Thought Leader: Fazle Hasan Abed

October 30, 2013

DEVIN STEWART: What is morally distinct in the world today?

FAZLE HASAN ABED: Well, when I think of my own lifetime, dedicated to poverty alleviation, I can look back to the day President John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural address, when President Kennedy said that humankind has in its hands the capability of extinguishing all forms of poverty and all forms of human life.

Eleven years later, in 1972, I started BRAC with a mission to remove poverty, to give people rights, to provide opportunities for everybody to realize their own potentials, and to work to get freedom from all kinds of discrimination and all kinds of exploitations. So that was our vision with which I started to work.

Fifty years later after Kennedy's speech, today, and 40 years later after I started BRAC, what President Kennedy said is still true. We still have tremendous capabilities of improving the human condition and also doing lots of harm to human beings. I think what has happened is that over the last 50 years we have advanced a great deal in terms of eliminating poverty in large parts of the world. Many countries that were poor 50 years ago are no longer poor. In some countries there is entrenched poverty, in Africa and Asia. As far as I know, the latest World Bank report says that everywhere in the world poverty as a percentage has declined, in all regions of the world. We know also the 2015 Millennium Development Goals will be met. Poverty will be halved from what it was in 1990.

So we have progressed a great deal over the last 30 to 50 years in terms of reducing poverty. But we have not completely eliminated poverty. Poverty still remains entrenched in many parts of the world, including Bangladesh, where I live. We are trying to eradicate it. The World Bank's president Jim Kim says that by 2030, he wants to have zero extreme poverty. That means that by 2030, he wants to eliminate all people who now live below $1.25 a day income.

But what I'm dealing with in Bangladesh today is not extreme poverty defined by the World Bank. What I'm dealing with at this moment is ultra-poverty, not $1.25 a day, but it's 50 cents a day, which is called ultra-poverty. According to a report published in 2007 by the IFPRI [International Food Policy Research Institute],173 million people live on under 50 cents a day, and another 340 million people live under 75 cents a day. So almost 450 million, 460 million people live under 75 cents a day.

This ultra-poverty, I think, is the first task that one needs to deal with. We have been working on it for a number of years, and BRAC has got a methodology of trying to get these people who are living in extreme poverty outside the mainstream. Most of them are women-headed households who have no kin relationships and are isolated and marginalized. These are the families that we are talking about with ultra-poverty, and half-fed, most of them not sending their children to school, not getting any medical attention.

So these are the ultra-poor that we are now concentrating our attention on. We are hoping that if we could remove ultra-poverty in the whole world by 2030, we would be doing a great job.

It's always easier to move people out of $1.25 to $1.30 a day. You can take them out of extreme poverty. But it's very difficult to work with the poorest of people. So what we are trying to do is, working with the poorest of the poor, bring them up to a level of poverty where they could then find a ladder, like microfinance or other kinds of support that one can provide through development projects, that can come about. So that's what we are working on right now.

DEVIN STEWART: What would you describe as the greatest moral challenge facing the world today?

FAZLE HASAN ABED: There are so many challenges. As I said, poverty, to me, is a great challenge. There are challenges connected with global warming, ecology, the way we live today. We consume so much. If everybody in the world becomes like the First World countries' income level, the consumption level of the world will go up to such an extent that this planet will not be able to support it. These are some of the great issues of our times, and we need to deal with these things.

Many of us are not conscious of the way we are living, whether it is sustainable or not. These are not, obviously, sustainable, and we need to find ways of living more sustainably so that the world can survive and future generations can still enjoy the benefits of a world which can offer so much to future generations. So these are challenges.

Other challenges: I personally think the challenge of equity, particularly gender equality, is very essential and central to the kind of work we do. We think gender equality is so important for human well-being that patriarchy needs to be defeated in most countries. Patriarchy is so entrenched in most countries that we think that it probably takes—it certainly has taken my lifetime to try and defeat it, and probably it will take many more lifetimes to completely defeat it.

But in this century, the 21st century, if we could achieve that gender equality, I think human societies would be much happier, much better governed, and, of course, the relationship between men and women would be far better than it is today. So I consider gender equality one of the primary goals that human society should aim for.

DEVIN STEWART: Part of our project is looking at the viability of a global ethic. Do you think about a global ethic as being realistic? If so, how would you describe it?

FAZLE HASAN ABED: A global ethic, to some extent, is opportunities. If you can provide opportunities to people, those who put in hard work, if they get the benefit of it—when societies don't value hard work, people who work hard get the least, people who work less get the highest salaries and so on. That kind of thing happens in many societies. I think of Bangladesh alone. In my own country, hard work doesn't really give benefit to people so much.

These are ethical questions. Why should somebody working hard, putting all his efforts into something, get so much less, when people who are getting much more are doing so much less? This is one area that I think some societies that are meritocratic have probably solved, but we have not solved them yet. This is an ethical problem, to me.

The other ethical problem is that you might find that the slums of Dhaka or Nairobi will have children born—I know that talent is equally distributed at birth, but opportunities are not. Many of these children who otherwise would probably have got Nobel Prizes would never get that, because they would not have the opportunity. This is also another ethical question. How do we deal with these problems of creating opportunities for people in such a way that everybody has a similar kind of opportunity?

This is one area of ethical consideration that I think is very important.

