Empowering NGO Workers Before Empowering the Poor / Special Report on One of World’s Greatest 50 Leaders Sir Fazle and His Visit in Taiwan

Translator/Emma Hsu(點我看中文版) 

Editor’s Note: The NPO NPOst invited Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, Chairman of BRAC, which has been rated as world’s number one NGO for two consecutive years by NGO Advisor. Sir Fazle shared his valuable experience with Taiwanese people.

Sir Fazle stayed a total of five days in Taiwan, from the midday of October 18th until the morning of October 22nd. He visited Vice President of Taiwan Chen Chien-Jen as well as officials in NGO Affairs Committee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and DPP legislators-at-large seats.

He also had a luncheon discussion with Taiwan AID and paid visit to DA.AI. The highlight of his visit is, of course, a speech lasting more than an hour which Sir Fazle delivered during the annual conference for over 300 NGO workers in Taiwan.

Kind and humorous, 81-year-old Sir Fazle left a strong impression on everyone with his brilliant presentation. I have compiled the unmissable details during his visit in this report.

In 1971, Bangladesh was riddled with with its independence war. Topped with the impact of the deadly tropical cyclones (typhoons), tens of millions of people became refugees. At the time, Sir Fazire was appointed Minister of Accounting at the world-renowned Shell Oil Company. In his speech at the NPOst annual conference, he emphasised that these cyclones were a wake-up call to his life, and he hoped to ameliorate the situation in Bangladesh.

Sir Fazle sold his own house in London. Together with the original funds he had at hand, he invested one million US dollars to build shelters for the displaced refugees and then established BRAC. Over the next nine years, BRAC built more than 10,000 houses and provided medical care and education for children, which was an extremely successful rescue and reconstruction programme at the time.

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, Chairman of BRAC

“I thought I could go back to my job in accounting after I had accomplished these deeds, but in Bangladesh everything was waiting to be reconstructed, and I found myself unable to leave like that.” Sir Fazle, then aged 36, has dedicated himself to poverty alleviation every since.

At that time, Bangladesh, the world’s second-poorest nation, was in serious lack of medical and education system. BRAC was fortunate enough to receive funding from Oxfam and the Bangladeshi government to launch large-scale and long-term poor alleviation development programmes.

After the first phase of the development programme, which was completed under effective management and utilisation of resources, a certain amount of funding was left thanks to Sir Fazle’s profession in accounting. He was planning to return the balance to Oxfam, which was astonished and replied: “Keep the money because you’ll need it later.” The trust between BRAC and donors has thus embarked. “Effective use of resources” has become an important credential guarantee of BRAC.

In fact, effective management and resource utilisation, familiarity of the market logic and even creating new markets, as well as continual assessment of the effectiveness and efficiency of programmes, have always been at the heart of BRAC’s programme execution. “Many people are very caring, but in addition to being caring they should know how to think.”

This is one of the keys to BRAC’s ability to grow from a developing country and expand globally. “The reason why we can last to this day is because there were too many poor people in extreme need in the 1970s in Bangladesh.

The second is that unlike many governments which fear the growing power of NGOs, the Bangladeshi government has given us a lot of room for development. Thirdly, we uphold the principle of business administration and keep examining the effectiveness of projects and programmes,” Sir Fazle said.

He laughed and added: “Young people often asked me how to get into NGOs and become outstanding NGO workers. I always tell them to train themselves in enterprises for two years first. They should learn managerial thinking and market logics for two years before working for an NGO, so that they will have totally different perspectives.”

Steve Jobs: Why did it take you as long as 30 years to step out of Bangladesh?

With nearly 50 years of efficient managerial thinking, today BRAC has more than 110,000 employees in 11 countries around the world. What is surprising is that NGOs in Taiwan which are devoted to international cooperation and development are constantly questioned: “Why don’t you help Taiwanese people first?”

Apparently, this issue occurs all over the world. When BRAC first stepped out of Bangladesh in 2001 to expand poverty alleviation programmes in Afghanistan, it was confronted with the same kind of challenge: “Are all your programmes in Bangladesh accomplished? Why don’t you take care of Bangladesh first?”

In response to this, Sir Fazle said: “What I want to do is to help the poor. So, wherever there is poverty, there are people who need help.” Then he continued with a smile: “But I was also being asked by the founder of Apple Steve Jobs, who asked why I took 30 years to step out of Bangladesh. I think everybody thinks very differently.”

