When his helicopter landed on Manpura, one of several densely populated islands in the vast Ganges Delta, Fazle Hasan Abed was overwhelmed by the devastation that greeted him. As he peered out through the window of the chopper, he could see human bodies and animal carcasses strewn across the shattered landscape – victims of one of the most devastating cyclones ever recorded.
“It had caused a big wave that washed away people and even houses,” recalls Abed, who’d been working as an executive for Royal Dutch Shell in the relative safety of Chittagong when the storm struck Bangladesh on 12 November 1970.
It was a disaster on a colossal scale: the cyclone killed more than 300,000 people throughout East Pakistan (as Bangladesh was known in 1947-71). Of Manpura’s 56,000 inhabitants, fewer than 14,000 survived. As Abed surveyed the terrible aftermath, he resolved there and then to use company resources in mounting an impromptu rescue effort. He quickly created a humanitarian aid agency called Help, focusing on the stricken islanders.
It was a life-changing experience. “Corpses were scattered about the shallow waters,” he says. “It shocked me. I realised that the life I was leading… had little meaning.”
Abed was soon to cut short his burgeoning career in oil and create another relief organisation. The Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC), which he founded in 1972, has since become one of the world’s biggest international development NGOs, employing 110,000 people in 11 countries.
Knighted in 2009 by the UK government in recognition of his humanitarian work, he could never have imagined that his life would take such a course. Born into a rich landowning family near the north-eastern city of Sylhet in 1936, Abed had enjoyed a comfortable upbringing in which he suffered none of the hardships he would devote his later life to tackling. Educated at an elite school in Dhaka, he moved to the UK to qualify with CIMA’s forerunner, the Institute of Cost and Works Accountants. After returning to East Pakistan, which had gained independence from British rule in 1947, Abed started his career in finance with Shell in the late 1960s. It’s fair to say that his progress was serene until that fateful November day in 1970.
Misery upon misery
For all the horrors unleashed by the cyclone on one of the world’s poorest regions, there was worse to come. Only a few months after the storm, a vicious war broke out to secure East Pakistan’s liberation from the rule of West Pakistan. Amid the appalling violence of a military crackdown on the independence movement in the spring of 1971, millions of people were soon fleeing their homes for neighbouring India, where the already densely populated slums of Kolkata swarmed with desperate refugees.
Abed was forced to escape the bloodshed as well, although he was able to find refuge back in the UK. By the time he returned home in 1972 after the war was won, he was a man on a mission.
“The whole country was in ruins. Its infrastructure was destroyed – a very difficult situation. I decided to start the BRAC and devote the rest of my life to alleviating poverty in Bangladesh,” he says.
Millions of displaced Bangladeshis were struggling to survive, lacking basic shelter and facing acute food shortages, as Abed recalls: “When I returned, 10 million refugees who had fled to India were starting to come back to their villages, where there was almost nothing left.”
He began assisting the resettlement of refugees in a remote area of the country to the west of Sylhet. “Oxfam gave us a grant of £284,000 for the relief work and I even sold my little flat in London to help fund it,” Abed says.
The BRAC offered small unsecured loans, mostly to poor and landless women. With these funds they could buy agricultural equipment, enabling them to become economically active for the first time. It quickly expanded on this microfinance scheme, funding a wide range of projects to improve education, sanitation and healthcare, for instance. “We work in many areas to try to improve the lives of poor people,” he says.
The NGO’s achievements since 1972 have been remarkable. Back then, one-quarter of Bangladeshis did not live to see their fifth birthday. That proportion has fallen to 3.8 per cent today. Its literate population has risen from a quarter of the total to three-quarters over the same period, while between 1986 and 1990 the proportion of children immunised against a range of deadly diseases rose from 4 per cent to 70 per cent. That figure is about 95 per cent today.
While the organisation cannot take all of the credit for such progress, of course, few people would deny that it has played a key part in helping the nation through some of the most desperate times in its short and turbulent history.
Bangladesh remains a poor country: its per capita GDP ranks only 177th on a listing of 230 territories compiled for the CIA’s World Factbook. But many development experts cite the nation as an exemplar of how real progress can be made. It even compares favourably with its richer neighbour, India, on a number of development measures, including fertility rates. In 1970 the average life expectancy in Bangladesh was 47 years. Today it stands at 71, but in India it’s 66.
In some respects the BRAC represents a parallel system of government in Bangladesh, providing many of the essential services that would typically be delivered by the public sector. Abed says that NGOs in Bangladesh have generally been given greater state support than their counterparts in India, where central and regional governments have preferred to keep a tighter grip on development projects, often resulting in poor outcomes.
The BRAC is heavily involved in education. To date, seven million girls and three million boys have gone through its nursery and primary schools. Its university even provides training for civil servants, offering an international master’s degree in public health and an MA in governance and development.
“We try to help the government so that it can provide leadership,” Abed says, observing that various administrations have been supportive of the BRAC’s contribution over the years. “They are not hindering our work.”
One reason why the BRAC has managed to work so effectively has been its system of fundraising, which depends on donations for only about a fifth of its £800m annual budget (the UK’s Department for International Development is its biggest single governmental donor). The rest of the BRAC’s funds are generated from its own commercial interests, which include a bank, a retail chain, a dairy and a seed business.
“We generate £640m ourselves every year through social enterprise. Not many NGOs go into business and earn enough to support themselves,” Abed says.
Indeed, the BRAC has emerged as a pioneer in social entrepreneurship – an approach that more and more NGOs have adopted in their search for funding beyond traditional grants and donations.
Abed says that his experiences of working at a multinational company informed the BRAC’s more commercial perspective and also influenced the organisation’s international outlook. It has worked in countries as far afield as the Philippines, Haiti and South Sudan.
The NGO’s enterprising approach has helped it to forge strong links with the private sector. Big brands such as Nike and Lego have supplied money and expertise for its projects. Abed believes that such forms of co-operation are vital to the success of development work.
A large number of the girls who have been educated by the BRAC have gone on to help Bangladesh build a huge garment industry. Despite setbacks such as the Rana Plaza disaster – in which more than 1,100 workers were killed when a clothing factory near the capital, Dhaka, collapsed in 2013 – the sector has become a mainstay of the economy, supporting about four million jobs.
“Bangladesh is now the world’s second-biggest garment exporter, behind only China,” Abed reports. “Businesses have a great role to play in creating jobs and alleviating poverty. It’s only when everybody gets involved in tackling problems such as poverty and climate change that progress can happen.”
Despite the remarkable progress that the BRAC has achieved over the past 45 years, Abed feels that his organisation is still only at the early stages of its ultimate mission. “We have managed things well enough,” he says. “But our ambition is for a world free of exploitation and discrimination. We have not yet reached anywhere near that.”