October 16, 2015

Guest Commentary – Sir Fazle, Ahead of His Time

By Paul Weisenfeld, Executive Vice President, RTI International

When Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, honored this week as the winner of the World Food Prize, founded BRAC in 1972, the terms “Millennium Development Goals,” “Sustainable Development Goals,” and “post-2015” were decades away from joining the development lexicon.
Yet in 2015, with the pursuit of the SDGs underway, there are important cues to take from Abed’s work.
As noted in the World Food Prize Foundation’s profile of the honoree:
BRAC’s multi-dimensional and dynamic methods of reducing hunger and poverty include the creation and support of a range of integrated enterprises, such as: seed production and dissemination; feed mills, poultry and fish hatcheries; milk collection centers and milk processing factories; tea plantations; and packaging factories. The income generated from these social enterprises is used to subsidize primary schools and essential health care.

Through his visionary work, Sir Fazle has demonstrated a profound understanding of the role that agriculture plays in development as well as the complexities that perpetuate poverty. Over the decades, he has worked tirelessly to confront poverty by creating an enabling environment to achieve food security at the family and the community levels, and to help generate productive employment and income for poor households to enable them to access nutritious food.
Never satisfied with achieving the means to just one end, Abed always seemed to ask “what else?” His vision meant that increased agricultural production didn't just feed bellies—it helped improve nutrition, incomes, education, and health care as well.
Applying numerous perspectives and tools to multi-dimensional issues is a priority at RTI. Our staff have expertise in more than 250 fields, and we are always exploring new ways to collaborate across disciplines to tackle critical global issues, including hunger. For me, Abed’s example is another reminder to peer beyond immediate areas of focus and expertise to consider “what else” our work might accomplish. It’s a question for our whole field to ponder.
Are we, as a development community, asking ourselves “what else?” enough to meet the challenges ahead, including feeding an estimated 9 billion people by 2050?
Consider a hypothetical initiative to increase agricultural yields in rural Kenya. Once yields increase, is the food reaching the people who need it? Are consumers receiving not just more calories, but more income and adequate nutrition? Are markets strong, supporting the livelihoods of people up and down the value chain? How might these improvements be maximized to spur development in other areas, such as education?
The development profession might often be segmented along sector- and discipline-specific lines, but peoples’ lives are not. Central to Abed’s success was his recognition that the influence of a development initiative is not limited to the scope of its defined goals or immediate impact. Like the metaphorical butterfly that flaps its wings and influences a hurricane, development projects can have effects far beyond what is expected.
As we honor Sir Fazle’s work, it’s important to learn from it as well. His ability to see and build integrated approaches to development provides us good instruction as we work toward achieving the sustainable development goals and building a better future for the world’s poor.

Paul Weisenfeld, executive vice president of RTI International’s International Development Group, was a foreign service officer in USAID for 22 years, serving as mission director in Peru and Zimbabwe and as head of the Bureau for Food Security. He retired in 2013 as a Career Minister.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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A New Tool in the Fight Against Malnutrition

Traditional methods of evaluating childern for malnurition can be uncomfortable for the child and subject to human error. But 3D imagery technology offers a new way to gather data.