance, legal education, health care and social enterprise programmes, seeing first-hand how BRAC’s products and services are designed and delivered to meet the real needs of low-income people in rural Bangladesh. The volume, scale, efficiency and reach of the programmes impressed. But what I remember most about this initial exposure to BRAC was the clear and respectful focus on the people BRAC serves and not on BRAC.

I have had the privilege of working with BRAC continuously since 2005. I have traveled with Abed, raising capital for BRAC across the globe. I have visited BRAC’s operations from South Sudan to Uganda, Pakistan to Afghanistan. I have watched Abed host dignitaries, receive awards and greet BRAC clients. In every conversation, he is the same human being. With the rising hype around terms such as sustainable and resilient, here is a person who defines these terms through his behavior– a person who makes the world sustainable by his vision, action and unswerving commitment to improve the lives of others.

When I would ask Abed how BRAC has achieved so much so quietly compared to organizations with much louder voice and global name recognition, he would talk about ambition. At first, I did not understand what he meant. But as I worked with Abed and BRAC over the years, I learned. He explained – and demonstrated through action – that ambition is about purpose with vision; it is about serving a need bigger than oneself; it is about understanding the needs of communities and driving to meet those needs at scale.

North and South

Abed would sometimes muse that people from the Global South are better equipped to build and operate organisations delivering solutions for the Global South. In Abed’s view, players from the Global South look for ways to deliver now, drawing upon their understanding of local needs and responding to a sense of urgency that comes from proximity. Actors from the Global North, he would comment, spend too much time commissioning risk reports and analyses, looking for reasons not to act. He cautioned that risks need to be considered but used as guideposts for adapting a response, not as excuses to defer or refuse action.

In the coming weeks, many will come forth to share their stories of Abed. His broad and loving reach yields a rich repository of stories and lessons. A few that I will carry forth include: Lesson of Purpose – our resources, whether they be money, time or skill, are in service of something more than our individual needs and desires; we should push beyond our comfort zone to live a life that touches a collective need; Lesson of Integrity – consistency, reliability and honesty over a lifetime matter far more than a single heroic act or effort; and Lesson of Humility – our acts of purpose are never about us, but about the outcomes we may have helped realize.

I, together with those privileged to have known Abed, have lost a colleague, partner, mentor and friend. The world has lost a rare and beautiful person, a quiet hero who has touched one in 55 of us with clarity of purpose and unshakeable integrity. Abed’s legacy is an invitation for the rest of us to touch the remaining 45.

Thank you, Abed.

This article was first published on Linkedin

Photo credit: Amanda Mustard for FAO/IFPRI

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