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Never underestimate an overachiever

  • Published at 12:41 pm December 21st, 2019

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed was more than just an NGO man

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed passed away on Friday night at the age 83, after battling a brain tumour. 

It is impossible to know what went through the man’s mind in his last days, hours, minutes, but I imagine he took an inventory of his life’s work. He may have ruminated on his life’s achievements, and regretted some of his self-perceived shortcomings, drawing up a balance sheet in his head. In this task, I do not envy the man -- what an exhaustingly long list he must have gone through while reviewing his life’s work. And when he was wrapping up his affairs and finalizing the transition of responsibilities, what a complex job it must have been.

That is because Sir Fazle founded Brac, the largest non-government organization on the planet, and remained its chairman until his very last days, retiring in August of this year. His colossal resume was something very few of us will ever come close to. 

Brac not only redefined what people understand to be the scope of NGOs, but changed the face of the country, never relenting in its growth. And just about all major projects undertaken by Brac have been met with success. Once just a modest relief organization, Brac in the subsequent years branched out into fields as diverse as retail, food production, higher education, and consumer banking. 

It is not a stretch to say Sir Fazle Hasan Abed was the biggest overachiever the country has seen so far, and witnessing Brac accomplish one thing after another, we have all learned never to underestimate his and his organization’s vision.

In 1971, Abed was going back and forth between the UK and India, raising awareness of the situation Bangladesh was faced with, and delivering supplies to refugee camps. He returned to Bangladesh in the beginning of 1972, officially starting up what we know today as Brac, turning his back on a potentially lucrative corporate career. 

Although, looking at Brac’s main building today, an impressive high-rise in Mohakhali unapologetically making its importance known, it seems that Abed did not so much turn his back on a corporate culture as absorb and transform it. The corporate influence can be seen in his administrative style, his appetite for relentless growth, his fondness for diversification, and his high-end business suits. 

None of these are criticisms. On the contrary, his blending of two different work cultures shows that Sir Fazle was far from some run-of-the-mill NGO man. He knew that any lesson learned from one field could be applied to another. There are literally thousands of NGOs in Bangladesh, and not for nothing does Brac tower over all of them, both in influence and in reputation. Countless upstarts have launched their own initiatives to help the country over the years. Many have dreamt of being the next Fazle Hasan Abed. Few have come close.

What a long way Brac has come since Abed’s return to Bangladesh in 1972. Today, the organization’s omnipresence is staggering. Brac employs something in the neighbourhood of 100,000 people. It touches the lives of over 126 million people. It has gone beyond its initial goal of lifting up Bangladesh, to operating in countries like Afghanistan, Myanmar, Uganda, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. 

Till the end, Sir Fazle’s energies never ceased, and he never stopped thinking about work. Brac Executive Director Asif Saleh has revealed that even in the intensive care unit with his oxygen mask on, Abed called his daughter over, and asked her to developed Brac’s new schools following the Turkish model. 

Some people are just makers of change. They are unable to sit still, and they are unwilling to accept things as they are. They make more big decisions before breakfast than most people do in years. They make their mark on the world around them, and the rest of us just live in that world, complaining from time to time. 

Abed was one such rare, overachieving individual. Ultimately, we can each make up our own minds about the true impact of his work, and what it did for the people of Bangladesh. But no one can ignore Sir Fazle Hasan Abed’s legacy -- it is just too vast.

May he rest in peace. 

Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.  

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