50 years of BRAC

Two histories combined to produce one person

Afsan Chowdhury | Monday, 21 March 2022

We were flying down from Hong Kong to Dhaka and had completed our formalities at the airport. When Abed bhai's turn came, they looked at his passport and refused to let him proceed. "You are a British citizen and we are not allowing anyone to go to Bangladesh due to a natural disaster there." I don't remember the disaster oddly but certainly the amusement as Abed bhai kept saying, "I live there, I work there. I have come from there." This went on for a while, as the matter was referred upstairs who after some more arguments let him go. Finally the man who had been fighting disasters since 1970, in some ways birthed by his relief work of the 1970 Bhola cyclone was allowed to arrive there. But the incident at the airport was symbolic of the man, his life and ideas. So who was he?
When Abed bhai went to the United Kingdom (UK) to study in the '60s, whatever life he may have lived before ended and was sucked into the activist life of expats there, many of whom were Sylhetis. What he gained were not just lifelong friendships but also lifelong commitments to the idea of power transfer in society and state to the poor and the disempowered. They were heady days and Abed bhai learnt about the electrically charged ideas of liberation and class struggle. And even though Marxism and its institutions drew him and he was a committed activist, it didn't last long. Leftists "talking a lot but not doing enough" didn't strike him as great role models. Paolo Freire and his liberation theology expressed in the "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" made more sense. After his return, his Manpura work-which is often underestimated in terms of its impact on his thinking-his 1971 work and experience, he began to become the imagination of his being. He returned to Bangladesh from London and the battle of two histories began.
He had described this 'epiphany'-if one will-when he stood in the social ruins of Sulla which saw his new journey. He said, "I looked at all the returning refugees and saw that they had lost everything. So what was the meaning of chasing, wealth, job and other conventional gain. Life was truly a teacher of its fleeting nature. I decided to devote my next few weeks, months to rehabilitation work. I took leave and began. I never returned. I am still on leave."
This episode rings loud for me because as a social historian, our past has many such references. People are seized by the moment, episode, scene or some accursed magic that grasps and doesn't let go, redesigning individual and collective lives. There are many names for it but no clear description except of the consequences described as a form of servitude to some reality greater than the banal world of living and oneself. It's the 'enlightenment' which has many names but doesn't visit everyone. It's here that he is a Eastern person, the modern monk who wilfully seeks servitude to serve others. And that's what became BRAC one day.
While putting together the book on Amin bhai, I met many of his first batch colleagues who talked about him and his work. They mention Paolo a lot and they mention a few other Western names too but as BRAC shifted from rehabilitation phase to development, Abed bhai also began to change. He had a certain disregard for the official world-the formal world if one may, and it was more of looking upon a disruptive force which one disregarded. Perhaps a touch of elitism dominated his perspective. But as he began to enter into development work, his ideas underwent a transition. And it's the iconic ORS programme that had a profound impact on him. It was obvious to him that everything required everyone and the key was inclusion-not leaving out or disengagement. One couldn't walk alone in his kind of work. It was during this phase that Paolo began to die and his own history began to exert itself.
Even though he knew I was always an outsider, he was frank with me during our conversations. To Abed bhai, microcredit was not a poverty exit programme but an inclusion tool for financial services, a protection from sliding back into poverty. When he was organising the securitisation plan, he was pessimistic. On loans, in general, he was not very bullish, which is why TUP (Targeting the Ultra Poor programme) made him so cheery. He knew it worked but it couldn't happen without the massive infusion of money required. So Western money helping Eastern brains and sweat did wonders and it suited him. In many ways, it epitomised BRAC's philosophy, free from the cant of ideological solutions.
Yet he had a certain link, a kind of emotional bond with the West which didn't make the best sense to me. Some of his Western mentors fed him their ideas about the East and he believed a few. I wouldn't always protest because they were rather odd and basically flaky but that lingering faith in the West did remain. It was part of his legacy of growing up and working in two worlds and two histories. But he is entitled to that of course.
There are several books on Abed bhai and we even had a few preliminary discussions on how to do one which would do justice to his exploration and journey. A month after one such chat where he wanted to discuss the CV of the new Vice Chancellor (VC) to be of BRAC University, he told me with great enthusiasm that a Westerner had agreed to ghost his autobiography and would even ensure proper marketing. As he was looking so happy, I didn't push the indigenous case for writing his biography of sorts. Years later, no such project matured and no book is here where he could discuss BRAC and his life, and put both in context. The opportunity was lost. It would have looked nicer than his knighthood.
So there he is, a man who unlike us bridged two worlds and felt comfortable in both probably. I think going by standard logic, a third reality had evolved in which he was most comfortable and that is/was called BRAC. The new generation of BRAC leadership must now find in the immensely changed world since then, how BRAC is to be envisioned and the dream goes on. How it is to be powered by the epiphany of Abed bhai's reality not just his imagination which he was destined to see.
The old BRAC is over, the new BRAC must come into being.

Afsan Chowdhury is a former BRAC staff, historian, researcher and journalist.
[email protected]