With the passing of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, Bangladesh this week lost one of its finest sons. One whose achievements actually transcended national boundaries, yet it is impossible to decouple the stature he attained from the story of Bangladesh itself. At a time when the country was emerging as "the test case for development" around international tables - poverty being a universal issue, its existence a stain on the humanity of generations - this man was in the thick of it, doing the most important work: eradicating it (from even earlier in fact, his earliest work coincides almost exactly with the birth of the country). The Norwegians viewed it as a "development laboratory", well Fazle Hasan Abed was one of the two or three lead scientists - willing to take on innovative solutions, and to apply them on the ground.
You think of Orsaline, the 1-teacher-schools, the shasthya shebikas. It's not the kind of work where you go about patenting. It's too important for that. And so Brac's microfinance programme, its biggest programme, grew to match Grameen Bank's, in terms of how many people they were reaching, the lives they were touching, improving, incrementally only, perhaps. But sometimes, and as it turns out, millions of times, in tens of millions of lives, that is all you need to live in dignity.
That is the essential insight of men like Fazle Hasan Abed and Md Yunus. Coming from Bangladesh with this insight, they built institutions whose work came to leave a global imprint, and their stature grew accordingly. Brac and Grameen certainly evolved beyond the rather scornful tag that 'NGO' has become in recent times to become more properly recognised as 'development organisations'.
Maybe the laboratory they had to play with, and getting in there virtually before everyone else helped them, but Brac has unquestionably achieved success on a massive scale, not just at lifting millions out of life's most desperate stations but also contributed to defining new ways of life in the society within which it principally operates: witness its program to train women to become professional drivers. Certainly inheriting a trait from its founder, it has always strived to remain at the forefront in its field.
Personally he was a man of unusual depth in wisdom, and unceasingly gracious. His mind was fully active and absorbing as well as radiating new ideas till the last. He spoke extensively about the way he viewed the work of NGOs, and the way they could prop up the work of governments in countries like ours, in a 2010 interview we are republishing. These days, even the word development has become sullied due to overuse, but it's important to remember that at the ground level, at its core, it involves arguably our most important responsibility not just as Bangladeshis, but as human beings: it lifts up humanity. And that is what Fazle Hasan Abed did.
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