Different perspectives on enterprises and NGOs are also reflected in different aspects. When the number of BRAC workers exceeded 10,000, some were worried that Sir Fazle’s organisation was “too big.” He was puzzled. “I used to work for Shell Oil Company, which has more than 300,000 workers in the world, but no one ever fears that it is ‘too big.’ Why is it a problem when it comes to NGOs?”

Different perspectives on enterprises and NGOs are also reflected in different aspects. When the number of BRAC workers exceeded 10,000, some were worried that Sir Fazle’s organisation was “too big.” He was puzzled. “I used to work for Shell Oil Company, which has more than 300,000 workers in the world, but no one ever fears that it is ‘too big.’ Why is it a problem when it comes to NGOs?”

“Before an organisation can expand, four key competencies have to be established: manpower training, fundraising and resources, finance and accounting, and assessment and auditing. These capabilities must have a strong base before you expand, or it can be very dangerous to scale up without sufficient planning.”

Inside one of BRAC’s play labs in Uganda. 圖/@ BRAC

He added, “BRAC would always start with a small pilot programme which we repeatedly monitor, assess and adjust so as to maximise the effectiveness and efficiency of the programme before it could be expanded to national or regional levels. We also pay great attention to the recruitment and training of talents. We have set up 25 manpower training centres all over Bangladesh. Only when both manpower and resources are in place will we try to expand the scale of our programmes.”

Because BRAC attaches great importance to the training of personnel, it is able to keep the highest number of workers dedicated to the organisation. “In fact, although BRAC is the largest NGO in terms of scale, it does not have the most resources.” Sir Fazle joked that there are many more resourceful NGOs in Europe and America. BRAC simply has more employees.

Before empowering the poor, we should empower the workers

With so many employees, how can the organisation ensure its core values can be implemented and that it can cultivate talents in leadership?

Empowerment is the key,” Sir Fazle emphasised. “In BRAC there are many leaders of different expertise, each taking charge of different projects. We let them make many decisions on their own. Of course, some people make mistakes, but we allow room for mistakes as long as people can learn from them. These leaders may not always stay in BRAC for long term, but if they can find other stages, I think it is also a good thing. Because at the same time, there will be new blood joining BRAC.”

圖/@ BRAC

Sir Fazle further pointed out that there are four core values in BRAC, which are integrity, innovation, inclusiveness and effectiveness. Each value carries its own sub-goals, and the organisation has made brochures for employees to ensure that every newcomer can understand and identify with these values. They review and readjust work plans at the end of every year, and milestones are adjusted every five years to ensure that BRAC continues to move in the right direction.

Poverty is a structural problem

On October 6th this year, “Taipei for the Poor”, launched by 27 Taiwan NGOs, called for about 200 participants for a rally and to stay overnight on Taipei’s Aiguo East Road. In the rainy Daan Forest Park, Vice-President Chen Chien-Jen mentioned in his speech that poverty is caused by structural oppression, rather than by personal negligence or moral failure as previously thought.

This is also what Sir Fazle has repeatedly emphasised. For the poor, it is far from enough to provide short-term grants or supplies. What is important is to create an “environment” which is favourable to the long-term development of the poor. “We should ensure that everyone has a decent job, the opportunity to work, the feeling of being needed, in order to bring the value of human into full play.”

Sir Fazle has always been convinced that the poor are the agents who can change their own destiny, and no one else had any means of directly changing their lives. Therefore, what NGOs need to do is to make these poor people “are willing to change” and “want to change”, and to create an environment in which they “can change”.

圖/@ BRAC

“We did come across quite a number of difficulties at the beginning. For example, we set up schools continuously, and we boasted to Oxfam that we would ensure everyone in Bangladesh could receive education within three years. But then we realised that no one wanted to go to school after a day of hard work, because going to school did not help with their lives.”

However, although the reluctance to attend class seemed to be due to exhaustion, the real reason is that people lacked motivation and did not understand what learning is all about.

“Then we turned to a Brazilian educator, who used some key words such as famine, hardship, starvation and so on to teach the poor to discuss the most relevant issues in life. For example, why some people have nothing at all? What kinds of situation are the poor facing? What are some of the social discrimination? Through discussion, the poor started to think and build confidence, and then they would start looking for solutions and answers.

