World Food Prize ceremony honors poverty champion, highlights female leadership

The Iowa State Capitol decked out in World Food Prize banners Thursday night.

DES MOINES — Thursday night’s World Food Prize Laureate Award Ceremony capped off a week of events highlighting advancements in agriculture, and Iowa again took the world stage as officials awarded Sir Fazle Hasan Abed with the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in agriculture.

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed (World Food Prize)

International dignitaries as well as bipartisan leaders at the international, federal and state level — including U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Reps. David Young and Steve King, Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, Iowa Senate President Pam Jochum and Iowa House Speaker-designate Linda Upmeyer — honored Abed for his decades long work with BRAC.

The Bangladesh-based BRAC may be an unknown acronym to many Iowans, but it’s the world’s largest non-governmental organization and it has helped raise nearly 150 million people out of poverty in countries spanning the globe.

Gov. Branstad highlighted Abed’s philosophy of empowering women as head of households to alleviate poverty while World Food Prize President Amb. Kenneth Quinn noted that Iowa women are becoming more ascendent in state government, noting that the Iowa legislature is set to be led by women for the first time as House Speaker-designate Upmeyer will take the gavel in January.

State Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, and House Speaker-designate Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, enter the House Chamber Thursday night.

The Des Moines Register detailed BRAC’s focus:

Abed said BRAC has focused single-mindedly on addressing poverty and hunger through women. “We felt that women could play a much bigger role than they had been allowed to,” he said.
“If there’s no food in the household, and there are children who are hungry, what will the mother do? She will beg, borrow or steal to feed the children,” Abed said. “If she can manage poverty, why not manage” the solutions.
For example, BRAC has 7 million microfinance clients, with $2.2 billion loaned annually. Ninety-six percent of the small loans go to women, Abed said.
“We are letting women take charge of poverty alleviation,” he said. “We’re giving them some power in the household. … They have a voice.”

In contrast to many politicians, Abed delivered a humble, minutes-long speech crediting others for helping him build BRAC, as Rod Boshart reported:

He said his organization’s self-funded approach has been to empower impoverished people by helping them learn to grow their own crops using better farming and livestock techniques, new technologies and financial support. Resources also have been put into efforts to fund education, health care and other methods to aid women as the “change agents in society.”
Abed, who was knighted in 2010, called receipt of this year’s World Food Prize “a humbling experience” and one that he accepted on behalf of the thousands of people who do the work of BRAC, saying, “I don’t take full credit for everything that has happened with BRAC.”

The Daily Star, a Bangladesh-based publication, also covered the event:

“I must acknowledge that the award does not belong to me alone, it is the recognition of Brac’s work over the last 43 years in providing pathways out of poverty for millions of people in Bangladesh and other countries in Africa and Asia,” Abed said.

The World Food Prize has more background on Abed:

He pioneered a new approach to development that has effectively and sustainably addressed the interconnectedness between hunger and poverty. In this regard, Sir Fazle has broken new ground by melding scalable development models, scientific innovation, and local participation to confront the complex causes of poverty, hunger, and powerlessness among the poor.
Soon after founding BRAC in 1972, Sir Fazle began focusing on the social and economic empowerment of women, which was a new, breakthrough approach to lifting the poor out of poverty. He was determined to find ways to provide rural village and farm women with the tools they needed to take control of their lives and become change agents in their communities. In addition to microcredit programs that provided small loans to women, BRAC launched a sustainable agriculture project in Bangladesh based on poultry farming. Two decades later, the poultry project involved 1.9 million women, and had managed to establish commercial and social linkages that connected local activities to the wider national economy, and introduced women to the experience of making real profits.
Under Sir Fazle’s leadership of more than 40 years, BRAC’s agricultural and development innovations have improved food security for millions and contributed to a significant decline in poverty levels through direct impacts to farmers and small communities across the globe.
The agriculture and food security programs developed by Sir Fazle and BRAC have helped more than 500,000 farmers gain access to efficient farming techniques, proven technologies and financial support services. Through farmers’ participation in field demonstrations and training, these programs have helped increase yields through crop intensification, research and development on new seed varieties and provision of quality seeds at fair prices.
Custom made World Food Prize white chocolate and dessert.

After the ceremony, attendees dined on Iowa sweet corn bisque, beef tenderloin with cajun carnival & Maytag bleu cheese amendments, “Baniachong” tri-color potato garlic confit, roasted vegetable trio a la Bengal and “Laureate Pistaka gateau.

The irony of enjoying a luxurious meal at an event dedicated to hunger eradication was not lost on most in attendance. However, no one doubted the connections forged and knowledge gained by the continuing presence of the World Food Prize has saved millions from poverty since its founding by Iowa icon Norman Borlaug in 1987.