Fazel Abed and BRAC's extraordinary accomplishments

By Matthieu Ricard on February 20, 2013

I first met Fazel Abed in Vancouver during a Nobel Laureate Peace Conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama that I was attending. I had no idea who he was. When he asked me what I did, I answered that I had founded a humanitarian organization that had built around 30 schools and 15 clinics. Without the least affectation, he replied ‟I have built 35,000 schools.” I felt very insignificant.

Another time, in Delhi, he told me ‟It's very simple, you just have to take what you have done and multiply it by a hundred.” That is certainly what he has done.
Fazel Abed was born in eastern Pakistan (later it became Bangladesh). He first studied naval architecture at the University of Glasgow, and then, because there were very few shipyards in Eastern Pakistan, he went to London to study accounting.

When he returned to eastern Pakistan, Fazel was hired by Shell and rapidly rose in the company. He was based in London when, in 1970, a cyclone ravaged his country and left 300 000 victims.

Fazel quit his extremely well paid job and returned to Pakistan where, with a few friends, he created HELP, an organization to help those most affected on the island of Manpura, which had lost 75% of its population. Later he was forced leave eastern Pakistan during the fighting that preceded its separation from western Pakistan. He founded a NGO to support the independence of his country.

When the war for independence ended in 1971, Fazel sold his London apartment and left to help his country. It was emerging from a devastating war and 10 million people, who had taken refuge in India during the fighting, had returned. Fazel decided to start working in an isolated rural region and founded BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee).

Thanks to his genius at organization, BRAC has now become the world's largest NGO. It has helped 70 million women, and a total of more than 110 million people in 69,000 villages. 80,000 volunteers and 120,000 employees work for BRAC in a continually increasing number of countries. For example in Africa, Fazel Abed found that his multilevel model — micro-financing, education, safe water management, improvement of hygiene, and so on — was extremely efficient in regions where very few other attempts to help had succeeded.

Without exaggerating, we can say that BRAC has changed the course of Bangladesh's future. There is not one area in the countryside where the BRAC logo cannot be found on a school, a women training center, or a workshop for women and family planning.

Fazel Abed has done what he set out to do. Not only has he multiplied his activities by one hundred, he has done so by one thousand, all the while maintaining the same efficiency and quality.

One morning at the end of the 2010 session of the Davos Economic Forum, where many participants arrive by private jet and travel by helicopter or limousine, I found Fazel, sitting alone in a bus that was to take us to Zurich airport. This said a lot about his simplicity and modesty behind which burns the unquenchable determination that enabled him to accomplish such an enormous task.