President to award global health medal April 6 to BRAC founder


The University of Michigan will honor a champion of global public health next month as the president bestows the third Thomas Francis Jr. Medal upon the leader of an international organization that works to alleviate poverty by creating opportunities.

Thomas Francis Jr. Medal Ceremony
  • 2-3:30 p.m. April 6
  • Robertson Auditorium, Stephen M. Ross School of Business
  • Presented by President Mark Schlissel and Regent Shauna Ryder Diggs
  • Sir Fazle Hasan Abed Talk:  “Empowering Communities for Health”
Panel moderator
  • Matthew Boulton, senior associate dean for global public health and professor of epidemiology, health management and policy, and preventive medicine, School of Public Health; professor of internal medicine, Medical School
  • Amy Dittmar, vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs, Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, and professor of finance, Ross School
  • Abdul El-Sayed, executive director of public health and health officer, city of Detroit
  • James Jackson, Daniel Katz Distinguished University Professor of Psychology, LSA; research professor, Institute for Social Research

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed is founder and chair of the organization once known as the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee but now, with programs in 12 countries, is simply called BRAC.

U-M honors Abed for his lifetime achievement reaching millions living in poverty in Bangladesh and 11 other countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. His organization is built on the belief that poverty does not have one cause and therefore requires many solutions.

BRAC’s programs include education, microfinance, skills and job training, health care, and empowerment to give people, particularly women and children, the tools and resources they need to overcome poverty.

“The Thomas Francis, Jr. Medal in Global Public Health celebrates the University of Michigan’s excellence in research and impact on humanity, while recognizing the greatest achievements of those who have advanced human health and welfare around the globe,” said President Mark Schlissel.

“The presentation to Sir Fazle gives us the opportunity to learn from a global leader who is taking on some of society’s most pressing problems — while drawing inspiration for our ongoing work to address global health challenges as a community of scholars.”

The medal will be presented at 2 p.m. April 6, at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business in Robertson Auditorium. Abed will speak, followed by a panel discussion. A reception follows the event.

“Sir Fazle has done extraordinary work across multiple disciplines to tackle poverty by building an incredible development organization unlike any other. The result has been significant public health gains on a global scale,” said School of Public Health Dean Martin Philbert.

“Future generations should be inspired by his vision and rigor. Through BRAC, Sir Fazle has demonstrated that the potential for dramatically improving the public’s health is within our reach.”

Sir Fazle and BRAC

Abed was an executive at Shell Oil in 1970 when a major cyclone devastated his home country of Bangladesh, killing upwards of 300,000 people, displacing millions, and wiping out tens of thousands of homes, mostly housing for the poor. Within months the country was at war, fighting for independence from Pakistan, which it achieved in 1971.

What began as a short-term relief effort, with two dozen volunteers helping people rebuild their homes after the cyclone and war, turned into a major operation. BRAC has since been called innovative, visionary, resourceful and — some say the biggest attributes — scalable and sustainable.

Thomas Francis Jr. Medal recipient Sir Fazle Hasan Abed’s development organization BRAC has opened some 45,000 schoolhouses, often in remote areas, to reach children who might otherwise not have an opportunity to get an education. (Photo courtesy of BRAC)

Under Abed’s leadership, BRAC has reached 138 million people with more than 115,000 employees making it the world’s largest non-governmental organization.

Along with its development programs, BRAC owns 16 social enterprises and uses a business approach to address poverty. Its enterprises in Bangladesh include a lifestyle retailer, a dairy business, hotels and conference centers, and a bank, that together provide economic resources to support the organization’s social programs. This includes some 45,000 one-room schoolhouses, a university and a number of birthing centers for pregnant mothers.

“While traveling to different districts across the country for my fieldwork, I saw BRAC health and education facilities located in the most marginalized communities,” said SPH student Munmun Khan, who spent the summer of 2012 in Bangladesh as an intern for Save the Children International.

“As a Bangladeshi, as a person committed to social justice, and a public health student, Sir Fazle’s recognition feels like a personal affirmation for my goals and the impact that I want to have on the world.

“I could have not concluded my Michigan career — from undergraduate to graduate — in a better way,” said Khan, who will graduate in April with a Master of Public Health degree from the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, and a certificate in global health.

Ann Arbor resident and SPH student Surabhi Rajaram also completed an internship in Bangladesh through CARE last summer, where she witnessed BRAC’s health systems work firsthand after following it for years.

Her favorite story in global development is the Oral Therapy Extension Program, through which BRAC taught 12 million mothers how to make and administer a simple solution that could save their children’s lives. A mixture of clean water, salt and sugar helped countless children in poor, rural communities avoid deadly diarrhea.

“A hallmark of BRAC’s work is this service at the doorstep, which travels upwards to bridge communities and ultimately scale impact,” said the second year health behavior and health education master’s student, who hopes to do similar grassroots work upon graduation.

Rajaram was born in India and calls it a second home, having spent her summers there growing up. BRAC does not serve in India but the organization and its founder are well known there.

“His greatest contribution to the field is that he has reconceptualized development as empowerment, as generating value,” said Rajaram. “It’s so humbling what one man’s vision has manifested into.

“I’ll be beyond humbled to meet him. I just want to shake his hand.”

Abed (right) built his organization around the idea that the way out of poverty involves empowering people, particularly women and children, through education and training. (Photo courtesy of BRAC)

The Francis Medal

Thomas “Tommy” Francis Jr. was one of the original epidemiology faculty members in SPH, and was the first scientist to isolate human influenza virus.

One of his students at U-M was Jonas Salk, who came to study virology with Francis and to learn the methodology of vaccine development. Francis later would design, supervise and evaluate the field trials of the Salk polio vaccine that involved 1.8 million children from the United States, Canada and Finland.

During a major media event April 12, 1955, Francis announced to the world that the Salk vaccine was “safe, effective, and potent.” At the 50th anniversary of that pronouncement U-M established a medal in honor of Francis, to be awarded every three-to-five years.

The first recipient was Dr. William Foege, known for his work to eradicate smallpox. The second, in 2010, went to Dr. Alfred Sommer, whose research focuses on Vitamin A supplementation as a way to prevent blindness. Sommer served along with other public health leaders on a selection advisory committee, headed by Philbert, which recommended Abed to the president.


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