Fazle Hasan Abed
Founder and Chairperson
BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee)
Fazle Hasan Abed claims he is no miracle worker, but most of his colleagues would dispute that. Almost single-handedly, he has helped one of the world's poorest countries — Bangladesh — provide better health care for all its citizens. As founder and chairperson of BRAC (formerly known as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), Abed has garnered international attention for creating what many experts deem the most effective non-governmental organization [NGO] in the world.
Abed began his pioneering work in 1972, following Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan. "We were determined to bring about changes in the lives of poor people," he says. "We felt that whatever we do, we should try and replicate it throughout the nation if we can." Since then, BRAC has fought against poverty, disease, child mortality, and illiteracy by empowering poor rural women through bringing health care and education to their communities.
Scientists working in Bangladesh in the early 1970s had learned that a measured combination of sugar, salt, and water could prevent deaths from dehydration. Since our bodies are 70 percent water, it is dehydration that makes diarrhea the cause of 18 percent of child deaths worldwide. Abed's first major goal for BRAC was to teach mothers to make the lifesaving oral-rehydration solutions. "That involved going to every household in rural Bangladesh — 13 million households," Abed recalls. "And it took 10 years to do it." As a result, BRAC's oral-rehydration program reduced infant and child mortality from 258 deaths per 1,000 to 75 deaths per 1,000.
The majority of Bangladeshis are Muslim, and Abed realized that within each community, women would be most effective in teaching other women, many of whom were not permitted to leave their courtyards. But first, he realized, he had to win over their husbands and the male village chiefs, who would have to give their consent for any such community-wide activity. Achieving good health meant enlisting the political will of those in power. In the two decades since, women have made some gains in gender power in Bangladesh, and BRAC has helped to educate many men on the need for women to be educated and involved in health care and economic activities.
Today, BRAC is active in more than 68,000 villages and has 4.8 million group members. Abed introduced programs and initiatives that have enabled 3.8 million women, who are still the backbone of BRAC's organization, to establish village microfinance organizations that have to this point disbursed more than $1 billion in loans. These loans have allowed women to create small businesses poultry farming, cow rearing, and dairy farming; in addition the production of iodized salt, which helps prevent goiter, is now also possible. Such BRAC enterprises provide 80 percent of the organization's operating costs, with the rest coming from external donors. BRAC also works to control tuberculosis, with a major grant from the Global Fund for Tuberculosis, Malaria and AIDS. Over the years, one of BRAC's most critical contributions has been keeping poor rural children in school, and the organization now runs 31,000 one-room, one-teacher schools.
Abed's adept and tireless leadership of BRAC has brought him international renown and numerous awards. In 2004, he was honored with the Gates Award for Global Health and the United National Development Program's Mahbub ul Huq Award for Outstanding Contribution in Human Development. As evidence of his success, there are now BRAC branches in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Abed's strategy has always been ambitious: "We thought nationally, worked locally, and looked for inspiration globally."