Reading Time: 3 minutes
11 years ago, the BRAC family lost one of its stalwart members, Amin bhai (brother), who, from 1975 to 2010, played a central role in BRAC’s work with communities across Bangladesh and around the world. Read an excerpt from the book Maather Manush.
Aminul Alam’s sudden and untimely death has shaken all of us who know, respect and love BRAC. From 1975 to 2010, Amin bhai was at the heart of BRAC’s field programmes, translating BRAC’s vision into practical reality.
Working alongside Sir Fazle Hasan Abed for 35 years, Amin helped develop BRAC’s programmes in all sectors – microfinance and enterprise development, agriculture and livelihood promotion, health and education, human rights and legal aid, disaster preparedness and response, and more.
Amin helped expand all of BRAC’s programmes across Bangladesh, and then transplanted many of them to 10 countries around the world. During the past year, Amin spearheaded BRAC’s response to the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan.
Amin bhai was known for his uncanny ability to translate needs into opportunities and problems into solutions by identifying key needs and challenges facing the poor, analysing the underlying constraints, testing solutions to overcome these constraints, translating these solutions into programmes, and then expanding the programmes to scale. Like Abed, Amin bhai could break down a problem into manageable tasks and then develop a management system to coordinate them.
He once spent three days talking to farmers in the oxbow area of the Bangladesh delta to come up with a solution to local farming problems. He told the local BRAC field staff to leave him alone with the farmers for as long as it took to get to the heart of the problem – and to keep supplying them with food, tea, and cigarettes.
When BRAC was opening field operations in Pakistan, Amin bhai asked for a car and driver for two days. He drove around talking to communities to identify their needs, problems, and opportunities; relying, as always, on his special gift of observation and communication.
Amin bhai developed grounded expertise in many areas – microfinance and banking; poultry rearing, poultry feed production, and bird-flu prevention; agricultural production and marketing; seed production and marketing; dairy production and marketing; primary education and functional literacy; artisan production and marketing; public health; legal literacy and legal aid; disaster preparedness and response; and so much more.
In Bangladesh, he spearheaded the development of integrated sector-specific support systems for poultry rearing, silk rearing, artisan production, vegetable cultivation, fish cultivation, dairy production, and more. In the process, he learned how to breed poultry and produce poultry feed, how to grow silkworms and spin silk, how to revive traditional handicrafts, how to cultivate vegetables and harvest fish, and how to rear cows and buffaloes. When BRAC expanded to Africa, he became an expert on maize production. When BRAC responded to the earthquake in Haiti, he became an expert on artificial limbs.
Amin bhai did not have a rhetorical or ideological streak; he embodied pragmatism. He always preferred being in the field to attending meetings or conferences. He made relatively few trips abroad until BRAC started operating internationally. Once BRAC began its international operations, however, Amin bhai quickly became a global-trotter, overseeing the establishment of BRAC operations in 10 countries.
Amin bhai was known for his commitment to the poor, especially women. When BRAC began working in Afghanistan, Amin was told that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to engage women staff. Amin was not one to take “no” for an answer. Under his leadership, BRAC opened sewing centres for women – the one option acceptable to local village elders.
At the centres, BRAC asked local women whether they would like to take loans for livelihood activities – they said they would – and whether they would work as loan officers – they said they would. BRAC is now the largest NGO in Afghanistan, with many women borrowers and staff.
Most fundamentally, Amin bhai had a deep affinity and affection for the communities he worked with. The affection was reciprocated by the people wherever he worked or travelled. Amin bhai judged everyone – especially BRAC staff – by whether they were genuinely committed to the communities. He did not tolerate indifference or hostility. He also did not tolerate those who thought “small is beautiful.” Like Abed, he believed in taking anti-poverty programmes to scale.
Amin bhai was at the heart of all of BRAC’s programmes for all but its first three years. He will be profoundly missed in immeasurable ways. But he has left a rich legacy to BRAC; of programmes firmly in place around the world, of staff and members inspired by his pragmatic vision, and of practical solutions to many of the world’s seemingly intractable problems.
I had the privilege of working closely with Amin bhai from 1975 to 1980 in the formative years of BRAC. In Jamalpur and Manikganj, together with other BRAC staff, we organised women into local organisations – what Amin bhai and I named ‘sromojibi mohila shokti’ (working women’s strength) – and designed sector-specific schemes to transform their subsistence activities into commercial activities.
When I returned with Amin bhai to Manikganj on two recent occasions, I learnt from the early women leaders of those village organisations that Amin bhai had never forgotten their pioneering roles, that he brought them gifts on every Eid holiday.
We will miss you, Amin bhai, but your legacy will live on.
Martha (Marty) Chen is the chair of BRAC Global Board. This excerpt previously appeared on The Daily Star in October, 2010.