Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times called him “one of the unsung heroes of modern times.” 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.
BRAC seems to stand apart from countless failed development ventures. Its scale is massive, with 100,000 employees reaching more than 100 million people in Asia and Africa. In Bangladesh, where it began, Abed’s work gave rise to “some of the biggest gains in the basic condition of people’s lives ever seen anywhere,” according to The Economist. His methods changed the way global policymakers think about poverty. By the time of his death at eighty-three in December 2019, he was revered in international development circles. Yet among the wider public he remained largely unknown. His story has never been told—until now.
Abed avoided the limelight. He thought his own story was of little consequence compared to the millions of women who rose from poverty with BRAC’s help, bending the arc of history through their own tenacity and grit. The challenges he faced often seemed insurmountable. Abed’s personal life was a tapestry of love and grief—a lover’s suicide, a wife who died in his arms. He was a taciturn man with a short temper that erupted on rare occasions. Many of his ventures failed, but Abed persevered.
This book is also the biography of an idea—the idea that hope itself has the power to overcome poverty. “For too long, people thought poverty was something ordained by a higher power, as immutable as the sun and the moon,” Abed wrote in 2018. His life’s mission was to put that myth to rest. This is the story of a man who lived a life of complexity, blemishes and all, driven by the conviction that in the dominion of human lives, hope will ultimately triumph over fate.
Scott MacMillan is the director of learning and innovation at BRAC USA, an affiliate organization of BRAC, where he has worked since 2011. A former journalist, he served as the speechwriter of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of BRAC, prior to Abed’s death in 2019. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and daughter, along with a cat, dog, and four horses.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Fox That Killed My Goat
Chapter 2: A Moment of Awakening
Chapter 3: A Shy Boy
Chapter 4: The Swinging City
Chapter 5: Those Who Have Seen Death
Chapter 6: Catalyst for Revolution
Chapter 7: A Smoldering Ruin
Chapter 8: Visions and Revisions
Chapter9: Speak a True Word
Chapter 10: Can a Tiger Build a House?
Chapter 11: A Downward Spiral
Chapter 12: Small isn’t Beautiful
Chapter 13: Names on the Wall
Chapter 14: The Proving Ground
Chapter 15: Falling Out
Chapter 16: A Lonely Burdon
Chapter 17: A Simple Solution
Chapter 18: Changing the Pattern
Chapter 19: The One-Room Schoolhouse
Chapter 20: The Ten-Year Plan
Chapter 21: The Mystery of the Poisoned Crew
Chapter 22: Self-Sustaining Mode
Chapter 23: From Tagore’s Land
Chapter 24: They Cried Like They’d Lost a Son
Chapter 25: A Visit from an Old Friend
Chapter 26: The World’s Most Persecuted
Chapter 27: If I Had a Little More Time
A Note on Sources
MacMillan will move readers with this biography of Fazle Hassan Abed and BRAC, the charitable action organization originally known as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, which Abed founded. As an accountant with a love of language and the arts, Abed became a revolutionary philanthropist after seeing the devastation in the newly formed Bangladesh. Abed, who died in 2019, assisted hundreds of thousands of people through BRAC, eventually expanding the charity to provide aid to a dozen countries in Africa and Asia. MacMillan, an executive with BRAC USA and former speechwriter for Abed, elegantly weaves the inspiring story of BRAC with the tragedy of Abed’s personal struggles, creating a compelling picture of a complicated man. Abed’s story is undoubtedly an uplifting one, and the author clearly idolizes his subject, which, combined with his talented writing, offers much hope to be found here.
This inspirational account credits Fazle Hasan Abed (1936–2019) and his Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, now called BRAC, with helping to “upend the traditions of misery and poverty in Bangladesh.” MacMillan, a director at BRAC USA, traces the organization’s roots to 1970, when Abed, then working as the finance executive at Shell Pakistan, witnessed the devastation a cyclone brought to his native Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan). At the time of its independence in 1971, Bangladesh was the second poorest nation in the world. “One in four children died before their fifth birthday,” MacMillan notes, but by 2013, the under-five mortality had fallen to 4%. The turnaround came in large part thanks to BRAC’s incentive-based training program, which taught mothers how to mix a home remedy of water, sugar, and salt to treat life-threatening diarrhea. Other BRAC initiatives, based on Abed’s business background and conviction that people need to feel “a sense of self-worth,” included microloans and the creation of small schools where children and adults were taught by someone from their own village.... This is a detailed study of how change happens.
