Hope over Fate: the Story of BRAC

November 07, 2022 The Asia Foundation
Hope over Fate: the Story of BRAC
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Hope over Fate: the Story of BRAC
Nov 07, 2022
The Asia Foundation

A new book tells the story of Fazlé Hasan Abed, the “mild-mannered accountant” who helped lift Bangladesh from the ashes of its violent birth and reimagined international development.  

Show Notes Transcript

A new book tells the story of Fazlé Hasan Abed, the “mild-mannered accountant” who helped lift Bangladesh from the ashes of its violent birth and reimagined international development.  

Scott MacMillan (00:00):

One of my colleagues was standing in line at a development conference the other day and just overheard a snippet of conversation, and he was just a mild mannered accountant, and she turned and said, "Are you talking about Abed?" So I go, "Yes, how did you know?"

Tracie Yang (00:18):

The mild mannered accountant who helped lift Bangladesh from the ashes of its violent birth today on In Asia. From the Asia Foundation, I'm Tracy Young.

John Rieger (00:27):

And I'm John Rieger. In a new book, author Scott MacMillan chronicles the 50 years of patience, determination, and trial and error that created the world's largest international development organization, BRAC. The book is Hope Over Fate, Fazle Hasan Abed, and the Science of Ending Global Poverty. And the author is with us today. Scott MacMillan, welcome to in Asia.

Scott MacMillan (00:48):

Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

John Rieger (00:50):

Scott, BRAC officially began life in 1972 after the devastating War of Independence from Pakistan as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, largely due to the perseverance of one man. Who was Fazle Hasan Abed?

Scott MacMillan (01:05):

Well, where to begin, a mild mannered accountant. One of my colleagues was standing in line at a development conference the other day and just overheard a snippet of conversation, "And he was just a mild mannered accountant," and she turned and said, "Are you talking about Abed?" So I go, "Yes, how did you know?


Fazle Hasan Abed was a mild mannered accountant who may well be the most influential person that most people have never heard of. He was the founder of BRAC, as you said, formerly Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee. It had another acronym somewhere along the way and eventually it's like no committee I have ever known with one hundred thousand employees, so it dropped that part. It's no longer just Bangladeshi and it's no longer working in just rural areas either. And in Bangladesh, it's so well known that the word BRAC is everywhere, so it's just BRAC. And the short version of the story, it played a very large role in the transformation of Bangladesh from one of the poorest countries on earth to a paragon of development. Most quality of life indicators are better than neighboring India and Pakistan.

John Rieger (02:19):

Abed first felt called to this work after the great Cyclone of 1970, which had an almost incomprehensible death toll.

Scott MacMillan (02:27):


John Rieger (02:27):

And early in your book you described Abed, still an accountant with Shell Oil, struggling to deliver relief supplies from the open door of a low flying helicopter. Bangladesh was in many ways a very different country then, than it is today. Can you give us some of the national vital statistics?

Scott MacMillan (02:43):

Abed could, because he was an accountant, he could rattle these things right off the top of his head, but it was basically the second poorest country on earth. Under 5 mortality was 250 per 1000 live births.

John Rieger (02:56):

That's 25%.

Scott MacMillan (02:58):

That's 25%. 25% of people born did not live to see their 5th birthday.

John Rieger (03:03):

And Bangladesh was a place where you could really find starvation on a mass scale.

Scott MacMillan (03:10):

Yeah, you did. Bangladesh in the 1970s was a remarkable place for all the wrong reasons. There was a moment of national jubilation following the Liberation War of 1971, but it just went downhill from there. There is a famous quote often attributed to Henry Kissinger. One of the State Department officials said to him that Bangladesh would be a basket case as soon as it was born. And Kissinger replied, "But not our basket case." The world, in the west especially, had washed its hands of Bangladesh and things really went into a rapid spiral, including a famine in 1974, 75 that was really, people were dying on the streets of the capital. This is the context in which BRAC was born.

Tracie Yang (04:00):

Your book refers to the science of ending global poverty. Now, I've heard it said more than once that the poor are poor because they don't have money, so why not just give them money? But BRAC quickly found that ending poverty is much more complicated than just handing out resources.