The other areas of ethics are—we are the only non-governmental organization in the whole world that has a university, which is trying to build ethical leaders. Our whole focus is building ethical leaders of tomorrow for Bangladesh. That's what we are trying to do in BRAC University. One of the subjects that every student must take is ethics. Every BRAC student, whether they are studying physics or computer sciences, must take ethics as a subject. It's a compulsory subject in BRAC University. We are trying to do our best to provide this opportunity for young people to be ethical, create a society which is ethical.

The other areas of ethics, of course, relate to justice. How do you provide opportunities for the poorest of the poor to have access to justice, rule of law, where everybody should benefit?

DEVIN STEWART: You talked about creating ethical leaders. If you could tell us what you consider ethical leadership to be, that would be very interesting.

FAZLE HASAN ABED: I think ethical leaders would be looking after the interests of their citizens, in a way, responsive to the needs of the citizens, not responsive to his own needs or his family's needs only. In many Third World countries, you find that it's the ethical leaders who are in short supply. If you can develop leaders who are to think ethically, who act ethically, then the next generation of governance in Bangladesh would be far superior, simply because at least the ethical dilemmas will be understood properly and they will act accordingly.

That's one area of building new leaders that are ethical—moral leadership, as we call them. That's what we are trying to develop.

The other area of ethics is, of course, justice, how to create a society where rich and poor get the similar kind of treatment in the courts of law, in the justice system. This is also part of the ethical question in a society.

I have been a member of the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor. We came out with a report. We are now trying to get countries to look at this report and also trying to get the new Millennium Development Agenda post-2015 to try and incorporate legal empowerment of the poor as one of the areas of focus, because we think it is important for poor people to have access to law or legal empowerment in such a way that their rights are protected.

These are important ethical questions in a society. Those leaders who are promoting these ideas of equality, opportunity, and law for everybody—rich, poor, women, children, who are vulnerable—these are the issues that ethical leaders should be concerned with. That's what I think about ethics in societies.

DEVIN STEWART: We are celebrating our 100th anniversary in February, and we like to think about the next century. What would you like to see happen in the future?

FAZLE HASAN ABED: As I said, one of the most difficult areas that I already mentioned, achieving gender equality, will probably take a century to achieve. This is not something that is going to be won very quickly. It has taken 100 years to get women votes, I suppose another 100 years probably to get complete equality. Only in three or four countries in the world you can say today you have gender equality—almost equality—in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, probably. Everybody else is so much behind in equality of genders that I think this is going to be the biggest challenge for the next century to achieve, gender equality.

The other areas that I'm very much interested in—in the 20th century, for the first time in history, there was an attempt to get every every human being in the world educated. In the 19th century, all of Europe and most developed countries made education compulsory for all its citizens. In the 20th century, even countries like Bangladesh made primary education compulsory for their citizens. But I know and everybody knows that in Bangladesh all children are not going to school. All the children in India, where there is a law that everybody must go to school, they are not going to school. Ten to 15 percent of the children still have no access to education.

These are some of the issues that we need to deal with now. This century's task would be to give every child an opportunity not only to get literacy, but an education, to fulfill the potential that that person has. I just hope that we are able to provide every child an opportunity to meet their real potential—freedom and opportunity to reach their potential. That's what I would think that the next century's main task will be.

DEVIN STEWART: As you know, we were founded by Andrew Carnegie, who had a dream of world peace. It's something we have not achieved yet. Do you think world peace is possible?

FAZLE HASAN ABED: There are so many impediments to world peace—firstly, the national governments. There is sectarianism, religious bigotry. All kinds of things now vitiate the idea of creating a world peace.

But the world is at peace in a way. There are no world wars anymore. I just hope that we can contain the conflicts that we still have in the world, sectarian conflicts and territorial conflicts that affect the world today. I hope that we can contain them in such a way that it doesn't affect too many people's lives. That's the only realistic hope that we can have right now.

Andrew Carnegie, like everybody else, was a dreamer. I hope his dream comes true sometime. I just hope that we all dream of a future that is peaceful and everybody can live in peace, harmony, and with freedom in an open society.

DEVIN STEWART: The final question is, how do you think about accountability? You talked about, for example, gender equality and education and the other issues we talked about today. How do you think about accountability when you think about these issues? Who is ultimately accountable?

FAZLE HASAN ABED: I think we all are, in a way, responsive to the needs of our societies, although I think accountability lies with the government. Plurality—are we ready to live in a pluralistic society where we can have differences of opinion and still can have a harmonious society? These are questions that I think are challenges of this time—pluralistic society, accountable society, societies with responsibilities; people take responsibilities, government takes responsibilities for their citizens' welfare. These are important issues for good government, a well-governed society, a well-governed world.

These are important, and everybody has got a stake in this. It is governments, it's business, it is non-governmental organizations, charities, all sectors. Still, a society itself has got a stake in seeing that we have responsible government, that we have pluralistic societies in which people can live in harmony, without conflicts. Most countries now are no longer countries where only one race or one color of people live. We do have different kinds of people living in countries with different ideas of how societies should be ordered. But if we can respect each other's opinions and views, we can still live peacefully and, respecting each other, build a society that is diverse and open.

DEVIN STEWART: Would you like to follow up by giving people any practical or concrete advice about how we could achieve such a world?

FAZLE HASAN ABED: I can't really give advice. I can only say that the important thing about this world is that we only have one blue planet. We need to look after it. We need to live in a way that our planet is sustainable. I think it is very important that we look after the ecology of our small planet and we also change our lifestyle in such a way that human societies can go on living for many, many generations, many, many centuries on this planet.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much.

FAZLE HASAN ABED: Thank you very much.