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BRAC book author lectures on the largest NGO you’ve never heard of

Friday morning in the Hesburgh Center, author and former speechwriter Scott MacMillan delivered a talk on his new book, “Hope Over Fate: Fazle Hasan Abed and the Science of Ending Global Poverty.”

Abed, an oil executive in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, founded BRAC, originally the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, in the early 1970s in response to the Bhola cyclone and the end of the Bangladesh Liberation War. BRAC, considered the world’s foremost non-governmental organization (NGO), serves over 100 million people in Africa and Asia.

Ray Offenheiser, Notre Dame’s Pulte Institute director and BRAC USA chair, welcomed attendees to the morning’s event, which marked BRAC’s 50th anniversary, over Zoom.

“BRAC is the largest and one of the most prestigious NGOs that perhaps you may have not ever heard of,” Offenheiser said. “This is perhaps not surprising as it is a southern-based NGO that emerged out of a liberation war and multiple years of famine in faraway Bangladesh.”

Offenheiser traced BRAC’s humble beginnings, from the response of a few dedicated individuals to Bangladeshi population displacement half a century ago to the sprawling anti-poverty organization, which today operates 12 large social enterprises, one of the largest microcredit programs in the world and the most renowned private university in Bangladesh.

“Over its 50-year history, BRAC has literally lifted tens of millions of poor families out of extreme poverty. Lending a deep appreciation for local context with smart economics and business acumen, it has developed highly innovative programs to tap and develop the capabilities of the poor at the village level and empower them with agency to address their own problems on their own terms,” Offenheiser said.

Before ceding the stage to MacMillan, Offenheiser introduced the “extraordinary leader” behind the international development organization, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, who passed away in 2019.

“Trained as an accountant in the United Kingdom, [Abed] abandoned his role as director of Shell Oil’s operations in Bangladesh to devote his life to poverty alleviation. BRAC is his creation. It’s both his life and BRAC’s achievements that we’re celebrating here today,” he said.

MacMillan, now Abed’s biographer and BRAC USA’s learning innovation director, was a freelance journalist traveling around Africa prior to joining BRAC in a communications role in 2011. He would then serve as Abed’s personal speechwriter up until his death three years ago.

“The time I spent with Abed, I sat across from him at his desk on the nineteenth floor of the BRAC high-rise in Dhaka. I sat with him in hotel rooms in New York, in Des Moines, in Miami — wherever he happened to be traveling if he was doing a commencement speech or got some honorary degree. He asked me to work on his speeches,” MacMillan said.

According to MacMillan, Abed “didn’t really like to tell his story very much” to groups of people and “was not exceptionally good at marketing himself.” MacMillan thought that this was a “remarkable quality,” given that running a nonprofit usually requires adept self-promotion.

“He was the kind of guy that if you ask him a question, he will give a very thoughtful answer. The kind of person that, when he spoke, you sort of leaned in to hear what he had to say,” MacMillan said. “He really believed very strongly in keeping your head down and focusing on the work and letting the work speak for itself.”

Surmising BRAC’s scope of services within an elevator pitch would be quite a feat, MacMillan admitted. BRAC is not only “one of the world’s largest providers of microfinance,” it provides education for about a million students, “mostly girls,” at any given time, tends to neighborhoods with essential health goods and services by means of “tens of thousands of community health workers,” administers the “12 social enterprises that generated all this revenue” and so much more.

But, MacMillan said, as he got to know Abed, he began to detect an essential thread of BRAC’s anti-poverty mission and work — hence what MacMillan captured in the title of his book: “Hope Over Fate.”

“I noticed, as I spoke to him, that there was an underlying unity, if you will, to the work that Abed was doing, going all the way back to the 1970s. And it was this idea that hope itself could help people overcome the poverty trap,” he said. “Hope and agency over fatalism and despair [was] the theme.”

Following MacMillan’s talk, Keough School of Global Affairs dean Scott Appleby facilitated a panel discussion with the biographer alongside BRAC University anthropology professor Samia Huq and Winona State University global studies professor Michael Bowler. Mushtaque Chowdhury, founding dean of BRAC University’s school of public health, joined the collocutors from Dhaka over Zoom.

Chowdhury, who joined BRAC when it was five years old and worked there for 42 years, added to the discussion his friend Abed’s most endearing qualities, besides being an extraordinary manager.

“[Abed] was a great believer in the power of women. He always thought that if you want to change society, it has to come through women, and that’s why if you look at BRAC programs, all BRAC programs are women-centered,” Chowdhury said. “That was one of the reasons why BRAC has done well, which also means that Abed was right.”

Chowdhury said that Abed, in contrast to other universities and development organizations in Bangladesh at the time, was a strong believer in research “autonomy.”

“Because of [Abed’s] support and his understanding and ready acceptance of the research results, the research and development division was able to really become big and contribute tremendously to the development of the [BRAC],” Chowdhury said. “It was very instrumental in really building BRAC as an evidence-based organization.”

Huq spoke about how the pioneering research experience at BRAC came into BRAC University, which was founded in 2001, in a “big way.”

“The university was going to have strong research foundations to generate evidence for the practice of development both at BRAC and beyond,” Huq said. “This evidence-based, knowledge-based thinking and its outreach to the community, through community service and through civic engagement was also going to transform the next generation of Bangladeshi citizens in not just doing development but doing in general differently.”

According to Huq, Abed also underlined the importance of replicating the interdisciplinary approach found within liberal arts universities.

“Thinking holistically about complex issues, coming up with good solutions to complex problems, is going to be very important for a variety of reasons,” she said. “[The hope is] to excite students to go out there, to build communities, to look at community problems and to understand the flourishing of themselves as the future citizens of Bangladesh.”

Bowler, a 1978 Notre Dame alumnus, spoke about his experience visiting Bangladesh as an undergraduate, seeing BRAC’s research in action. The Congregation of Holy Cross opened its ministry in East Bengal during the mid-1800s. 

“I went to Bangladesh first thanks to the support of Fr. Hesburgh, and he put me in touch with Fr. [Richard] Timm, [who sent] me out to rural Bangladesh to experience BRAC and their non-formal education,” Bowler said. “I thought it was absolutely fabulous.”

The morning event concluded with two rounds of questions concerning the success and failures of BRAC’s growth outside of Bangladesh and the future direction the NGO should pursue. Chowdhury said he hoped BRAC would continue to invest in its research while Huq stressed BRAC University initiatives.

Contact Peter Breen at pbreen2@nd.edu.

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