In 1972, after Bangladesh’s war of liberation had left many homeless, Fazle Abed left his job as a London oil executive and returned to his home country with £16,000 in his pocket — and the ambitious goal of building 10,400 houses. He ended up raising enough money to build 16,000 houses for some of the poorest people in Bangladesh and still had enough left over to start his next project. That’s who Sir Fazle was as a humanitarian, and that’s what he helped us learn about development work: How to build a big, efficient organization, while never forgetting who you were doing it for.
Sir Fazle Abed’s life was a great gift to humanity. His nearly 50 years of visionary leadership at BRAC transformed millions of lives in Bangladesh and beyond, and changed the way the world thinks about development. Driven by an unwavering belief in the inherent dignity of all people, he empowered those in extreme poverty to build better futures for themselves and their families.
With all his humility and kindness and belief in the potential of others, Fazle Abed was also the most visionary, the most entrepreneurial, and the most transformational leader I have met. This beautiful book tells his story—and shows how he changed the world and what we can learn from him.
If you aspire to be a great changemaker or even social entrepreneur, this book is for you. Scott MacMillan brings us a living Fazle Abed, one of the first and absolutely most creative, pattern-changing entrepreneurs for the good of the last hundred years.
Hope Over Fate is the inspiring story of a brilliant, self-effacing man, the incredible organization he created, and the largest, most successful poverty eradication effort in history. Scott MacMillan unpacks the building blocks in the life and work of Fazle Hasan Abed, a remarkable man whose name and incredible achievements are worthy not just of the honours he received, but of careful study by anyone involved in the work of ending poverty.
Hope Over Fate is a beautiful tribute to a man who inspired awe but was profoundly relatable—always reminding us that we too could choose to live consequentially. A giant of history, Fazle Abed believed deeply in the power of hope and personal agency, and in the fundamental dignity of all people. He proved that given a dose of inspiration, a door to opportunity, and a community of support, individuals and communities facing poverty could and would change their own lives. Like his life, his story is a treasure trove; a gift to the world!”
I can think of few people who have done so much for humanity as Abed. He was a friend and someone I deeply admired and learned from: While US aid efforts in Afghanistan often flopped, his succeeded.
Abed was one of the foremost leaders of thought as well as action of our time. Not only did he transform Bangladesh, and indeed a lot of the world, by his radical initiatives, he proceeded to his actions through identifying what our deprived world needed, using remarkably penetrating analysis and social scrutiny. An astonishing combination of clear-headed thinking and sure-footed execution made Abed the great leader that he was. We have had very few like him in the history of the world.
It is certainly not an exaggeration to say that there is hardly anyone among the 170 million people of Bangladesh who do not benefit in some way from Abed’s programs or enjoy products and services provided by his organizations. … Abed has changed the concept of NGOs all over the world. The idea that an NGO could come forward to provide a comprehensive solution to almost all the problems in a country was absolutely unthinkable.
How often do we see people like Sir Fazle Hasan Abed? His absence has left a great sense of loss in all of us
The scale and impact of what [Abed] has done, and yet the utter humility with which he has done everything, is a lesson for every single one of us.
Sir Fazle’s contributions to poverty alleviation and sustainable development in Bangladesh and around the world are sources of great inspiration for the United Nations. Sir Fazle’s vision became BRAC’s vision: A world free from all forms of exploitation and discrimination. He was a strong advocate for women, and through BRAC, he designed development models that placed women at the centre. Sir Fazle also understood that opportunity starts through education, and developed an education model that has been replicated around the globe.
Through a lifetime of quiet persistence, Sir Fazle has changed the way the world thinks about poverty and development. The foundations of lasting peace include education, health, prosperity and justice; without these, the prospects for peace in this world remain distant. Sir Fazle has shown us a way forward. With anti-poverty innovations operated on a massive scale, BRAC has made immeasurable contributions to the on-going effort to eradicate extreme poverty from the face of the earth, while inspiring others to make a similar impact. Today, thanks in large part to Sir Fazle's work in his native Bangladesh and elsewhere, the poor are no longer seen as passive victims of a poverty that is enduring and unchanging. Instead, they have become agents of change in their own lives, empowered to seize control of their destinies using an array of innovative tools.