Scott MacMillan (04:19):

Yes. Abed began working in northern Bangladesh in the 1970s in a remote corner of the country where the poverty was grinding. And what he found out was, there wasn't so much that people lacked money, although they did, but there was this poverty of hope, fatalism, both among the people struggling with poverty and among the more money classes. Poverty is just something that is ordained by a higher power. It's with us like the sun and the moon and the tides and Abed began working with small groups of people, mainly landless people. And what he found was even when there was a sudden positive shock, a gift of assets like some goats or some money, it was very common for people to slide back into the poverty trap unless you were to address somehow that prevailing mindset of fatalism.


Now, the road from there on would involve giving people real services to improve their lives, things that had been denied to them for so long, such as credit, micro loans, training, skills training, provision of agricultural inputs, all the nitty gritty stuff, educational opportunities, education for the children, healthcare, access to quality healthcare, all those things. But none of that would really mean a thing if the people did not first believe in the possibility of change.

Tracie Yang (06:04):

I have to commend you. I think you've done a really great job of taking the very wonky development speak and making it readable and I was particularly fascinated by the peasant perception surveys. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Scott MacMillan (06:21):

Oh, there were these fascinating series of studies that BRAC did in the 1970s. They hired ethnographers. They hired anthropologists and ethnographers to go into these rural places and live there for a very long time and just asking one series of open ended questions after another. Where do the resources go? When resources come to the village in the form of food aid, for instance, who gets it? Actually, the subtitle of one of these studies was, Who Gets What and Why? And what they found was remarkable and in some ways, depressing, because no matter how much aid would come into the village, the local elites would always find a way to take it for themselves, always at the expense of the landless and most marginalized people.


And there was this very corrupt nexus of landlords, money lenders, usually operating in cahoots with the police. And criminal elements all operated together. One of the studies was called, The Net, and it was really about this network of local corruption that was very, very hard to see for outsiders coming in, but there was this network of power relations that kept people in a state of exploitation, really.

John Rieger (07:50):

Scott, in your book, you spent some time discussing the tension in BRACs development between the need to be small and local, as in tracking down these power relationships in poor communities and the need to be large to be effective. Can you run that down a little bit for us?

Scott MacMillan (08:11):

Sure. There was tension within the organization, but there was never much tension with Abed. I think there was an incident that took place in 1974 where he tried to expand into a new area and he ran into a local political boss who wanted his cut of the action, and he said no, and he pulled up stakes and left. And I think that was maybe the moment where he thought that BRAC would have to become a force to be reckoned with if it wanted to really make a difference in the country. And in order to that, it would have to just become very, very large. That's when he developed his mantra in response to a book by the economist Schumacher called Small is Beautiful. And his mantra was, "Small may be beautiful, but big is necessary." If you're going to confront a problem like poverty, which is huge and multifaceted, then you need programs that are huge and multifaceted.


And that's what set BRAC apart. Some organizations do get big, but they get big just doing one thing. And for Abed, it was never enough just to do one thing because you solve one problem and another problem emerges. If a woman got $100 loan to buy a cow, you also worked on improving the market for milk so that she could sell her milk at an affordable price to pay back the loan which she used to buy the cow. There had to be cooling stations built, a system of milk collectors to take the milk to the cooling station, an infrastructure to take milk into the cities and package it and sell it. And he ended up doing all that, and he ended up building practically an entire dairy industry just based on the idea that women who had previously been landless or asset-less, who now had a cow, deserve to be able to sell their milk at an affordable price.

Tracie Yang (10:13):

I feel like your book captures the process of BRACs trial and error, learning how to work effectively so well. Can you talk more about a story or two about those trials and tribulations?

Scott MacMillan (10:27):

There were a lot of setbacks, even when BRAC became very large. One story that comes to mind is, Abed wanted to upend the rural power structure in Bangladesh, and he developed this idea of giving landless people access to water rights by drilling deep tube wells. And so the landed people, the landowners would buy the water from the landless people. And this would give them a resource that they could call their own. So the elites had already captured the land. The elites had already captured the credit. But here was one thing that landless people could have for themselves. It didn't work. It really was a total failure. Abed said something to me, it's like it was power. The landless people would sign deals with the landowners. "I'll water your land and you give me 20% of your crop." And the landowners harvested the crop and said, "Nah, I'll give you 5%." "No, I'll give you 0%." And there was nothing that landless people could really do to enforce those contracts, and so that's why it failed.

