Tag Archives: 2010

An interview with Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC, the world’s largest NGO

Published in The Weekend Star Magazine on January 8 2010

Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder and chairperson of the world’s largest NGO, was last week informed that he is to be knighted by the Queen of England for his services to alleviating poverty in Bangladesh and abroad. Abed is the first Bangladeshi to receive the honour since 1947, though he is the second person in his family to be knighted. In 1913 his great uncle, Justice Nawab Sir Syed Shamsul Huda also received a knighthood.

Under Abed’s leadership, BRAC’s massive contribution to development has long been recognised by the international community. BRAC has won multiple awards and Abed has received honourary degrees from Yale, Columbia and Oxford Universities, amongst other accolades.

Fazle Hasan Abed
Photo: brac/shehab uddin/drik

Despite the congratulatory flower bouqets and cards that currently bedeck his nineteeth floor office, Abed’s outlook on being knighted is pragmatic. He says, “Being a knight won’t make a difference to my work in Bangladesh, but it will make a difference when I go to Africa and I wish to see the president of Tanzania or Uganda. Having a “Sir” in front of my name will help me to get an appointment.”

Abed is clearly focused on expanding BRAC’s presence globally. It currently operates in eight countries outside Bangladesh, but Abed would like to increase this to around 20 or 30.

In 2002 BRAC undertook its first overseas project when it began operating in Afghanistan. Abed, who regularly visits Afghanistan, explained the different approach BRAC adopts when working outside Bangladesh. He said, “We are trying to get Afghans involved in their own development and we are trying to get them to work with us. We currently have 3,900 staff — of these, only 180 are Bangladeshis and the rest are Afghan. Ultimately it will only be Afghans working for BRAC in Afghanistan.”

He was also quick to praise the efforts of BRAC staff in the war-torn country, saying, “There are more security issues and freedom of movement is restricted. It takes a lot of courage and dedication to work under such circumstances.”

BRAC UK is also working with Bangladeshi women in east London. It provides classes in Bangla about banking and savings, so that women feel confident about entering a bank to open savings accounts and therefore gain greater independence.

Haiti is another nation BRAC is focused on assisting in the near future, though it too has its own particular challenges. Abed says, “The government in Haiti is very fragile. This has been one of our problems. There are also very few institutions that people can depend on. I want to build an institution that people can depend on. And I hope that by the time this is achieved, the government will gradually become energised and properly run.”

Abed is grateful for the “political space” BRAC has been granted in Bangladesh. He says, “In many countries NGOs are not allowed to be so large. This government has taken a very open and liberal view of having partners outside themselves to work in development.”

This resonates with Abed’s own beliefs about development work. He says, “I believe that the development of a country is not a duty to be perfomed by governments alone. The people must be involved. And the institutions, whether they are government, private, or non-profit, must contribute to development.”

However, Abed is concerned by the quality of education being provided to millions of students in Bangladesh, as he believes it is one of the single most important factors in alleviating poverty. He said, “Simply going to school is not enough — it needs to be the right type of education so that our students are able to compete in the global economy. We must raise the standards at primary, secondary and university levels.” Abed is a staunch advocate of introducing information technology into schools, claiming that it would hasten the process of raising the quality of education.

When discussing the impacts of climate change on Bangladesh, thought to be the most severe in the world, Abed describes it as a “challenge” BRAC is working hard to mitigate.

BRAC provides assistance to women in 69,000 villages in Bangladesh. Photo: BRAC/Shehzad Noorani BRAC is working with farmers to mitigate the impacts climate change will have on agriculture. Photo: BRAC/Shehzad Noorani

He says, “Climate change will be felt most in Bangladesh, which is why we are doing preparatory work now. We are undertaking research about how to grow rice in saline water, and how to develop saline and drought-tolerant varieties of rice. We are thinking about agriculture in different conditions — how farmers can continue to be productive under changed circumstances.”

The BRAC Centre has a department for disaster management and climate change, which was set up two years ago with money donated from the Gates Foundation. It has also built many cyclones shelters and plans to build many more in the future, as cyclones will become more frequent.

BRAC University also offers an MA in disaster management, described by Abed as the “intellectual strand” of BRAC’s multi-dimensional approach to reducing the effects of climate change.

Despite the challenges Bangladesh faces, Abed envisions a bright future for his country. His point of view is not simply that of an optimist — he has the figures to back up his forecast.

BRAC in Afghanistan.

