January 27, 2016

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It has been a few days since Dr Mahabub Hossain has left us. As more and more people are remembering him, it is clear what a profound impact he had on those he crossed paths with. As a leader, Dr Mahabub’s contribution was immense in BRAC as well.


It has been a few days since Dr Mahabub Hossain has left us. As more and more people are remembering him, it is clear what a profound impact he had on those he crossed paths with. As a leader, Dr Mahabub’s contribution was immense in BRAC as well. Perhaps one of the most celebrated names who ushered in progressive research and development in Bangladesh, he was fondly known as Mahabub bhai at BRAC. With his passing on January 4, the curtains have come down marking the end of a thoughtful and unique leadership we had the good fortune of working for.

Mahabub bhai’s contribution to Bangladesh’s rural development is boundless.  He had been serving as the head of social science division at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) prior to joining BRAC in 2007. During his position as the executive director from 2007 to 2012, he combined a strong commitment to effective action to improve the lives of the poorest, with a deep love of research. His identity, among many, was essentially that of a researcher who boldly took development theories and economic research to implementation. He was determined to use the best and most rigorous methods to answer an important question, and then to use that knowledge to guide effective action to bring about positive change. For him, economics mattered, because people mattered. His strong expertise in macroeconomics powerfully articulated and connected BRAC’s work in mainstream policy dialogue.Historically media shy, BRAC got media presence under his leadership.

Not only exposure, Mahabub bhai’s progressive thinking led to many innovations within BRAC as well. In the words of its founder and chairperson, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, “Very few people globally had the depth of understanding of development issues like Dr Mahabub Hossain. His life was a story of success against all odds and during his time at BRAC he had a persistent focus on creating opportunities for the poor.”

For Mahabub bhai, his time leading BRAC was an enormous opportunity, after a lifetime of research, to put his ideas and experience into practice and make a real difference. It can be safely said that he significantly contributed to Bangladesh’s achievement of many of the millennium development goals, both through large practical interventions, and through his substantial influence on government policy and practice. Of him it can be truly said that, ‘As a scientist he described the world, as a leader he helped to change it’.

Andrew Jenkins, unit coordinator, impact assessment unit, says, “Mahabub bhai led by example, requiring high professional standards and integrity and giving generously of his time, sometimes to the most junior researcher, in order to guide another’s professional development. He believed in and lived out the idea of the ‘leader as servant’making his skills and abilities available to colleagues so that they could achieve their goals and our collective vision for BRAC. Those of us who were privileged to work closely with him remember him with the deepest love, respect and gratitude.”

One of his many gifts to BRAC was helping to streamline its agriculture and food security programme (AFSP). Though an economist, Mahabub bhai’s other strength was in his inexhaustible knowledge on the agriculture sector. From stimulating crop diversification to introducing new technology and practices, he provided leadership in setting up models in both Bangladesh and Uganda. Under his unique supervision, BRAC strengthened its image as a civil society organisation doing substantial work on agricultural development in collaboration with the government and many acclaimed research organisations. Mahabub bhai’s constant voice for inclusive growth is reflected in the new interventions he pioneered.

Photo: IRRI

Photo: IRRI

His deep empathy for marginalised people, combined with a profound ability to see solutions to grave problems led to the birth of BRAC’s boat schools, which proved to be the answer to high dropout rates among school children living in the hard-to-reach areas.  He felt a strong empathy for people in the haor areas which resulted in BRAC starting an integrated programme in two sub-districts which has brought complete transformation among the lives of the extreme poor in those areas.

“Dr Mahabub was a great scholar of this era,” says Dr Kaosar Afsana, director of BRAC’s health programme. “Very easily and simply, he used to do deeper analysis which we all struggled with. We have lost a great leader and repository of knowledge.”

In Bangladesh, far too many students cannot afford to continue their higher education. In answer to this, Mahabub bhai expanded the widely successful scholarship programme, Medhabikash which funds meritorious students from disadvantaged backgrounds, offering a second chance at learning in the college and university levels. The scholarship till now has reached 3,042 students, helping them to realise their true potential.

Inequality in education is not exclusive to Bangladesh. Mahabub bhai’s long working experience in Philippines gave the base for his next big decision- taking BRAC’s education programme to Mindanao, Philippines to address the high illiteracy rate in the impoverished region. He saw the powerful role of education in the peacebuilding process. He was instrumental in creating an environment where BRAC was accepted and appreciated by both the regional Mindanao and central governments.

There are many other contributions of Mahabub bhai at BRAC- from setting up a fast-tracked young professional programme to develop new leaders, to establishing a specialised impact assessment unit within the research division of BRAC and to creating a new role of district BRAC representative to coordinate development work with the government among others.  But none bigger than BRAC entering into a Strategic Partnership Agreement with DFID and DFAT, a unique funding arrangement where BRAC could allocate the resources based on its strategic priorities rather than being driven by donors.

During the time of price hike of rice during 2008, Mahabub bhai promoted eating potatoes and for a prolonged period had potato oriented dishes himself saying if he didn’t do what he preached, why would people trust him.  Such integrity is rare these days. SN Kairy, chief financial officer of BRAC says, “He trusted in people he worked with and worked for. Above all, there was honesty in everything he did. This greatly inspired those who worked closely with him. His was an unparalleled leadership”.

Until his passing, Mahabub bhai had been serving as the advisor to the executive director of BRAC. He was also the chairperson of the economics and social sciences department of BRAC University. He led by example with his sincerity, intellect and sheer hard work and showed how one person can have such profound impact in the lives of so many. For his contributions and his lessons, we are indebted to him forever.


Asif Saleh is senior director of strategy, communication and empowerment, BRAC and BRAC International.

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