John Rieger (11:46):

I was particularly captivated by the story of BRACs Antidiarrhea Program. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Scott MacMillan (11:54):

The biggest killer of children under five was diarrheal dehydration and the cure for that was literally a simple solution. It was a precise mixture of water, sugar and salt, all ingredients that were commonly available in the villages, but you had to mix it properly and you had to administer it to the child in a certain way. So Abed had already been working with landless rural women for quite a long time, and he thought that if I could just teach everybody how to make this, get the recipe down right and get them to memorize it, I could save a lot of lives. Basically, he developed a system of mobile teams of trainers who went door to door across the countryside, almost like a traveling medieval theater troupe. Imagine like Chaucer in Britain, but they were just teaching people how to make oral re-hydration solution. And there were a set of incentives through which the trainers were paid based on how much of the knowledge was retained 30 days later. It was quite complicated. At the same time, it was quite elegant in its simplicity. And in the end, 13 million mothers were reached.

John Rieger (13:27):

That's a huge number.

Scott MacMillan (13:29):

And it is still held up as a case study in mass behavior change.

John Rieger (13:33):

That's amazing.

Tracie Yang (13:34):

Those people talking to people in the villages, were they always welcome?

Scott MacMillan (13:40):

No, because the rumors began to get started that this fluid that they were teaching people to drink, which again was just water, sugar and salt mixed in precise quantities, would cause sterility. And this caught on among the men and so the women would learn how to mix this fluid and how to use it. And then when the child got diarrhea, the men said, "Oh no, absolutely not. We're not using that." And so they had to counter that, and it was through pretty simple means. I mean, you mix the fluid right in front of the women and then you drink it yourself. Or there was an advanced team that went to the village that convened the men and said, "This is what we're here to do, and there will be a team of women coming right after us to talk to the wives and the mothers, and this is what this is all about." So just a certain systematic effort of sensitizing people to what was really going on took care of that problem.

John Rieger (14:44):

Well, it's five decades later. Scott, bring us up to date. Where is BRAC today and what is it doing?

Scott MacMillan (14:49):

We're in about a dozen countries, so we're not planting flags in 50 or more countries, and that's part of a deliberate strategy of going deep instead of going wide. So wherever we go, we tend to want to have a nationwide presence. So we're active in six countries in Sub-Saharan Africa right now. So we're active in Sierra Leone and Liberia. We're active in Rwanda now. We're going to soon be active in Kenya, and we are already quite active and gone to quite a large scale in Uganda and Tanzania as well. The mix of different activities and programs is microfinance. BRAC is one of the world's largest providers of micro loans, and yet, we're not a microfinance institution as such.


Healthcare provision, have quite a large healthcare program in Uganda specifically. And of course 90% of the operations are still in Bangladesh. It really has achieved its greatest success in Bangladesh, but there are quite notable success stories. I'm thinking, for instance, of an adolescent girl's empowerment program that is quite active in Uganda called Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents. We've collaborated with outside researchers from London School of Economics, University College, London, and elsewhere, to do randomized control trials on this program and these studies have shown quite a level of success in improving the lives of adolescent girls, double digit impact on income generation, for instance, and a one third reduction in early pregnancy, for instance.

John Rieger (16:27):

That's fantastic.

Scott MacMillan (16:28):

So quite remarkable stuff.

Tracie Yang (16:30):

Scott, you've talked so well about what inspired you to write this book. Who is this book for?

Scott MacMillan (16:37):

Good question, because there are a lot of development books out there that are wonky development books filled with acronyms and filled with jargon, and I didn't want to write that. So this book is for my mom.

John Rieger (16:50):

It's always for mom.

Scott MacMillan (16:51):

For anybody that wants to understand what social change can really look like, but wants the narrative as well. There's a story there. I mean, the man had a remarkable life and I was very privileged to hear some of his stories.

John Rieger (17:08):

Scott MacMillan, thank you so much for joining us today.

Scott MacMillan (17:11):

Thank you. Pleasure being here.

Tracie Yang (17:13):

That's our show for this week. The book is Hope Over Fate, Fazle Hasan Abed, and the Science of Ending Global Poverty by Scott MacMillan

John Rieger (17:21):

And Scott will be joining Tracy and me on November 14th at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco, along with the Asia Foundation's Kazi Faisal Bin Seraj and Alisa Albee of Larkin Street Youth Services for a conversation called How Change Happens, Empowerment to End Poverty and Homelessness. We hope we'll see some of you there. Until next time, I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (17:40):

And I'm Tracy Young.

John Rieger (17:42):

Thanks for listening.