World Food Prize Laureate Explains His Transition from Oil to Non-Profit

Oct 13, 2015

In the early 1970s in Bangladesh, three significant events happened in sequence. A cyclone killed 300,00 people. A war for independence from Pakistan broke out. And a young man left his job at Shell Oil. Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the 2015 World Food Prize Laureate, had been working for the oil company when he took a short break  to do relief work in the region devastated by the tropical cyclone.

"I started questioning the kind of life I was leading, as a comfortable business executive, in the face of the fragility of life of human beings who were taken away by a cyclone of that magnitude. So the transformation started happening at that time."

Not long after, he left his job in the business sector to start a non-governmental organization -- the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. His aims were big. He wanted to help impoverished Bangladeshi people lift themselves out of poverty by fighting it on all fronts: family planning, education, food security, and environmental sustainability among them. Now, more than forty years later, that organization has grown to serve an additional 10 countries and nearly 140 million people worldwide.

"Most of my friends and family thought that I was crazy. But that crazy adventure was so satisfying and productive for me. I have never looked back and thought that I had made a mistake."

And that crazy adventure hasn't been satisfying and productive for just Abed. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, or BRAC for short, has become the world's largest non-governmental organization. That success is due in part to a few strictures he put in place at the start. The organization, intuitively, would work in rural areas. It would focus on sustainability by staying constantly wary of dependence. And it would, counter to much of the common wisdom of the time, cater to women.

"From our own experience working in villages, we saw that women bore the brunt of poverty. In other words, if it was lacking in food in family, it was the woman who would go beg, borrow, or steal from neighbors to feed their children. The burden of poverty fell disproportionately on women. So we thought that if women could manage poverty, then why shouldn't they also be able to manage development?"

The simple answer? They could. When BRAC focused on women as agents of change when implementing their microfinancing programs, they found women used the money more effectively and relevantly than men would. Abed says the men differ not only in their spending habits, but in their attitudes.

"He would have used it for himself to some extent. He would be spending less of the resources for family's benefit: food and education and so on, which women do. And I have found many defeated men but very few defeated women."

And though his organization tackles concrete issues like food self sufficiency and economic insecurity, Abed says the biggest struggle is one of spirit.

"What we had to do initially was to empower the poor, build a sense of self-worth in them. Then and then only could we get the poor to act on their own behalf to change their situation and defeat poverty. So my work has been mostly on empowerment."

In this River to River interview, host Ben Kieffer speaks with Abed about the roots of his organization, how the model has expanded to other countries, and what's next for BRAC.