Bangladesh's economic success story excludes millions of people

Despite progress, one-quarter of the country still goes hungry
Bangladesh's economic success story excludes millions of people

Bangladeshi men stand near a fire on the streets of downtown Dhaka in this January 2014 photo. (Photo by Roberto Schmidt/AFP)

Dressed in cheap, worn-out clothes, Farida Begum looks much older than her 30 years.

Her pale face is etched with worry as she sits in her tiny bamboo-fenced shack next to a railway track in Tejgaon slum, in central Dhaka.

The shack has been home for her three-member family for the past four years. It has electricity but no running water, while the local slumlord charges them 1,400 taka (US$18) a month for rent.

Farida is six months pregnant and should be eating well, but she and her husband, Muhammad Liton, a 28-year-old rickshaw driver, can barely manage one square meal per day.

The couple has failed to make a regular income recently — poor health has forced Farida to stop work as a domestic maid, and Liton's rickshaw was stolen two weeks ago.

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The couple once earned about 7,000 taka but now the family depends on whatever her husband can earn as a day laborer.

"We can manage to get rice, vegetables and lentils for our meal, but we don't have money to buy eggs, milk or fish. Only during Eid festivals can we afford better food," Farida says.

"I have seen on TV that pregnant women need to eat nutritious food, but it's not possible for me. We struggle for survival, and we can't afford good food," she added.

Farida's neighbor, Muhammad Ainal, 35, is a rickshaw driver who earns around 200-300 taka each day — less than US$4.

He also faces an immense challenge to support an eight-member family. Among his three children, the eldest son helps him, while two others — a son and a daughter — go to a madrasa, or Islamic school.

"We can't think of fish and meat because they are expensive. One kilogram of fish would cost a whole day's income, and one kilogram of meat would cost more money than I can earn in two days," he says.

Ainal says his wife, a garment worker, has been sick for the past few days but he doesn't have money for her treatment.

"Often, our children also get sick as a result of malnutrition because we can't afford decent food for them," he adds.

Families like Farida's and Ainal's receive no government or NGO aid that could help change their fortunes.

However, they do receive some food handouts and medical assistance from the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Tejgaon and Catholic charity Caritas every month.

Farida and Ainal's stories are common in Bangladesh, an impoverished, overpopulated South Asian nation of 160 million, where many people live on less than US$2 each day.

Despite significant socioeconomic progress in the past decades, about 48 million people live below the poverty line in Bangladesh. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)

 

Notable progress, but not enough

On the other side of the coin, Bangladesh has made significant strides in socioeconomic development in the past few decades.

Poverty fell from 49 percent in 1990 to 24.7 percent in 2014, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. During this same period, the economy grew 5-6 percent on average annually and the per capita income now stands at US$1,314.

These improvements are attributed to several factors: development efforts in education and health, improvements and incentives in agriculture, the rise of a burgeoning garment industry and remittances from migrant workers.

The country is also a successful, self-sufficient food producer. For the first time since independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh is now selling rice abroad and recently exported 50,000 tons of rice to Sri Lanka. Rice is the staple food grain of the country.

In addition, Bangladesh has set an ambitious target to achieve universal food security by 2021.

"The government is committed to eradicating poverty and ensuring food security for all. There are coordinated interministerial programs and activities to achieve these goals," according to Hazikul Islam, director for research at the Food Ministry's food planning and monitoring unit.    

But despite important economic progress and the country reaching lower middle-income status in 2015, there are still about 48 million people living below the poverty line, of whom 27 million are classified as extremely poor, according to World Food Program.

The country remains highly food-insecure, with roughly a quarter of the population, or 40 million urban and rural people, not having regular access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, the U.N. organization says.

A staggering 16 percent of children under 5 are acutely undernourished, and every fourth woman of reproductive age is too thin for her height. About one-third of adolescent girls in Bangladesh suffer from anemia and micronutrient deficiency.

Bangladesh is ranked 73rd among 120 developing and transitioning countries on the 2015 Global Hunger Index, published this month. The nation has dropped 16 notches from 57th in 2014, showing a rise in hunger levels in the country.

"Development in a nation can't be measured by GDP or per capita income. It depends on whether all people have sufficient food and nutrition or not," says Suklesh Geroge Costa, national coordinator of the Agricultural Research for Development Program at Caritas which covers Bangladesh, India and Nepal.  

Caritas runs eight projects to reduce extreme poverty and hunger in the country. These projects try to help about 85,600 of the most vulnerable and needy people across Bangladesh.

"The government and NGOs need to prioritize development for the most marginalized communities, including marginal and landless farmers and also the rural poor and urban slum dwellers, so they can use their limited resources to fight poverty and hunger successfully," Costa said.

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