Four decades ago, a young man in East Pakistan named Fazle Hasan Abed seemed set for life. He was a high officer of Shell Oil and a member of the tiny, well-paid elite in a benighted region.
Then came the storm.
A typhoon that swept up the Bay of Bengal in 1970 killed at least 260,000 people in East Pakistan. Feeling neglected by the central government in West Pakistan, a thousand miles away, the people rebelled, and by 1971 the new nation of Bangladesh had been born.
Abed was drawn into relief work for what he thought would be a brief interlude. He formed a group to help people get the tools and bamboo they needed to rebuild their homes.
Abed never went back to Shell. Today his organization, formerly the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee and now known as BRAC, is one of the world's most successful development organizations, credited with improving the health and welfare of tens of millions of destitute people in Bangladesh.
Tonight in Washington, Abed and his organization will receive the $1 million Gates Award for Global Health, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, the Microsoft Corp. founder and his wife.
"I was suddenly confronted with the massive death and destruction after the cyclone," Abed recalled recently while traveling to Costa Rica. "It was a life-changing experience, immediately followed by the political turmoil. It was a continuous process of questioning your own existence and the kind of life you lead."
Richard Cash, a public-health expert at Harvard University who has worked extensively in Bangladesh, said BRAC has become a global model for what can be accomplished by development groups with the right techniques.
In contrast to many groups that are satisfied with small pilot projects that help limited numbers of people, Cash said, Abed had a knack for rapidly scaling up effective programs: "Abed would say, 'No. Now we need to do it for the whole country.' "
The group is credited, for instance, with taking a technique developed by others -- using a solution of salt, sugar and water to stave off childhood death from intestinal illness -- and teaching it in virtually every household in Bangladesh.
BRAC now runs 34,000 one-room schools for Bangladeshi children, especially girls. Arsonists once burned the schools in that conservative Muslim country, but now they are accepted.
Bill Gates Sr., who helps run his son's Seattle foundation, said he visited a BRAC school and met young girls with ambitious career goals. He credited Abed with creating BRAC's can-do culture.
"My sense is that what we've got here is the remarkable phenomenon of a single human being -- that it's just kind of a random chance that somebody with vision and commitment and skill decides to do something, and this guy did it," he said.
Abed said the $1 million prize would go toward a new public-health college.
The Gates award is administered by the Global Health Council, an advocacy group currently holding its annual conference in Washington. Past winners include the Rotary Foundation, which has raised millions for an ongoing global campaign to stamp out polio.