He says, “Every decade our gross domestic product has grown. In the 1970s it grew by 3%, in the 1980s by 4%, in the 1990s by 5% and between 2000-09 it grew by 6%.” He also believes that if current trends continue and the number of people who rise above the poverty line increases by 3% per year, Bangladesh will become a middle income country in the decade following this one.

Asked what has driven his tireless efforts to improve others’ lives for the last 40 years, Abed replies, “When I see someone living a less than human life, it pains me. And that motivates me to do something about it. I also have self-confidence — if I want to do something, I’ll organise it.” Abed’s confidence is perhaps partly due to his varied and demanding career.

He was born in 1936 in Baniachong of Habiganj district and he attended Pabna Zilla School and Dhaka College before studying Naval Architecture at Glasgow University. Later he joined the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants in London.

When he returned to Bangladesh he joined one of the largest institutions in the Shell Oil Company. This part of his career informed much of the strategic thinking behind BRAC’s extraordinary growth. Abed explains, “I saw that being big does not necessarily mean being ugly, and that small is not always beautiful. So I thought, why not be big and effective and have an impact?”

When the 1970 Bhola cyclone killed 300,000 people, Abed was profoundly affected by the tragedy and he immediately began working to ease the sufferings of those affected. He established the relief and rehabilitation organisation HELP, but was forced to flee Bangladesh when the Liberation War broke out in 1971.

Whilst in England he set up Action Bangladesh to lobby for independence and when he returned home after the war, he used the funds he had generated from selling his flat in London to set up BRAC.

Over the last 30 years, BRAC has gone from strength to strength. BRAC currently operates in 69,000 villages in Bangladesh and it provides assistance to around 110 million people. Abed regards his employees as the reason behind BRAC’s success. He says, “There is a can-do culture at BRAC. We have an edge over many organisations; particularly those in the non-profit sector.”

He adds, ” We prize efficiency. We are run more like a busisness, with targets to be achieved, although there is no bottom-line in the sense of a profit motive. But in everything we do there are targets, whether it is to reduce child mortality rates or increase the numbers of children attending school.”

“We also train our people well. BRAC has 20 training centres across Bangladesh and at any given time there are 4,000 people being trained.” Another reason for Abed’s optimism about the future is his strong faith in the Bangladeshi character. He says, “We have been very resilient despite the problems we’ve faced. We have always risen and have never been defeated. We will fight until we get to where we want to be.” One cannot doubt that Abed has made a lasting and extraordinary contribution to the journey.

The first Bangladeshi to conquer Mount Everest describes his 43 day expedition – WITH AMAZING PHOTOS

Published in The Independent, June 2010

All images are subject to copyright @ Musa Ibrahim

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Musa holds the Bangladeshi flag on the summit of Mount Everest

Musa Ibrahim became a household name overnight after being declared the first Bangladeshi to reach the summit of Mount Everest.  The nation’s newest sporting hero has received a tide of tributes over the last three weeks and he has no doubt inspired countless others to pursue yet unfulfilled dreams.  For Musa, the expedition was the end of a ten year journey as well as the beginning of a new life.  For the first time, he provides an in-depth account of the 43 day expedition to the world’s tallest mountain.

Musa Ibrahim was born in 1979 and grew up in Thakurgaon district in Rangpur Division.  From a young age, his imagination was captured by a distant view of Mount Kangchenjunga in India, the world’s third highest mountain.   Musa said, “I was fascinated by mountains during my childhood.  I thought they were made of sand, because when the sunlight hit the mountain it was really white.”  At the age of 21, Musa began to dream of climbing Mount Everest.  He said, “Back then I had no idea about mountaineering.  Everyone said I was crazy.  I used to quote the Adidas saying – ‘Impossible is nothing.'”

Musa's hi-tech climbing outfit

Musa was not to be deterred by the mostly flat topography of Bangladesh, whose highest mountain is just an eighth of the height of Mount Everest.  Musa undertook his first expedition to the Himalayas in 2002 when he was 22, and he has returned annually ever since.  In 2007 Musa founded the North Alpine Club of Bangladesh and last year he successfully scaled Annapurna IV in Nepal.  Before setting off for Everest’s 8,848 metre summit, Musa undertook a three month training regime that included getting up 5.30am every morning to spend an hour jogging five kilometres in a local park.  However despite being physically fit, Musa was finding it impossible to obtain the necessary funds for the expedition.  By the time he departed he had raised 12 lakh taka, but this was only a quarter of the amount required.  Musa said that when he approached several organisations, his request was met with comments such as “Why are you here? Go yourself – this is not our business.”  He said, “That was really hurtful and I was disappointed.”  Musa was extremely grateful when his sister offered to provide the rest of the money, and now that he has successfully completed the expedition, new offers have been forthcoming.

Musa left Bangladesh for Kathmandu on 8 April 2010 and after buying his expedition gear and completing the relevant paperwork, he set off for Nyalum in Tibet, two days later.  Musa was struck by the stark scenery of Tibet, and was almost immediately hit with a severe altitude-induced headache that was to last for the next eight days.  The pain disturbed his sleep for several nights.  Musa said, “In high altitudes, it’s common to develop a headache in the back of the head – but in my case, the headache was in a line, from the back of my head to the front.  I told my sherpas but they had never heard of such a thing.”  Musa followed the sherpas’ advice by drinking five litres of water a day, but it wasn’t until he had spent three days at base camp – at an altitude of 5,200 metres – that the headache disappeared.  Musa said, “I was almost at the point of having to cancel the expedition.  But after my headache had gone I was fine with the altitude and day by day my performance was really good.  I was really enjoying everything.”

Musa and his expedition team in Lhasa, Tibet

Musa and his two sherpas joined a 26 member expedition group that used the North Alpine route on the Tibetan side to reach the summit of Mount Everest.  In order to properly acclimatise, Musa traveled back and forth from base camp to advanced base camp three times.  He said, “The road was covered with stones and from middle camp to advanced camp it was totally icy.  I saw a beautiful big lake that originates from a glacier, as well as deer, Himalayan hens, and different species of birds.”  Musa reported seeing chuffs up to an altitude of 8,300 metres.
In order to sustain his energy while climbing and carrying around 12 kilogrammes, Musa needed to consume at least 4,000 calories a day – around double his normal intake.  However Musa found it impossible to consume the Chinese and European meals being served up by the cook.  Musa said, “I couldn’t sustain myself for long on that food, so I stopped eating it.” Musa’s sherpas begged him never to say that he was hungry, because there is a local superstition that to do so brings bad luck to the mountains.  For the next four days straight, Musa ate nothing but beaten rice, with occasional snacks of chocolate and biscuits.  Laughing, he said, “I did get a little bit sick of it.”  By the time Musa had left advanced base camp for the final time, he had finished reading the autobiography of the sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who in 1953 was the first person to conquer Mount Everest, along with Edmund Hillary.  Musa said, “I felt like my story was being told in his book. Tenzing was the first person to climb Everest and it changed his life.  I felt that my life would also change if I could do what he did.”

Having a brief rest

Before starting the final ascent from advanced base camp, Musa fastened his ice boots and crampons, and wore a headlamp and a head-to-toe down jacket.  As the temperatures dropped to around minus 20 degrees Celsius, he added three more layers of clothing.  A sherpa lent him a second pair of socks, which were very heavy and were worth a staggering $400.  Musa said that he felt exhilarated as he set off.  “I felt like the mountain was calling me,” he said, smiling.

Musa’s steady progress attracted compliments from the sherpas, and his group arrived at North Col (7,100 metres) the following day in fine weather.  But by the next morning, a strong wind was blowing and it began to snow heavily.  Musa said, “The wind was so strong that I saw other climbers’ tents flying away before my eyes.  We felt that we too were going to fly away.”  No one was inside the tents at the time, but much expensive equipment was lost.  The group had no alternative but to wait out the storm, which lasted 24 hours.  Musa said that he felt frightened and frustrated by the weather conditions, but that he was preoccupied with protecting his own tent.  Whilst being interviewed, Musa crumpled a box of tissues with his fist to demonstrate how the wind pressed against his tent.  Just as the group were contemplating a descent, the wind settled down and they were able to proceed from North Col to Camp Two, at 7,500 metres.  From this point onwards Musa said he was “totally dependent” on his oxygen tank.  To reach Camp Two, Musa traversed a glacier on a 45 degree slope and thereafter encountered a rocky rather than icy terrain.  At 4pm on 21 May, the group reached 7,700 metres and set up their tents on a rock face.  Due to strong winds, no one could safely emerge again until 5am the following morning.

Getting closer to the mighty Everest

Musa arrived at Camp Three after seven hours of climbing.  By this stage, he had entered the “death zone.”  When altitudes are higher than 8,000 metres, the low levels of oxygen and freezing temperatures make it impossible for most humans to survive for more than two or three days.  Most of the 216 fatalities on Everest to date have occurred in this zone – as Musa was acutely aware.  He said, ‘At this point I started to feel that nobody could survive here for long – the oxygen levels were so low.”

After drying out their belongings and resting, the push for the summit began at 8pm on 22 May.  Musa and his group were not alone – there was in fact a queue of around 60 people.  Musa said, “Everyone was using a single rope.  It was a really amazing sight to see all the headlamps in a line in the distance.”  The terrain on the way from Camp Three to the summit was a lethal mixture of rock and ice face.  During this stage, Musa fought to overcome the fear of heights he sometimes experiences.

As snug as a bug in a rug!

After reaching a vertical rockface, the final phase to the summit involved traversing an overhang at 8,600 metres.  As Musa approached it, his oxygen mask brushed against the rock and the tube developed a leak.  Musa said, “The oxygen was escaping into the air rather than going inside me.  I felt like I was dying.” Musa’s ordeal lasted for 30 seconds before a sherpa noticed the problem and set about repairing the tube.  Musa explained how difficult and dangerous it was to make repairs whilst on the overhang, and expressed deep gratitude for the sherpas, whom he described as “amazing people.”  He said, “I learnt so much from the sherpas and I was astonished by their climbing skills.  I saw one sherpa carrying 103 kilogrammes, which was beyond my imagination.”

After emerging from the rockface, Musa saw the long ice slope that led to the summit.  Throughout the expedition, Musa said he had been worried about the possibility of arriving at the summit during the night, which would prevent him from witnessing and capturing the panoramic views on camera.  As it turned out, Musa’s timing could not have been more perfect – he made it to the summit of 8,848 metres at 5am on 23 May just as the sun was rising.  Musa described looking out onto a “valley of clouds” and watching an enormous shadow being cast behind Mount Everest.  Musa immediately hugged his sherpas, then hoisted the Bangladeshi flag and had his picture taken standing next to a rock statue of Buddha.  He said, “Standing on top of Mount Everest was one of the greatest moments of my life.  Before I left, I believed that if I could climb this mountain, my real life would start.  Now I feel that my dreams for society and myself can be more easily achieved. I struggled and worked hard for many years for this.”  He added, “My dream was also for the people of Bangladesh – I felt that they were wishing for my success from a long way away. I am proud to be the first Bangladeshi to reach the summit.”  Musa said the expedition had felt like a race against time, because another Bangladeshi climber was making a bid for the summit at the same time.  The two men did not meet in person, and the other climber was forced to return to base camp due to bad weather at North Col.

Food supplies

After spending 25 minutes on the top of the world, Musa turned his thoughts to getting down safely.  The three day journey down is notoriously dangerous, and one of the scariest moments of Musa’s expedition still lay ahead.  As Musa began his descent, he passed four dead bodies that had been left lying on the glaciers.  One corpse was still hanging from a safety rope.  He said, “Seeing that, I told myself that I must get down.”  However Musa’s energy reserves were badly depleted from the last 40 days of climbing, and he was forced to stop and rest frequently, despite warnings from his sherpas.  At one point Musa felt so exhausted that he simply lay down in the snow.  “It was suicidal,” he gravely recalled.  Good fortune arrived in the form of a climber from Australia called Brendan Mamoney, who checked Musa’s oxygen pressure and discovered a leak in the tube, which he promptly repaired.  Another climber called Steven Green from Britain gave Musa power gel and juice.  After five minutes Musa had recovered enough strength to walk.  Nevertheless, the exhausted climber continued to snatch brief amounts of sleep while standing on a 500 metre vertical ice wall, attached by a single carabiner.

Musa returned to his wife, Ummey Sharaban Tahura, and his one year old son Wasi Ibrahim Raiid, in Dhaka on 2 June.  After recounting the expedition, I asked Musa what new challenges he has set his sights on.  Smiling, he said, “I have so many things to do.”  It seems that now nothing is out of Musa’s reach, whether it be swimming from Teknaf to Cox’s Bazar or initiating a mountaineering institute to teach young Bangladeshis about mountaineering.  Musa may also one day become the first Bangladeshi to travel to outer space, as he plans on doing a space walk.  Musa currently works as a sub-editor at The Daily Star, and he would like to devote his free time to environmental awareness campaigns and working with disadvantaged young people.  Musa said, “I want to make the people of Bangladesh plant a single seedling every six months.  If we do this, there will be 16 crore new plants in our country within half a year.”  When one reflects on all that Musa has achieved and the obstacles he has successfully overcome, it is impossible not to have faith in his vision for a brighter future.

