Scott MacMillan recalls 2015 World Food Prize winner Fazle Hasan Abed's legacy and its impact on food security.
The world is on edge when it comes to food security. Record high food prices threaten to undo years of gains against global poverty, with fear among policymakers that the triple threats of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and climate change—the “three C’s” of COVID-19, conflict, and climate—may drive millions who recently rose from poverty back into destitution. This is sure to be front and center at this year’s Borlaug Dialogue, kicking off on October 18 in Des Moines, Iowa, in conjunction with the World Food Prize.
I was privileged to work as the speechwriter for Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the winner of the 2015 World Food Prize. As the author of a recent biography, Hope Over Fate: Fazle Hasan Abed and the Science of Ending Global Poverty, I often wonder what Abed, who died in late 2019, would make of the world today. Abed is credited with helping millions lift themselves out of poverty as the founder of BRAC, which Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times called “the best aid group you’ve never heard of.”
In the 1970s, Abed launched BRAC initially to provide aid to a remote area of his native Bangladesh. The poverty there was grinding, but Abed felt he had reason to be optimistic, for these were the early days of the Green Revolution. Farmers in India and Pakistan had begun using high-yielding wheat seeds developed at agriculture research institutes in Mexico and the Philippines. As a result, by 1970, India’s wheat harvest had risen 63 percent compared to five years earlier. That year, the American biologist, often called the father of the Green Revolution, won the Nobel Peace Prize. In Abed’s view, the Green Revolution’s advances, along with concurrent progress in health, including immunizations for smallpox and other diseases, were a triumph of science and progress over fatalism and superstition. Humanity, it seemed to him, had finally called into question the belief that widespread human misery was somehow ordained by a higher power.
Yet the early years of BRAC were much harder than he had expected. Abed found many people so ground down by hopelessness and despair that these scientific gains remained out of reach. Even when material conditions did change for the better, or when new opportunities like high-yield grain varieties presented themselves, psychological factors, including a sense of despair rooted in generations of lived experience, remained an obstacle. People thought it was their fate to be poor forever, and changing this wasn’t easy. The long process of providing the right services and technologies while also making people believe in the possibility of change—so that hope would finally triumph over fate—was part of Abed’s lifelong calling and the subject of my book.
Graduation into Sustainable Livelihoods
Fast forward several decades. In 2016, I met a woman in northern Bangladesh named Shahida Begum. She told me stories of going hungry for days, surviving on a pittance earned from back-breaking work in a brickyard. Her life had begun changing for the better years earlier, when she—reluctantly, at first—entered a BRAC “graduation” program, designed to break the poverty trap with a boost of multiple, sequenced interventions. This included a gift of goats and weekly visits from a case worker to build her confidence and help her plan for the future.
Today, Shahida owns three acres of land in a fishing village on a tributary of the Brahmaputra. Her three acres produce everything she and her household require: rice for herself and, from the husks and straw left over from the threshing, fodder for a cow, a calf, and three goats. She also has fifteen chickens. From the sale of milk, dung (used for fuel and fertilizer), eggs, and the young animals she fattens, Shahida continues to build a better life. In 2019, I met her again, and found she had bought a new milk cart, which she rents out for additional cash.
Investing In the Science of Hope
Shahida speaks loudly, with the confidence of someone who has overcome great odds. “Since you’re from a different country, you don’t know about my land,” she says, her voice like a South African vuvuzela. “When I first came to this village, its condition wasn’t as good as what you see here. It was in shambles! People barely had roofs over their heads or walls to keep them safe, and if it rained, you couldn’t keep anything dry.” She sasses the nearby police officers, shouting: “Everyone gets along here! You never come here, because we never have any problems!” It is hard to imagine the woman she described earlier, half-starved and working at the brickyard.
One may think Shahida’s confidence resulted from the vast improvements in her life. Yet a growing body of evidence suggests the causality might also run in the opposite direction—that rising from poverty may have been a result of her newfound confidence, not just its cause. Research from Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, MIT economists who won the 2019 Nobel Prize, suggests that activating people’s confidence and giving them hope can lead to material improvements that cannot otherwise be accounted for by goats, cows, cash, and the like.
Abed called this “the science of hope.” Were he alive today, Abed would urge policymakers to focus not just on the material aspects of food security, such as crop yields, storage, and distribution systems. These are vital parts of the solution. But so is investing in the science of hope, which is not some vague, soft-hearted concept, but rather, in his words, “the greatest investment in human capital that any country can make.”
Passages in this article adapted from the book Hope Over Fate: Fazle Hasan Abed and the Science of Ending Global Poverty appear courtesy of Rowman & Littlefield. The Susan and Richard Kiphart Center for Global Health and Social Development will host author Scott MacMillan at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice to discuss his new biography of Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of BRAC, on October 7 at 3 p.m. Register to attend.