Fazle Abed, Founder of a Leading Relief Agency, Dies at 83


Fazle Abed, who started a temporary relief effort for refugees in Bangladesh that became one of the largest nongovernmental organizations in the world, died on Dec. 20 in a hospital in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. He was 83.

His daughter, Tamara Abed, said the cause was complications of glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer.

Mr. Abed founded what was originally known as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee in 1972, and is now known simply as BRAC, to help refugees returning to their homeland after the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

Today it has around 90,000 employees in 11 countries and aids more than 100 million people in gaining access to health care, education and microfinancing to start businesses.

Mr. Abed believed that oppressed groups could free themselves from poverty through hard work if they were given the right conditions to succeed.

“The inequalities that create divisions of rich and poor, powerful and powerless, are made by humans,” he said in August in a memo to his staff. “So change is also possible through human acts of compassion, courage and conviction.”

Early on, BRAC focused on improving the well-being of Bangladeshi women, a mission that was shaped by Mr. Abed’s personal experience. His mother and all three of his sisters died young, and in 1981 his first wife and partner at BRAC, Ayesha Abed, died while giving birth. He was left with a 7-year-old daughter and a newborn son to care for.

Mr. Abed’s daughter recalled a childhood in which she and her brother accompanied him on trips to rural villages in Bangladesh while he oversaw projects.

In the 1980s he started a campaign to lower the death rate among children in Bangladesh, providing immunization and teaching 14 million mothers how to make an oral rehydration solution with salt, sugar and water to prevent children from dying of diarrhea. These measures helped lower the death rate to around 40 of every 1,000 children from one in four.

The organization later expanded into education, and by the mid-1990s it ran more than 34,000 schools across Bangladesh. Today more than 11 million children have graduated from BRAC’s schools.

Mr. Abed won a number of international awards for his humanitarian work, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award (1980), the Olof Palme Prize (2001) and the World Food Prize (2015). He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of England in 2010.

Fazle Hasan Abed was born on April 27, 1936, in Baniachong, a village in what was then Bengal Province. He was one of eight children of Siddiq Hasan and Syeda Sufia Khatun, prominent landowners in the Sylhet region of British India.

While growing up he witnessed the Bengal famine of 1943, which killed an estimated three million people, and the partition of India in 1947 and the ensuing violence, which caused the deaths of millions more. These events left a lasting impression.

When he was 18, he moved to Britain to study naval architecture at the University of Glasgow; he later transferred to the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants in London. While in Britain he developed a love of Western literature and the arts.

He returned home in 1968 for a job as an executive at Shell Pakistan in Dhaka, which was then part of East Pakistan. He was working there in 1970 when the Bhola cyclone hit the region, killing more than 300,000 people and leaving millions more homeless. Seeing the devastation made him rethink his career, and he started a relief effort with friends.

“The importance of having a good life, doing work in a multinational organization, seemed quite immaterial to me at that point,” he said in a 2016 video interview for BRAC.

Civil war broke out between East and West Pakistan a few months later, and Mr. Abed fled back to Britain. There he started the nonprofit Action Bangladesh, which raised funds and lobbied governments across Europe to support the liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. Shortly after Bangladesh gained its independence, in December 1971, he returned to Dhaka.

The country had been devastated; some villages had been completely destroyed by the Pakistani Army, and many people had been killed in a mass genocide. As 10 million refugees returned and tried to pick up the pieces of their lives, Mr. Abed sold his apartment in London and used the proceeds to set up BRAC.

He never returned to his corporate career, making the alleviation of poverty his life’s mission.

Mr. Abed was married three times. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Sarwat Abed; his son, Shameran; and three grandchildren.


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