Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, Founder of BRAC, Bangladeshi humanitarian, wins world’s largest education prize in Qatar
Keen to promote the cause of education, Qatar stepped in to fill a perceived gap last year when its Qatar Foundation conceived the $500,000 WISE Prize for Education. While the Nobel committee gives out prizes for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace, there’s been no major global prize to recognize outstanding service in education – until now. On Tuesday, the Qatari emir awarded the inaugural WISE Prize to Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, who, despite his British knighthood in 2010, remains an under-recognized pioneer in the field of education.
Abed’s organization, BRAC, which I’m privileged to be a part of, has been called the best-kept secret of a development success story. Founded by Abed in 1972, it is now the world’s largest nonprofit by most measurable standards. From its headquarters in Dhaka, BRAC now operates in 10 countries, with a staff of 125,000 reaching 138 million people worldwide – constantly improving and replicating programs that put individual empowerment at the core of antipoverty efforts. For these 40 years of humanitarian work with a social entrepreneurial approach, and specifically for his role in providing affordable education to millions, Abed received the world’s largest education prize at Doha’s World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), which runs this week from Nov. 1 to Nov. 3.
For Abed and BRAC, education is part of a comprehensive antipoverty strategy designed to create ladders of opportunity for the poor. “In these difficult financial times, as more and more people rise up to speak for the ‘99%,’ occupying streets across various cities of the world, the issue of inequity has been thrown into the forefront of world politics,” says Abed. “How do we begin to address this? We start with education – because education is the great equalizer.”
What’s different about the BRAC approach? Praised for its innovation and business-like approach to poverty alleviation, the organization promotes a “low-tech, high-touch” approach to educating the world’s poor. That might sound contrarian in a world enamored of new technology, but it’s effective. The wisest investments are often as simple as renting a schoolhouse instead of building new ones. In the message it delivers this week to over 1,000 thought leaders in the education field, BRAC emphasizes cost-efficiency and scalability – developing solutions that can be replicated several million fold, across multiple countries.
That said, BRAC does partner with private entities in tech ventures to advance its mission and promote connectivity among the poor when it is cost-effective to do, using mobiles phones, smart phones, desktop and laptops. The organization is in partnership talks with Pearson PLC, a leading global media and education company, to assist in Pakistan and elsewhere.
This week’s award signals that philanthropists are increasingly embracing the BRAC approach. His Excellency Dr. Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, chairman of the WISE conference, says Abed “recognized that education is a passport to social inclusion and opportunity. He discovered a successful formula, and he adapted and expanded it – first in Bangladesh and then in other countries.”
“As a direct consequence, millions of people around the world lead healthier, happier and more productive lives,” Al-Thani adds. “His vision, resourcefulness and determination are vital ingredients of the innovation process and he stands as an example to all of us who believe that education, more than anything else, determines the destiny of individuals and societies. The jury saw him as an ideal WISE Prize Laureate.”
The jury for the award consisted of five globally recognized leaders in education: James Billington, the U.S. Librarian of Congress; Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute and Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University; Fatma Rafiq Zakaria, chair of India’s Maulana Azad Educational Trust; H.E. Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology for South Africa, and Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, the WISE chair.
Already educating millions in Bangladesh – it is, in fact, the largest private educator in the world – BRAC is now in the midst of an international expansion effort that sees it perfecting and scaling up its low-cost education approach with help from private sector partnerships. Aided by a $45 million commitment from The MasterCard Foundation, BRAC is expanding its efforts in Uganda, for instance, aiming to reach over 12 percent of the population by 2016. It is also active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, South Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Haiti.
BRAC’s large-scale solutions aim to create opportunities where few exist for the poorest of the poor. “Innate talent is distributed equally around the world at birth, knowing no bounds of geography or class,” says Susan Davis, president and CEO of BRAC USA, a US nonprofit set up to advance BRAC’s mission. “Opportunity is not. We need to redress that imbalance if this world of 7 billion is to prosper as a whole.”
In addition to traditional learning, BRAC seeks to “educate the whole person” by teaching life skills, which are especially important in conflict and post-conflict environments like Afghanistan and South Sudan. It is embedding social and emotional learning into its curriculum, teaching self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.
“BRAC has always been an institution devoted to education at all levels – not just in the classroom,” says Richard A. Cash, an author and expert on global health at Harvard University and one of the founders of BRAC USA. “In fact, in many ways it is what defines the organization. There are training programs for workers at all levels of the organization in Dhaka and the field.”
The Qatari prize is the latest in a string of accolades Abed has received in recent years. In addition to last year’s British knighthood and a Clinton Global Citizen Award in 2007, he has also received the Henry R. Kravis Prize in Leadership, the David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award, the Gates Award for Global Health, and the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. After 40 years of working quietly to alleviate poverty in all its forms, it is recognition well earned.
---Scott MacMillan is a writer and is the communications manager at BRAC USA in New York.