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     Volume 4 Issue 34 | February 18, 2005 |

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In Retrospect

Great Ideas Simple Solutions

Azizul Jalil

I speak here about Mohammad Yunus and Fazle Hasan Abed. Their pioneering work for rural development and emancipation of the poor, particularly of women, will be remembered by Bangladeshis for generations to come. The strength of their belief in the people and their vision for them are matters of great pride for Bangladeshis and high admiration of people abroad. It is not for me to give an account of their many accomplishments. These are already widely known, particularly to the millions of beneficiaries of the Grameen Bank and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee BRAC, whose lives and prospects have been truly changed. Perhaps as much, if not more, is known abroad. Consequently, both Yunus and Abed have received, short of the Nobel Prize, the highest awards and medals in Western countries and other parts of the world. However, from the Bangladesh government, of the two, only Yunus received the Independence Day Award. I believe that he and Abed have not yet received the high recognition that they surely deserve from their own country.

During my recent visit to Dhaka, I had the good fortune to meet with both Yunus and Abed. In Dhaka's festive winter season last year, I met Yunus in one of the functions. He was recently inducted as a member of France's prestigious Legion d'Houneur by President Chirac. The renowned Economist magazine of London last year chose Yunus as the winner of its prize for social and economic innovation, in his case for promoting the idea of micro-credit. As I approached him, he greeted me with his usual large grin. After exchanging pleasantries, I expressed my feeling that whatever he touches, it turns into gold and I wanted to know the secret. The modest person that he is, he only listened and smiled.

I enquired from Yunus what the latest brain wave was and how did he plan to proceed in that regard. I knew that he would not fail to respond this time, as he is a man of ideas and brilliant but practical solutions. He told me about the recent Grameen programme for beggars and efforts to bring them out of that profession. Loans of 500 taka would be given to participating beggars interest-free, with easy and flexible repayment terms. The beggars are supposed to sell small household and consumption articles like paan, supari, lozenges and toys door to door and gradually earn enough to free themselves of the need to beg for their survival.

But how would beggars be made willing to participate? According to Yunus, thousands of Grameen's field workers throughout the country have been given the task of finding and motivating two such beggars each. That's a large number of beggars! Already 90 lakh takas have been distributed under the programme to about 26000 beggars. Eighty of them have already left their previous profession. Grameen first started loans without collaterals three decades ago.

I was informed that the Grameen salary scale was that of the government but there was no greater motivation than the immeasurable satisfaction derived by the staff from helping another person. Together with the idealism and the spirit of the leader who had been able to set a high example of service above self and above the worldly temptations, ambitions and trappings of high positions.

I met Abed similarly at a reception in late December last year and had the opportunity to get a fuller picture of BRAC's programme and future plans. As students we sometimes used to meet in 1953 in Maghbazar where we both were living at the time. Abed and I used to have optimistic discussions on our ideals and ambitions during many evenings. Today about half-a-century later, I would have to say that among the three of us, at least Abed has been able to fulfill our youthful dreams of making a real difference in the lives of our people.

I also enquired from Abed what was the latest brain wave and what he was doing about it. He had a quick response and this related to Tuberculosis (TB). The plan was to encourage volunteers at the village level to watch who was coughing for more than five days. The volunteers, who have been supplied with collection kits, would then collect a sample of the person's phlegm. Staff on motor cycles from BRAC's rural clinics would regularly collect these samples and conduct tests. If anyone is detected with TB, medicines would be freely supplied by BRAC for about nine months and the person would hopefully be cured. The incentive for the village level volunteers was that for each successful detection of a TB case, the volunteer concerned would get a reward of 500 taka.

I mentioned that two old friends of mine had set up trusts for charitable works in Bangladesh, each one currently having assets of about 40 crore taka. When I naively asked Abed if BRAC's assets would amount to 400 crores or more, he smiled and told me in fact it was 2000 crores and that BRAC's annual expenditure amounted to 1600 crore taka. Even though it is the world's largest NGO, and receives considerable foreign assistance every year, for a Bangladeshi non-governmental agency, these are astounding amounts of investments for rural development. I learnt that the World Bank's president, Wolfenson had recently remarked to Abed that the latter presides over a bigger organisation than the World Bank in terms of staff size. It is quite true.

Last December, in recognition of his contributions to human development in Bangladesh, Abed received a prestigious UNDP award as the second recipient. The first recipient of this biennial prize in 2002 was the former president of Brazil, Fernando Cordoso. He also received the Gates prize last year for successful efforts to improve public health in the developing countries. I asked Abed what he intended to do with the proceeds of the award (equivalent to about five crore taka). He plans to set up a first class medical and public health college to produce fine doctors to obviate the necessity of Bangladeshis to go abroad for treatment on the flimsiest of grounds.

Azizul Jalil, a former civil servant and a retired World Bank staff member, writes from Washington.


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