“This kind of critical thinking and self-confidence is what we want to see. First they have to want to change, and then they have to be convinced that they have the power to change. We then create an environment that is conducive to change. For example, BRAC would provide them with micro-loans, but they must learn to save money by themselves and work hard to repay their loans.”

圖/@ BRAC

When it comes to money saving, Sir Fazle emphasised that the concept of “future” for the poor may differ greatly from that of Taiwanese people.

“For them, they would only think about want to do for the day. If they could work today, they would feed themselves today. What happens tomorrow will be dealt with tomorrow. Their planning is always limited to 24 hours, so that it is vital to teach them to save money, to think about tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, next month, next year, ensuring they look beyond today.

The poor’s interpretation of certain concepts may be unfamiliar to many European and American NGOs. On the other hand, BRAC, which emerged from the ashes of post-war Bangladesh, understands the poor perfectly. Sir Fazle has realised since very early on that people must “believe” before they have the desire to learn. However, there are often many obstacles to make the the poor “believe”.

The poor’s interpretation of certain concepts may be unfamiliar to many European and American NGOs. On the other hand, BRAC, which emerged from the ashes of post-war Bangladesh, understands the poor perfectly. Sir Fazle has realised since very early on that people must “believe” before they have the desire to learn. However, there are often many obstacles to make the the poor “believe”.

圖/@ BRAC 官網

Sir Fazle explained: “But the result was not satisfactory. We then hired anthropologists to conduct surveys, which found out that many men in the family prevented their wife from learning because they did not understand, and they became the resisting force to the implementation of the plan. Therefore, we readjusted the plan, reeducated those men, and later upgraded our teaching efficiency with small-class teaching, and finally the programme could be carried out smoothly.”

All the problems can be solved, as long as you are determined to look for the solutions.” Sir Fazle emphasised with a smile.

Social enterprises exist in order to solve social problems

Another question that Sir Fazle was constantly asked during his trip to Taiwan is the handling between NGOs and social enterprises. 80% of BRAC’s annual capital income is generated by its self-sustaining social enterprises. Seeing this, Dr. Paul Collier, a professor of economics at Oxford University, exclaimed that “BRAC is the most astounding social enterprise in the world.”

BRAC not only owns its own seed research and development company but also Aarong Dairy, the largest dairy company in Bangladesh, and Aarong, a fabric and handicraft shop that supports women’s employment. Since its establishment in 1978, Aarong has not only received the Fairtrade certification but also employed 97,000 women and opened 18 branches all over Bangladesh. It has  become Bangladesh’s largest retail store for fashion handicraft.

圖/@ Aarong.

“All of my social enterprises are derived from the original intention of helping others. For example, I taught the poor to raise cattle and produce milk, but I soon realised that the milk couldn’t be sold because no one in the village could afford milk.”

“I trained women to make handicrafts and produce products such as silk, but then realised that no one wanted to buy them. I found that farmers’ productivity was not able to be increases because they did not have high-quality seeds. I also found that some owners of small and medium enterprises were unable to take out loans from banks because they were not ‘poor enough’, but then again they really needed the funds.”

Sir Fazle explained: “As a result, I set up a dairy company to buy milk from farmers and made  dairy products to create a market for them. I set up a handicraft company to buy hand-woven products from women and provided guaranteed purchase prices. Then we opened the market and sold the products in our own shops.”

“I invited scientists and nursery farmers to work together to develop seeds, and then established a seed company, which raised the national corn output in Bangladesh to 2 million tons, enough to feed all the domestic chicken in chicken farms. I also  established BRAC Bank Limited to provide micro-loans and financial services to owners of small and medium enterprises.”

BRAC Bank 入口網站。圖/@ BRAC Bank

“All of this is about solving the problems we encountered, which responds to what I said earlier: the only way that can change the poor is in the poor themselves. The only thing that NGOs should do is to create an environment conducive to their development, such as creating ‘markets’. “

“And the profits I gained will always be returned to those who need our service. In other words, if you want to tackle social issues, and the way you use to solve these problems are profitable, then your organisation can be referred to as a social enterprise.”