BRAC tackles the causes of poverty, hunger and hopelessness at the root and plants trees of hope.
Over the course of three decades, under Sir Fazle’s inspiring leadership, the humanitarian organization he founded, BRAC, has become one of the world’s leading development organizations. From its humble beginnings in Bangladesh – the country he loved so well – to its expansion to 10 countries across Asia and Africa, BRAC has stood as an inspiring example of how we can gather people together in common cause to improve the lives of the most vulnerable.
The hundreds of millions of lives [Abed] transformed will remember him as the spark of hope, especially by those from the most vulnerable and poorest communities now enriched by new possibilities.
Sir Fazle was an extraordinary person and he created an institution which mirrors his vision, commitment, and values.
Sir Fazle made an essential contribution to the single greatest period of poverty reduction in human history. He was an inspiration to so many, especially the millions of women and girls who have been empowered through BRAC.
It is impossible to overstate the contributions of Sir Fazle to the work of poverty alleviation and development both in his native Bangladesh and around the world.
In the soul of every Bengali is a poet and an entrepreneur, yearning for a voice and an opportunity. Hope Over Fate is a lyrical biography chronicling the origin story of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and the noble enterprise that was both his life’s work and greatest poem. Sir Fazle found his opportunity in the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War. He gave up life as a rising corporate executive and committed himself to a life of service in liberating the voices and entrepreneurial potential of his fellow Bengalis. Speaking softly and ever in search of new ideas, he combined entrepreneurial genius with servant leadership to build BRAC, the most elaborate, sustainable and successful non-profit network of poverty alleviation programs in the world. He achieved at scale what governments and other global non-profits only dream of.
Hope over Fate fluidly traces the formative influences in the incredibly inspiring story of Abed bhai, as he eschewed paternalism towards the poor in favor of learned self-sufficiency. The book evocatively describes his simple demeanor, one that belied his enormous impact on the reduction of poverty. It rings true to the role model I had the privilege of knowing in the last two decades of his eventful and fully-lived life.
Abed was an extraordinary man who built one of the largest and most effective anti-poverty organisations in the world. He did this with humility, attention to rigour and evidence, and a relentless pursuit of the innovation and scale needed to be truly transformative. This book tells his remarkable story and provides important lessons to all those who care about development.
Hope Over Fate tells the story of a true genius, Fazle Hasan Abed, who above all was a teacher: He made BRAC into an organization where programs were built on a constant updating of knowledge and experience, creating an institution that was never afraid to change course when necessary. Despite all the awards and praise that Abed received, it was always about BRAC, never himself – so much so that he was even uncomfortable sharing his remarkable story with the world.
Are you a wonk, keen to know how the world’s largest nonprofit came to be (while maintaining a fairly low profile) and how they use evidence and business savvy to deliver effective, scaled programs around the world? Or are you keen to understand the human stories behind the scenes of one of the best but untold stories of fighting poverty one household at a time? Either way, this book will grab you, as it follows the story of the unsung hero Fazle Hasan Abed and the path to scale for fighting poverty.
Sir Fazle Abed was a true hero of modern humanity. He proved that even the most complicated and complex of environments can be systemically changed through effective leadership, innovation, perseverance, and courage. He showed the power of belief in children to change their life trajectory when given the right education, tools, and support. Through this book we can hope that many others will be inspired to walk in his footsteps of a lifelong commitment to helping others reach their full potential.
It is no exaggeration to say that BRAC’s work was hugely influential in my own career and thinking. Reading Hope Over Fate was an extraordinary opportunity for me to learn more about Hilton Humanitarian Prize laureate BRAC and its founder, the late Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. I am certain we can all be inspired by his passion, humility and humbling story of courage and hope.
Read this book if you have thought about giving up on accomplishing something meaningful in life in the face of setbacks and cynicism. It is the story of perhaps one of the most meaningful projects for improving human wellbeing in history, told through the biography of its founder, Fazle Abed. The book shows how Abed and his organization got there through perseverance over great skepticism, in an environment of violence and corruption, and despite multiple initial failures and discouraging setbacks. MacMillan's book is thorough and full of fascinating details. The book is also beautifully written, even as the author lets the people of BRAC tell their own stories, including not only founder Abed, but also partners over the years, staff from the top all the way out to the frontline, and from poor(and formerly poor) participants.
11/21/22, The Observer: Scott MacMillan and the book were highlighted in this piece.