In Conversation with BRAC’s Sir Fazle Hasan Abed
September 19, 2012
This week, development pioneer Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC, the largest nongovernmental development organization in the world, is in Washington, D.C., where he concludes his visit to the U.S. as an Asia Foundation Chang-Lin Tien Distinguished Visiting Fellow. At the end of last week, in between meetings and speaking engagements arranged by the Foundation in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, In Asia blog editor Alma Freeman sat down with Sir Fazle for a face-to-face, exclusive interview on Bangladesh’s remarkable transformation over the last 40 years, criticisms over microcredit, his biggest idea that failed, his most rewarding area of work, and more.
Forty years ago when you first started BRAC, Bangladesh was the world’s second poorest country. Can you talk a bit about some of the remarkable changes that you have witnessed in your country?
Back then, the child survivor rate was terrible – a quarter of our children died before they reached five years old. Bangladesh’s per capita income used to be $70, now it’s at $850 per capita. We were a food-deficit country, now we’re a food-sufficient country. Our literacy rate used to be less than 25 percent, now it’s nearly 60 percent. We had one of the highest birth rates in the world, more than 6.7 children per woman; now that figure is coming down to 2.3. Maternal mortality rates also used to be very high. If a woman had an obstructive labor, there were no trained professionals nearby to help save her life. All kinds of things like this made life so vulnerable for a person in Bangladesh. Things are not like that anymore. Life for Bangladeshis is more secure, less fragile, and less uncertain.
But I think the most dramatic change has been with women’s role in society. Women used to be forced to be housewives, now many are part of the work force. Large numbers of women have gone into jobs in the industry and service areas. Women’s literacy rate used to be almost 30 percent less than men, now it’s almost equal. Bangladesh is no longer at the bottom of the gender gap ranking, and we now rank better than Japan, Pakistan, and many countries which are in the bottom quarter of the gender gap.
Bangladesh has done well, but that doesn’t mean that we have attained all of the things that we still want to do with our country. We are still a poor country, we need to work more on poverty alleviation, create more jobs, create more wealth, increase our productivity, and educate all of our children – not only primary school age, but secondary as well. All of this remains for the future generation of Bangladeshis to achieve. But over the last 40 years, Bangladesh is one of the countries that has probably grown the fastest in the world. Few countries have shown that kind of promise, and few countries have started as one of the lowest, poorest countries and come up to that level. From this angle, I feel happy that [BRAC] has had some role in that progress.
Experts have predicted that if Bangladesh maintains its growth at the present level, it will achieve its development goals to become a middle-income country by 2021. What do you see as the major hurdles that the nation faces to achieve these goals?
If Bangladesh continues to have the 6-7 percent growth that we have been having for the last 5-10 years, we will probably attain middle-income status by 2021. But middle-income status just means that per capita income goes up to a particular level. But then, is middle-income status something worth having by itself? One has to ask: what does middle-income status do for the poor? China is now worried about the middle-income trap, so they now want to get out of middle-income status and into high-income status. To me, middle-income status would mean that extreme, dehumanizing poverty is no longer there. If a country attains middle-income status, and 10 percent of the population is still under extreme poverty, if they can’t feed themselves and their children, then it doesn’t mean much to me.
I am concerned, though, as this is something that we need to be continually aware of and fight for. There is a tendency when the economy grows to say, let them grow first then we can distribute [wealth] later. I believe in both growth and distribution; but they must go hand in hand.
BRAC was one of the world’s earliest and largest providers of microcredit. However, the effectiveness of microcredit in alleviating poverty is being questioned, and some are saying it has lost its way. What is your reaction to this criticism?
We have never thought that microcredit is the single solution to poverty. We’ve always considered it as one part of a solution, and must be combined with many other things to improve the lives of poor people. For example, if a woman gets money to buy a cow, and then she gets milk but can’t sell it, you haven’t really helped her very much. So you have to create a market for her to sell the milk. This is microcredit “plus.” The other “plus” you have to provide is healthcare and education for children, because if children remain uneducated, this poverty is going to reproduce in the next generation. So you have to do microcredit “plus-plus” to really address the concerns of poor people. Many in the development community are not geared toward this. Most organizations want to do one thing well. I don’t mind that, but then they aren’t dealing with poverty as a whole.
Bangladesh is one of densest places on earth, and also one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. Does this worry you?
Bangladesh is of course a very low-lying country and a couple of meters of sea level rise is going to inundate about a third of the country. That means that Bangladesh could become even smaller and the country will become even more densely populated than it is today – already you can’t go anywhere in Bangladesh without seeing people. And, Bangladesh’s population is still growing, and I suppose we’ll still go on growing until about 2016, when our population will be 220 million, at which point we are likely to stabilize our population.
In the next few years, Bangladesh will export more of its people abroad. Right now, there are about 6 million Bangladeshis working abroad in the Middle East, Korea, Singapore, and other countries. If you look at the world as a whole, Europe is losing its population. Japan is contracting in size – Japan’s 90 million people will become 76 million in the next 30 years. That also means that those societies will need people to provide services to the elderly. Rich countries will need services, and poor countries will provide these services. Ultimately, I don’t think that population is going to be a problem for the world as a whole. Right now we’re at 7 billion, and we’ll probably stabilize at 10, 11 billion. While 11 billion people consuming at the present rate is probably sustainable, if we start to consume at the rate of the United States, then there’s going to be a big problem. So, some adjustments have to be made in terms of what is legitimately possible to consume per capita to be able to support this planet so the planet can support us.
What role can the international community play to help mitigate Bangladesh’s vulnerability?
The international community can indeed help, but Bangladesh also needs to put its own house in order. For example, Bangladesh needs to more effectively mobilize the climate change facilities and resources that have already been created and are available now. Are we going to be ready to utilize the funding [for climate change initiatives] that is going to be made available? I would say not yet. We need to have ideas ourselves about how to use these funds effectively, how to mitigate and adapt our society’s response to climate change. Bangladesh also has to do a lot of work to prioritize what needs to be done, and we haven’t done that yet. Right now, BRAC has two climate change centers that focus on disaster management where we teach environment as a subject. We also need to develop our capacity to be able to handle these things.
What do you consider to be your biggest failure and also your most rewarding area of work?
One time I decided that I wanted to try and create a half a million jobs in silk agriculture. So I decided that in order to create half a million jobs, I would need to plant 25 million mulberry trees. So, we used 13,000 kilometers of roadside land and planted 25 million trees. The World Food Programme gave us 90 kilograms of wheat per month to pay 13,800 women who were going to look after these trees. I thought, once all these trees are grown and the leaves are full, we are going to have all these silk worms and create so many jobs. It will be wonderful! But then in 1994, we had a big flood and most of the trees died. Mulberry trees can’t tolerate being submerged in water. That was a failure. I’m now getting mulberry trees planted in higher land.
Education has been the most rewarding project for me. It has been wonderful to see so many children being educated, many of them going on to university, doing so well in life. I can see that BRAC has changed people’s lives dramatically, particularly for those children who have had the advantage of education.
How has your time as a Chang-Lin Tien Distinguished Visiting Fellow been in San Francisco?
It has been a wonderful experience. I have been meeting new people, including faculty and students both at Berkeley and Stanford. It has been a varied group and it has been very interesting to talk about BRAC’s work and development as a whole and the areas of innovation and scaling up that BRAC has been able to do over the years.
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