An Australian reflects on the last World Cup

Mudslide during the football match in Don Det, Laos

The Weekend Independent Magazine, 11 June 2010

Jessica Mudditt

Amongst the kaleidoscope of national flags dotting Dhaka’s skyline in preparation for the World Cup, I’ve not seen a single Australian one. Not that it ever occurred to me to look—everyone knows that Australia is no football heavyweight. When one of my Bangladeshi friends politely asked whether Australia had qualified for the World Cup 2010, I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t know. But I’ve just checked on the internet: yes we did. In fact, Australia topped their group in the qualification round and was one of the first nations to qualify for the finals tournament without conceding a goal. But I still think that cricket will always be our thing.

Although my interest in Australia’s performance in the World Cup 2010 has so far been lacklustre, in 2006 it was an entirely different story. The “Socceroos” were competing for the second time in the competition’s history and it was very exciting – even if we were the last team to qualify and the second-lowest ranked team. I was in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh at the time Australia was scheduled to play the mighty Croatians. My travel guidebook conveniently informed me that there was a sports bar across town that boasted a massive TV screen. Under normal circumstances I would not have had the faintest interest in going to a sports bar, but it was perfect for the occasion and I figured that other Aussies in town might have the same idea. So I set off in a tuk-tuk (CNG) just as the June evening rains set in. The monsoon was just beginning and I had been in Cambodia for just a few days, so I had no comprehension of how quickly the waters rise. In less than a quarter of an hour, the bottom of the tuk-tuk was submerged – at which point the driver turned off the engine and refused to take me any further. So I hopped out and started walking – or rather, wading. The water, which had reached waist level, was dark brown and full of debris. Pretty soon one of my rubber flip-flops broke, so I was forced to walk barefoot. It wasn’t the sharp objects under my feet that bothered me so much as the soft, squishy ones. Was it a dead rat, a baby’s nappy or perhaps some spoiled fruit I trod on? I don’t ever want to know.

It was difficult to read my map as the streets were poorly lit, but after some frustrating backtracking and with the assistance of some rain-friendly locals, I eventually spotted the bar’s glowing neon sign and stumbled in. I was panting heavily and drenched from head to toe. I like to think I looked like a model patriot… All eyes turned to my bedraggled state – but why were there so few pairs of eyes? Where were my fellow Australians? A young man eyed me cautiously and I deliberately mistook that as an invitation to sit opposite him.

“Are you here for the game?” I asked over the steady drip-drip from my clothes.

“Dunno. Not sure if I’ll hang around here long enough.”

I interpreted this to mean that he was finding my presence so offensive that he might leave within the next ten minutes. Although he probably did find me foul smelling, his answer was related to the fact that the match wasn’t due to begin for another two hours. I’d muddled my calculations of the time difference between Germany and Cambodia and thus I had walked through water for nothing. I ordered a beer and tried to feel grateful that I wasn’t two hours late. The match itself was pretty dull and riddled with inconsistencies by the referees – the result was a two-all draw.

A few weeks later – long after Australia had been knocked out by Italy – I found myself playing an international football match in the most unlikely of places. I was on a tiny island called Don Det in Laos, which had no electricity, save for an hour a day. Spectating was therefore out of the question, but opportunities to play the beautiful game were rich. A rumour was circulating amongst backpackers that three members of Laos’ national football team were living on the island. So a group of us bicycled across a rickety bridge to a clearing containing a raggedy field and goal posts. And sure enough, a group of Laotian men in red and white uniforms had gathered under a palm tree to escape the light drizzle. They were wearing shin-guards and stretching. As I recall, the ratio of female to male players was 2:20 and to make things just that bit more challenging, I hadn’t exercised properly for two months. Anyhow, our motley group of nationalities and coloured t-shirts took up our positions as we made self-deprecating jokes. I was on the wing – my favourite position for hockey and football alike. Within a few minutes after kick-off, the field had morphed into a mud pit. It was so slippery that it was difficult to maintain an upright position, let alone connect a foot with a ball. A couple of mangy dogs were sent off for interference, only to return at inopportune moments. Each time the Laotians scored a goal, one of them would leap up a nearby palm tree, whooping victoriously. Despite the fact that some of the backpackers were remarkably good players, we suffered an ignominious defeat. The score is too shameful to publish.

Backpackers vs Laos - that's me in the blue trousers

Unlike many Bangladeshis, I can’t honestly say that I have World Cup fever this time around. I will enjoy watching a few matches, and I might even visit the Australian Club for the first time, so that I can cheer on the Socceroos. But what would truly excite me would be watching an African nation win the World Cup. I’m backing the whole continent.