Excellence was his motto, thinking big a habit and producing results his ever-growing passion.
The body of a development legend – Sir Fazle Hasan Abed – has been buried in Banani today. It is and it will never be too late to add to reflections on how this always mildly smiling man meandered his way through many different alleys and highways of development with a sense of purpose and determination that will constitute the standard of motivation for many in the generations to come.
The more you say about Sir Abed, the less adequate it feels because words cannot capture the depth and breadth of this great soldier in breaking the path of deeply ingrained social and economic processes. Other than of Sir Abed, can anyone come up with a better sketch portraying the embodiment of thinking out of the box?
We analyze, theorize and agonize on the causes and consequences of poverty and underdevelopment. Sir Abed respected the diagnostics, but never believed in agonizing over the perceived futility of individual initiative to change the course of history, knowing very well the tenacity of barriers that have to be overcome to bring social change. He succeeded in doing so because he truly believed in taking the initiative himself, learning from doing, his own experience as well as others, and to never be a prisoner of one's own preconceived notions.
From an accountant to the world's most accomplished development practitioner, a man with boundless vision, he showed how small beginnings can be scaled up to realize the aspirations that initially seem well beyond what can practically be accomplished. When reality challenged him, he changed the reality instead of allowing it to change him. However, he was a believer in the art of the possible. He adapted his strategies and tactics when circumstances convinced him that change was needed to make sure that the power of vested interests do not derail his mission. Pragmatism can be the enemy of change, but change can be thwarted if pragmatism is not paid its due. No one knew it better than Sir Abed.
He never believed in going it alone--a path to nowhere. He collaborated with other key actors in the field in the spirit of healthy competition and taking the initiative to disable the free rider problem that often inhibits collective action. Within his own institution, he built teams organized around a well specified goal, small or big, and allowed the creativities of the individuals in the team to flourish towards achieving them. He never missed holding teams accountable for the goals assigned.
Institutions grow on merit but are held together by the loyalty of the insiders to its mandate. While an institution can quickly degenerate if loyalty takes precedence over merit, no institution can survive purely on merit. The art of building nimble institutions, abreast with the changing times, is to find that optimal balance between merit and loyalty. Sir Abed was one such artist.
Excellence was his motto, thinking big a habit and producing results was his ever-growing passion. And boy did he produce results! From helping the cyclone distressed people, fighting a war of liberation to laying the bricks of building a nation from the grassroots through non-formal education delivered using unconventional methods, public health services, micro finance, women empowerment, self-evaluation, partnership with agencies responsible for local level service delivery, reaching out to the distant poor in hard to reach areas and building big business enterprises—you name it. Sir Abed left a mark everywhere.
Forbes lists people leading in personal wealth accumulation every year. Alas, there is no list of people leading in social capital accumulation using exactly the same methods--investment and innovation. Surely, Sir Abed would have topped such a list year after year because he never stopped growing! He built a Multi-National Institution of a kind that has no parallel yet.
Economic growth analytics debate the role of leaders in steering growth. The identity, beliefs and policies of the leader determine how the growth enabling factors such as capital and technology evolve in an economy. Recent empirical work shows leaders matter for the economic performance of nations through the policies they craft and the institutions they develop. This branch of growth research points to an important interaction between the effect of leaders and a society's institutions. Leaders seem to matter for growth and development particularly when institutions are weak. Sir Abed strived to fill that void from before the inception of the country and worked relentlessly to build an institution that eventually will generate its own leadership and, therefore, not depend on individual persona to remain a going concern. It is premature to pass a judgment on how successful Sir Abed has been on this front, but he surely has not left without sowing the seeds.
There will never be another Abed bhai. No one will be happier than Abed bhai himself to see his accomplishments overtaken. He always believed in moving on, bettering the better, and never surrendering to complacence. Let's hope this dream of his will live on. Only then will Abed bhai's soul truly Rest in Peace!
The author is an economist.