Remembering A Giant

When I met Sir Fazle Abed more than a decade ago, I sensed I was in the presence of a giant.  He is the founder of BRAC, one of the world’s largest non-governmental organizations, which has touched the lives of 125 million people.

Abed Bhai, as I addressed him, presented that unique and rare combination of qualities possessed by great leaders. Vision. Wisdom. Boldness. Grit. Empathy.  Humility.  He has been a lion of courage throughout his life — from the time he returned to Bangladesh in 1971 to rebuild the country after independence until the moment he faced a terminal illness.

In 2008, he invited me to visit BRAC.  My trip to Bangladesh was more than a first-hand  education about how an organization changes the lives of millions of people and contributes to the economy of a country.  It was also a journey to reconnect with my heritage.  Abed Bhai had arranged for me to visit Lahunda, the village of my paternal great grandparents and grandparents where BRAC had a microfinance program.  Listening to the village women speak with such dignity about their lives left a deep impression on me.

Learning from BRAC and from rural communities in Uganda over the years influenced my views about how the Mastercard Foundation could create positive change in people’s lives.  Working with Abed Bhai was akin to taking a master class on how to scale efforts to serve millions of people, yet keep in mind the dignity of each human being. One of his lessons was about imagining possibilities. For example, where some people may look past an empty field lying fallow by the road, he would see fertile land producing multiple harvests to feed hundreds of thousands of people.

Abed Bhai never encountered a challenge he didn’t like.  He would observe, listen and size a situation, and envision how it could be improved.  Then, he would get to work.  Abed and BRAC were resolute about achieving and quantifying results. They are deeply disciplined when it comes to setting targets and tracking progress.

His enormous drive and determination to improve the human condition were also matched by his kindness, wit and humor. He loved to tell stories and to listen to people’s stories.  These personal traits endeared him to many.

Not surprisingly, Abed Bhai faced his illness with his characteristic wisdom, pragmatism, and courage.  Once again, he took charge about how he intended to live his life with the time he had.  The lessons that he imparted will continue on in BRAC and other leaders he influenced.  As I reflect on his life and influence on mine, I am grateful to have been in the presence of a giant.