Queen's University

Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee

[Village in Bangladesh]A village in Bangladesh.

Fred Johnston and Don Campbell were colleagues at Queen’s Faulty of Education when they first heard of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, now known as BRAC. The work the organization was doing to eradicate poverty intrigued the professors.

In 1988, they applied for a travel grant from CIDA, and the following year they visited Bangladesh for the first time.

“I’d never felt comfortable thinking I could take my English and my western experiences and go anywhere in the world and have a meaningful role to play,” says Professor Johnston, whose subsequent involvement with BRAC lasted eight years.

Both men were inspired by the organization’s founder, Fazle Hasan Abed. In 1971, in the wake of the carnage left by the civil war with Pakistan, Mr. Abed left his post as an accountant with Shell Oil and returned to his home district, where he attracted funding and manpower to build homes for the many landless poor. It soon became apparent that housing was just one on many desperate needs. BRAC responded over the years with programs throughout Bangladesh in women’s health, education, micro-credit, disaster relief, agriculture, textiles and more.

Between 1988 and 1993, Professor Johnston and Professor Campbell made several trips to Bangladesh, often accompanied by masters students, to volunteer with the charity by assisting them with training teachers to work in the growing number of schools in the country. Communicating through a translator, they delivered workshops and shared their expertise with the local people.

“We got more out of it than they got out of us,” Professor Johnston says of the experience. “This is just a miraculous event taking place in a very small country, and we were right on the inside.”

[Fazle Abed accepts an honorary degree from Queen's]Fazle Hasan Abed accepts his honorary degree from Queen's.

In 1994, eager to share their experiences with the Kingston community, Professors Johnston and Campbell nominated Mr. Abed for an honorary degree from Queen’s; he received the Doctor of Laws, his first such honour, that same year. Mr. Abed has since received honorary degrees from Oxford University, Yale University and the University of Manchester.

“He’s a very humble man in many ways, who puts forth these big ideas,” says Professor Campbell. “I think he enjoys his link to Queen’s because we went out of our way to create a good working relationship with people through social engagement, not just doing the job.”

Today, Mr. Abed is one of the most well-known philanthropists and humanitarians in the world. Earlier this year, he was knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for his work to tackle poverty and empower the poor. He was the first person of Bangladesh origin to be honoured with a knighthood by the British Crown since 1947.

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In his home country of Bangladesh, Mr. Abed is regarded as a national hero.

“He could be Prime Minister tomorrow,” says Professor Johnston. “They’ve tried to get him into government, but he won’t go.”

As for Professors Johnston and Campbell, while they’re no longer directly involved in BRAC, they continue to spread the word about the good work the organization is doing. Professor Johnston recently took his granddaughter to Bangladesh so she could see for herself.

 [A textile factory in Bangladesh]A textile factory in Bangladesh.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing that’s happening there,” he says.

BRAC has now grown to become the world’s largest NGO based on its number of employees, and Mr. Abed and BRAC have received numerous international honours and awards. Its successes have led to assistance in a number of countries outside of Bangladesh (five in Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia and India), and most recently in Haiti after the catastrophic earthquake earlier this year. To learn more about BRAC, visit www.brac.net.

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Last updated at 4:28 pm EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
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