Future outlook: gender equality, equality of opportunity and poverty eradication

During the exchange of views with the Legislative Yuan, Sir Fazle mentioned that the first thing to say about what humans haven’t achieved is gender equality.

Many societies are still deeply trapped in an unbreakable patriarchal structure, yet humans must understand that gender equality is not a zero-sum competition. The fact that women gained some rights does not necessarily mean that men have lost some rights. On the contrary, both parties will actually benefit from it. Therefore, different genders should work together to promote gender equality, especially in Asia where there is still a lot of room for improvement.  People need to change their frame of thought.

Gender equality also involves fertility and population structure. In fact, Sir Fazle is very worried about the fact that Taiwan has the lowest fertility rate in the world. This is clearly reflected in his dialogue with Vice President Chen Chien-Jen. “You must start doing something right now! This is a very urgent matter.” Sir Fazle suggested that Vice President refer to the fertility promoting policies in France, Italy and Spain, and provide women with 6-month paid parental leave.

圖/@ BRAC

“At BRAC, all female employees are entitled to half a year’s paid leave and half a year’s unpaid leave. This kind of support is of great necessity.” Sir Fazle also emphasised that public childcare services and sound education for children are both necessary criteria to enhance fertility.

Vice President Chen Chien-Jen responded that Taiwan has passed and started to implement Long-Term Care 2.0, which provides community-based long-term care services. The National Development Council also actively seeks ways to increase fertility rates, including the provision of childcare services, the establishment of childcare support systems, and the increase of daycare centres.

The second mission to be accomplished mentioned by Sir Fazle is the inequality of opportunity. Many children are born in poor families. They lack the opportunities to fulfil their potential, they were unable to acquire quality education, or they might have no chance to receive education at all. Sir Fazle emphasised that everyone should have the opportunity to fulfil themselves. The lack of such opportunities, to a large extent, resulted from his third point: extreme poverty has not yet been eradicated.

Sir Fazle said that this is also an important reason why the world is now committed to promoting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)For the first time in history, mankind has the opportunity to witness the eradication of extreme poverty by 2030, which will promise to give everyone a stable, meaningful and quality life.

The average life expectancy in developing countries can reach 60 years. “When I founded BRAC 45 years ago, the average life expectancy in Bangladesh was only 47. Now that medical care, education and quality of life have been greatly improved, and the average life expectancy has reached 72 years.”

“In order to achieve SDGs, we urgently need the participation and cooperation among governments, businesses and the civil societies.” Sir Fazle further answered legislator Yu Wan-Ru’s question: “Although the Taiwanese government has no means of proclaiming the birth of SDGs together with other countries in the United Nations, Taiwan has included SDGs in its policies in its own manner, which is a way to declare to the world that Taiwan is a part of the international community and can make contribution to achieving SDGs. ”

“It is also able to make contributions through its Official Development Assistance (ODA) schemes, NGOs or other international development and cooperation programmes.”

Legislator Lin Ching-Yi also mentioned that the “UN Sustainable Development Goals Advisory Council of Parliament”, in which Legislator Lin Ching-Yi and Yu Wang-Ru serve as President and Vice President respectively, was officially launched on September 26 this year. The government has promised to actively incorporate the concept of ​​SDGs into its national development goals, declaring Taiwan’s determination to promote SDGs.

Photo by Thomas Tucker on Unsplash

It will also allow other countries and INGO partners to know more about Taiwan’s experience and achievements in implementing SDGs. It is expected that the legislature, the executive and the private sector can supervise and cooperate with one other.

Finally, Sir Fazle mentioned that the environments, opportunities and needs in Taiwan and Bangladesh are different. Bangladesh is still focusing on basic needs such as education and medical coverage, whereas Taiwan should be committed to expanding the space in its civil society and strengthening its civil power and democratic system.

But what remains the same is that the government must provide great support to the development of civil society and increase cooperation with the private sector. NGOs should also exercise due diligence in supervising the government.

Original posted on NPOst.


Right Plus 創辦人 & 總編輯。曾任出版社資深編輯、NGO 雜工、NPOst 主編,對書寫斤斤計較但錯字很多。除了文字沒有其他技能。

想當特務卻當了 10 年編輯,想養獅子卻養了一隻貓。相信智慧比外貌還重要,但離不開放大片。最喜歡善良的朋友,聰明的情人,以及各種溫柔的對待。

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