While viewed internationally as a "welfare case" of nearly 90 million people crowded into a small land where nature is treacherous, Bangladesh nevertheless has great potential. Facing the Bay of Bengal, the country is both blessed and cursed by the mighty Padma, formed as the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers join to carry the immense rainfall of the Himalayas to the sea. Rainy season floods -- compounded by cyclones -- regularly inundate much of the land, which in turn is parched in the dry season. But the alluvial soil is inherently fertile.
A surplus food producing area early in this century when it held a third as many people, it was known as Shonar Bangla (Golden Bengal). Since then major problems have beset it. In World War II East Bengal was the front line of Allied resistance against the Japanese. In 1947 partition of the subcontinent into India and East and West Pakistan cost several hundred thousand lives and uprooted millions who fled across new borders. After war brought Bangladesh independence by 1972, some 10 million refugees struggled home from India to devastated villages. The new country lacked a stable, experienced government, transportation, public health, employment opportunities, sufficient food and much else.
It was at this time that FAZLE HASAN ABED, a British citizen born in 1936 at Sylhet, in now northeastern Bangladesh, left a promising executive career with Shell Oil Company to help his birth land. Returning with refugees from India to Sulla in Sylhet District 100 miles northeast of Dacca, he led in organizing the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). The first task was relief: floating bamboo down rivers to rebuild houses, finding food, raising gardens, and training and supplying paramedics to treat the most prevalent diseases.
Tradition long has ruled the lives of most of the 85 percent of the population who live in rural areas, and outsiders with strange ideas were suspect. BRAC's answer was to select and train, through nonformal education, alert villagers whose leadership was more readily accepted. With BRAC's support they formed cooperatives and medical centers, started fisheries, promoted family planning and helped provide nutrition for children, reaching in less than three years 220 villages in a 160 square mile area.
In 1975 BRAC accepted a new challenge in Manikganj Thana, a district 40 miles west of Dacca and representative of the country's topography, population and agriculture. Beginning with a Food-for-Work Program, it uncovered villagers' "felt needs" and then developed solutions. In a country where one-half of all farmers are landless, building national awareness of the need for land reform was a vital by-product.
Utilizing assistance from many countries and from the United Nations, BRAC today is creating local organizations to solve the problems of over 1.34 million people comprising 200,000 rural families in 700 villages. Included are organizations to improve literacy, landless and women's groups and cooperatives dealing with production, marketing and water control. BRAC also publishes the country's most important educational journal. A full-time staff of some 300 guide, assist and expedite, rather than direct. Thus they arouse villagers' confidence in their own ability to achieve a better self-made future.
HASAN ABED's exceptional contribution has been to harmonize the diverse interests and groups necessary to move forward such a multifaceted community program. Remaining calm amidst crises and working constructively with established institutions, he continues to innovate, test and prove that Bangladesh's problems can be solved by mobilizing the latent capabilities of her own people.
In electing FAZLE HASAN ABED to receive the 1980 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the Board of Trustees recognizes his organizational skill in demonstrating that Bangladeshi solutions are valid for needs of the rural poor in his burdened country.