Fazle Hasan Abed was a mild-mannered accountant who may be the most influential man most people have never even heard of. As the founder of BRAC, his work had a profound impact on the lives of millions. A former finance executive with almost no experience in relief aid, he founded BRAC, originally the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, in 1972, aiming to help a few thousand war refugees. A half century later, BRAC is by many measures the largest nongovernmental organization in the world—and by many accounts, the most effective anti-poverty program ever.
Scott MacMillan, director of learning and innovation at BRAC USA, sat down with the Mittal Institute to speak about his newly-released biography of Fazle Hasan Abed, entitled Hope Over Fate: Fazle Hasan Abed and the Science of Ending Global Poverty. Join Scott for a book launch talk on November 8, hosted by the Mittal Institute and BRAC.
Mittal Institute: Scott, congratulations on the launch of your new book! Can you talk to us about the motivation behind writing Fazle Hasan Abed’s autobiography?
Scott MacMillan: Thank you so much. Abed was revered in international development circles, but barely known to the general public. I had the honor of working as his speechwriter for the last several years of his life before his death in 2019. Abed was a quiet man who tended to shun self-promotion. He preferred to let BRAC’s work speak for itself. I really believed that Abed’s story was one worth telling, however, so I convinced him to begin working on his memoir, with me as his ghostwriter.
When I was halfway done with that memoir, Abed changed his mind, and decided that his story, if it was to be told at all, shouldn’t come from him. He asked me to write it, in my own voice, and he gave me a free hand to write whatever I want. Obviously, this was a tremendous honor. Bringing Abed’s untold story to the world was a tremendous challenge. Hope Over Fate is my attempt at showing just how influential Abed’s work was and continues to be, and how he created an organization that changed the lives of millions. I also call it an autobiography of an idea—the idea that hope itself can help people overcome the poverty trap.
Founder and Chairperson of BRAC Sir Fazle Hasan Abed | Image courtesy Scott MacMillan and BRAC.
Mittal Institute: What was the writing process like, and how involved were Fazle and his family?
Scott MacMillan: I sat with Abed for more than 50 hours of recorded interviews all over the world. We met in his office in Dhaka, in hotels in Miami and Des Moines, and any space we happened to be where we could talk. Throughout these sessions, he told me stories from the previous eight decades of his life. I also spoke to well over 50 people who knew him, including friends, family, and current and previous colleagues, to paint the story of his life and work. I also had access to BRAC’s archive, including many yellowed, typewritten project reports dating back to the 1970s.
Mittal Institute: Can you give us an overview of BRAC – their mission, your role, and why Fazle founded it in the first place?
Scott MacMillan: BRAC is, by some metrics, the largest NGO in the world, with about 100,000 employees. It aims to empower the lives of millions, particularly women, with the tools and support they need to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. BRAC’s data-driven programs in education, financial inclusion, health care, girls empowerment, and human/legal rights reach more than 100 million people in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Abed started BRAC originally as a small relief effort in 1972 in the aftermath of the devastating Bangladesh Liberation War and a deadly cyclone. Previously, Abed worked as an executive at Pakistan Shell, but was compelled to do something to assist those whose homes and livelihoods had been destroyed. He quit his job at Shell and devoted his entire life to BRAC.
I began my work at BRAC USA, an affiliate organization of BRAC, in 2011, as a communications manager. My role has evolved. I currently work as the director of learning and innovation for BRAC USA, where I manage BRAC USA’s portfolio of research grants along with other special projects.
Farmer in BRAC’s agricultural program in Liberia.
Children in a play lab in Bangladesh.
Girl’s empowerment club in Uganda.
Mittal Institute: What was your own relationship with Fazle like? What did you admire most about him?
Scott MacMillan: There was a big gap in age and culture between us, but I enjoyed the time I spent with him, and I think he enjoyed it too. We had a rapport. He was by no means garrulous, but I liked his understated sense of humor. He had a reputation for being unflappable, but like all of us, he could also be moody, and I had to be aware that sometimes he just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to answer my questions.
Scott MacMillan (left) with Fazle Hasan Abed (right).
Mittal Institute: Prior to his death in 2019 at age 83, Fazle advocated for a host of causes – poverty alleviation, childhood education – can you talk about what initiatives he was most proud of?
Scott MacMillan: Abed was immensely proud of all of BRAC. I would say he was particularly proud of his work in education. Due to his personal love for poetry and literature, it pained him that others did not have access to literature simply because of the misfortune of being raised illiterate. At its peak, BRAC ran more than 60,000 primary and pre-primary schools, and Abed even founded a university, BRAC University.
Mittal Institute: Fazle wrote in 2018 that “For too long, people thought poverty was something ordained by a higher power, as immutable as the sun and the moon,” and his life’s mission was to put that myth to rest. What are some of the major ways that he championed this?
Scott MacMillan: Abed firmly believed that since poverty was made by humans, that humans could unmake it. BRAC’s programs place a huge emphasis on hope and self-confidence—the hope for something better, the knowledge that if the right conditions are in place, even the poorest among us have the power to improve their situation. That’s the meaning of the book’s title, Hope Over Fate: People’s fates need not be determined by the circumstances of their births, and with the proper tools and support, they can improve their own lives. Of course, hope is one ingredient of many. People also need access to the essential tools and services, like education, healthcare and affordable credit, which they’ve been denied for so long. Abed felt strongly that hope and confidence are essential factors when it comes to poverty alleviation—that services and material support won’t mean a thing if people don’t first believe in the possibility of change. This philosophy is what sets BRAC apart from other NGOs, in my opinion.
Abed felt strongly that hope and confidence are essential factors when it comes to poverty alleviation—that services and material support won’t mean a thing if people don’t first believe in the possibility of change. This philosophy is what sets BRAC apart from other NGOs, in my opinion.
Mittal Institute: In your mind, what is Fazle’s biggest legacy?
Scott MacMillan: He would have said that BRAC is his legacy, but I believe his influence spread far beyond BRAC. Bill Clinton once told him, “You revolutionized the way we all think about development.”
Abed’s work played a direct hand in increasing the quality of life in Bangladesh since its independence in 1971. Abed often noted that at its birth, Bangladesh was the world’s second-poorest country; today it is held up as a paragon of progress and development. Using his business background, he built programs in its most remote areas tailored for the country’s most marginalized and exploited people. He implemented incentive based-trainings, built schools and a university, began micro-loan programs, and devoted his life to poverty alleviation that soon expanded beyond Bangladesh. Abed’s work helped increase Bangladeshi living and health standards and set a foundation for BRAC that has expanded into a dozen countries in Asia and Africa and endured for 50 years.