DES MOINES, Iowa — The catastrophes of war and natural disaster changed the direction of Fazle Hasan Abed's life — and eventually, the lives of 150 million people struggling with hunger and poverty.
First, a massive cyclone in 1970 killed 300,000 people in Bangladesh. Then a nine-month war with Pakistan followed, resulting in Bangladesh's independence, but not before 3 million people were killed.
"The cyclone relief, with hundreds of thousands of people who died, and then the liberation movement, where I saw 3 million people dead, that changed me completely," said 79-year-old Abed, honored Thursday night at the Iowa Capitol for his work to alleviate poverty and hunger as this year's World Food Prize winner.
"I really couldn't go back to my comfortable life" as an executive at Shell Oil Co. "I had to do something," Abed said.
He founded the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, now known as BRAC. The non-government development organization is the world's largest, focusing on giving women the social and economic tools to help themselves and their communities.
His early relief work "taught me that poverty is so entrenched in our society that one has to commit lifelong to the struggle," he said. "Some people thought I was crazy to change my life to a complete uncertainty, to help the poor."
"But it's given my life meaning, which I wouldn't have had if I had remained an executive," Abed said.
BRAC is credited with helping 150 million people through small loans, grants and programs to help lift them from poverty.
Scott MacMillan, a spokesman for BRAC USA, said the organization is built on the belief that the "world's poor are not the problem. They're the solution to poverty."
"When put into practice, it’s a powerful and meaningful idea," MacMillan said. "We invest in local resources to give communities and individuals in poverty the skills, resources and opportunities that they need to take control of their own lives.
"We found that once you create these enabling conditions, the solutions can come from the poor themselves," he said. "They can become agents of their own change."
Abed said BRAC has focused single-mindedly on addressing poverty and hunger through women.
"We felt that women could play a much bigger role than they had been allowed to," he said.
"If there's no food in the household, and there are children who are hungry, what will the mother do? She will beg, borrow or steal to feed the children," Abed said. "If she can manage poverty, why not manage" the solutions.
BRAC has 7 million micro-finance clients, with $2.2 billion loaned annually. About 96% of the small loans go to women, Abed said.
"We are letting women take charge of poverty alleviation," he said. "We're giving them some power in the household, even if they manage these loans with their husbands. They have a voice."
Winners of the World Food Prize include former presidents, lawmakers and researchers from around the world. The prize, viewed by many as the Nobel Prize for agriculture, was created by Norman Borlaug in 1986 to recognize an individual whose work has helped improve the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world.
Abed said he was humbled to receive the award. He said the award is shared with his colleagues and co-workers at BRAC, which employs more than 110,000 people.
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