Photograph courtesy BRAC
Read Caption
Mr. Fazle Hasan Abed, the Chairperson of BRAC, visits a BRAC Micro Finance Village Organization group in village in Savar Thana, Bangladesh.
Photograph courtesy BRAC

World Food Prize Winner: Women Are Key to Agriculture Investment

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed of Bangladesh says he has seen many defeated men in his life, but never a defeated woman. That’s why he focuses much of his nonprofit’s money on supporting female farmers in developing countries. And his work in this arena for the last 40 years has earned him this year’s World Food Prize.

If you haven’t even heard of the World Food Prize, why care about it? Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, explains: “It was created to deal with the single greatest challenge that human beings have ever faced: Can we feed the nine billion people that will soon be on our planet?” He believes that breakthrough innovations, the kind that the prize is awarded for, are key to addressing food production and access issues.

This year’s recipient takes a unique approach to ending hunger. Sir Fazle, who was knighted by the British crown in 2010, has helped raise over 150 million people out of poverty through his nonprofit, BRAC, the largest NGO in the world. When he founded it in 1972, BRAC stood for Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, but now that it does work in 10 developing countries across Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, the name is no longer an acronym.

Before starting BRAC, Sir Fazle lived a comfortable life working for Shell Oil. But that all changed when the Bhola cyclone hit Bangladesh in 1970, sweeping away entire villages and killing at least 300,000 people before his eyes. He says the event changed his life course. “I understood on a visceral level why so many had died–they were victims of circumstance,” he says. That motivated him to form the relief effort that eventually transformed into BRAC.

The organization has increased food quality and security for millions of people by focusing on women’s empowerment through a combination of education, healthcare, and microfinance initiatives. By taking a multifaceted approach, BRAC helps bring women in developing countries to the forefront of economic and social life. Its programs give women the tools to go beyond subsistence farming and become small business owners by producing enough food to sell.

Sir Fazle believes that investing in women is the best way to strengthen a society. The reason? Women are more likely than men to spend their income on the family. “Despite their lack of power, women are burdened with the responsibility of making tough choices to manage their households on scant income,” he says. “If they are able to manage poverty, why not also make them the managers of development?”

He’s also impressed by their resiliency: “I’ve met many defeated men in my life. I’ve never met a defeated woman.”

Today BRAC is often called the most effective anti-poverty organization in the world. Unlike many NGOs, BRAC has always sought to have national impact that it measures through a review system. From there, they make programs as efficient as possible and then scale up.

The organization knows how to financially sustain itself too. BRAC funds most of its budget by operating microlending institutions, craft shops, printing presses, and dairy projects, all of which value social impact over profit. “The committee admired Sir Fazle’s knack for creating money-making elements to support operations,” said Ambassador Quinn.

In recent years, many microfinance NGOs have been criticized for burdening small-scale farmers with debts they can’t repay. Sir Fazle says his organization avoids putting farmers into debt by making sure borrowers have multiple sources of income to repay the loan. For the ultra-poor, defined as people who make less than $1.25 a day, BRAC offers “graduation programs,” which provide technical training and give grants for livestock. Independent researchers have found that this approach helps “graduate” people out of poverty.

The World Food Prize itself also has a storied history. Norman E. Borlaug, recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, conceived of it after unsuccessfully petitioning the Nobel committee to create a separate prize for agriculture. Known as the “Father of the Green Revolution” for his work in increasing wheat production, Borlaug aims to encourage and celebrate agricultural visionaries. Since he created the food prize in 1986, 41 laureates have received the distinguished $250,000 award for enhancing global food security.

Sir Fazle will be honored in an official ceremony at the World Food Prize Foundation in Des Moines, Iowa in October. The ceremony will be part of the Borlaug Dialogue, an annual international symposium that brings together international leaders, agricultural scientists, and food policy experts to discuss food security and global agriculture.

So what will Sir Fazle do with his prize money? He said he hasn’t decided yet, but judging from his history, he’ll likely use it to do more good in the world.

Kelsey Nowakowski is a spatially thinking reporter at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter.