Brac: the road to equality

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed is the founder of Brac, the largest NGO in the world. He shares the story of its birth, its vast gains for the poorest in Bangladesh, and his hopes for what has been described as “the most astounding social enterprise in the world”

In 1970, I was working as an executive with Shell in Pakistan, when a cyclone hit the east of the country. Some 300,000 people died; most of them poor. They were washed away into the sea. For the first time I felt the fragility of their lives, and that the life I was leading as an executive in a global corporation was meaningless. By 1971, shortly after Bangladesh’s independence, I’d left London to help resettle the refugees returning from India. And that is how Brac was born. I never thought I would give my life to this work, but 44 years on, here I am.

Small is not beautiful. I always wanted to have a national impact on poverty

My primary concern is the dynamics of poverty. Poor people are poor because they are powerless. Our task is not to end poverty, but to create the right conditions to allow people to defeat poverty themselves. The tools we offer through Brac included microfinance, healthcare, family planning services and education. Schools are critical, and we wanted to reach the next generation. We began with pilot projects in small areas, but as soon as we knew they were effective, we replicated them nationally.

Small is not beautiful. I always wanted to have a national impact on poverty. When I started Brac, the average life expectancy in Bangladesh was 48 years. Now, it is 70. Infant mortality is down from 250 babies in every 1,000, to 40. I used to go house-to-house in Bangladesh, teaching mothers how to make oral rehydration fluids to combat diarrhoeal mortality.

In education, fewer than 60 per cent of children in Bangladesh used to enrol in school. Now, more than 97 per cent do. We have educated more than 7 million children, many of whom have gone on to become doctors and engineers. Wherever I go, I find people who attended a Brac school, who tell me that we helped give them a new life.

The world is becoming less equitable. There are more refugees, more displaced people, more conflict. We need to build societies where everyone has a chance. We need equality of opportunity, not necessarily of wealth, so everyone has an opportunity to rise through his or her hard work. That means providing quality education to children, and eradicating extreme poverty. These are the next generation of challenges we must face and win. For the first time in history though, I think that we can.

Gender equality is the unfinished agenda of my life, and I think it will remain so for a long time to come. It is very hard work, but vital. Human society would be much happier if we could offer equal opportunities for all men and women, girls and boys.

I sold my house in London to start Brac, with £9,000 [about $13,652]. We later got funding from Oxfam and other donors, and now we run several social enterprises with all the revenues coming to Brac. Our Bangladesh budget is about $1bn, of which $750m is generated by our businesses and about $250m comes from donors. We have more than 100,000 employees. Our budget in the remaining 10 countries is about $120m. My background is in business, and I’ve brought that to bear on Brac.

Not being entirely donor-funded gives us opportunities. We can run pilot projects, test them, and then – once we can deliver results – ask others for funding. It gives us the freedom to design our own programmes. People can see evidence of what we can achieve with their money.

My philosophy has been to help people live a meaningful life. I want a dignified existence for all humans, and to help end the dehumanising effects of poverty. To eradicate extreme poverty: that is something the world could be very proud of.

Photo credit: Brac