Mahabub Hossain (1945-2016), renowned economist and former IRRI Social Sciences head, dedicated his life to the world’s poor

 Gene Hettel   |  
Dr. Mahabub Hossain, former head of the Social Sciences Division (SSD, 1992-2007) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), passed away on 3 January, one day after his 71st birthday, while undergoing heart bypass surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in the United States.

During his 15-year stint at IRRI, the Bangladeshi national served in a dual role as a researcher and administrative head of SSD. His research at IRRI centered around socioeconomic studies on rice supply and demand trends in Asia, constraints to increasing rice productivity, understanding rural livelihood systems, and the impact of improved rice technologies on poverty reduction.

Prior to coming to IRRI in 1992, Mahabub began his career in 1970 as a staff economist at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies and rose through the ranks to become its director general during 1988-91. In 2007, he retired from IRRI to become the executive director of the Bangladesh Rural Development Committee (BRAC), one of the largest NGOs in the world, to address the challenge of the re-emergence of food insecurity in Bangladesh.

He was most recently distinguished professor and chairperson of the Department of Economics and Social Sciences at BRAC University, advisor to the BRAC executive director, a member of the board of governance at Bangladesh Agricultural University, president of the Asian Society of Agricultural Economists, and a member of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.

Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel laureate, said of Mahabub, “His contributions in the field of economics and agricultural research were groundbreaking and far reaching. He was the first scholar to study the Grameen Bank and produce a highly demanded research paper on the impact of the bank.”

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, BRAC founder and chairperson and 2015 World Food Prize Laureate, said of Mahabub, “Very few people globally had the depth of understanding of development issues like him. His life was a story of success against all odds. During his time at BRAC, he had a persistent focus on creating opportunities for the poor.”

“As an inspiring figure, his loss will be irreplaceable,” said Sudhir Chandra Nath, program head for BRAC’s Seed and Agro Enterprise. “He will be forever remembered for his brilliance in articulation of macroeconomic analysis, his path-breaking research work, his leadership in agricultural innovation, and above all his deep empathy for marginalized people of the world.”

“We have lost a great stalwart in our profession,” said Sam Mohanty, current head of IRRI SSD, who succeeded Mahabub in 2008. “He was a champion for the empowerment of the small and marginal farmers in Bangladesh and throughout South and Southeast Asia.”

“Mahabub was an excellent scientist and had a sincere interest in the world’s poor,” said Ron Cantrell, former IRRI director general (1998-2004). “He was a major contributor to IRRI’s success during his tenure at the Institute.”

David Dawe, a former colleague at IRRI and currently senior economist at FAO, said, “The world has lost a great researcher and mentor. His dedication to helping the poor will always be a source of inspiration. Even after he could have retired, he worked so hard to push this work further. The world could use a lot more people like him.”

Mahabub earned his Bachelor of Arts (with honors) in Economics at the University of Calcutta in 1966. He did his Masters of Arts in Economics at the University of Dhaka in 1969. He earned a Diploma in Development Economics at the University of Cambridge, England, in 1973 and a PhD in Economics at Cambridge in 1977.

In a 2007 IRRI Pioneer Interview, he stated, “The challenge is how to meet the demand for rice. Every input is scarce and, as long as the population continues to increase at an alarming rate, that challenge remains.” On taking early retirement from IRRI in 2007, he said, “I am going back to my country to share what I have learned.” That he did—in a grand way!

Mahabub published many research articles in international journals. Some of his seminal books (with others) include: Asian rice bowls: a returning crisis?, Rice research in Asia: progress and prospects, Impact of rice research in Asia; Strategy of development in Bangladesh, and Rural economy and livelihoods: insights from Bangladesh.

He is survived by his wife Parveen, two daughters, and a son. His family will return his remains to Dhaka where he will be buried.

Read tributes coming in from all over the world on Mahabub’s Facebook page and here.

Related items: Obituary in the Dhaka Tribune; Obituary in the Daily Star (Bangladesh); A 2007 feature in Rice Today magazine, Pushing things forwardHossain exit seminar at IRRI and associated PowerPoint, 26 April 2007; BRAC eulogy.

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