With his cream-colored Nehru-collar shirt, simple black trousers, and quiet demeanor, Fazle Hasan Abed could be any educated Bengali gentleman in Dhaka, Bangladesh. But Abed, 66, is one of the nation's most important men and a guiding light globally in development circles. His Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) has lifted millions out of poverty through education, health-care, and microfinance programs.
Founded in 1972, just after Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan, BRAC recently launched its own bank and is now setting up a $53 million program for the nation's poorest citizens. On June 12, it also opened its first overseas office--in Kabul, Afghanistan. Zimbabwe and other nations are modeling programs after Abed's. "Fazle Abed is a brilliant visionary," says Katharine McKee, director of micro-enterprise development at the U.S. Agency for International Development. "BRAC is an impressive organization, whether in financial services, basic education, or setting poor women up in the poultry business."
Most of BRAC's 35 million beneficiaries are women, who traditionally faced terrible exploitation. Its centers in Bangladesh's 86,000 villages operate schools that have helped some 4 million girls get at least five years of education. Centers also educate adults in health care and legal issues and offer training and small loans so villagers can start small businesses, from shops to laundry services. What's more, BRAC generates 80% of its $160 million annual budget from its own commercial farms and fisheries.
The son of a wealthy landowner, Abed's business acumen comes from his training as an accountant in Britain and as a former finance exec for Shell Ltd. He got involved in relief work when he joined the cleanup efforts after devastating floods hit Bangladesh in 1970. Now, Abed is shifting BRAC's management to a younger team. But he will remain a guiding light in development, for Bangladesh and the rest of the world's poor.