Progress still isn't feeding Bangladesh's poorest
A cheap and worn out garment on her rickety body, 30-year-old Asia Begum is typical of poor Bangladeshi mothers.
Home is a polythene roofed hut by the railway tracks in Tejgaon, in the heart of Dhaka.
“For years, we’ve been living here and nothing has changed for us,” she says. “My husband is an irregular day laborer and he earns 100-200 taka (US$ 1.25- 2.50) daily when he can find work.”
Her three sons are nine, seven and four. They don’t go to school. Basic primary education is free in government schools, but attendance requires more than just tuition fees and the family can’t afford it.
The boys are underweight, frail and often sick, but their parents can neither afford nutritious food nor medical treatment.
Like their neighbors they consider themselves fortunate to have one simple meal of rice and vegetables, two meals at the most, each day.
“I realize that children need good food like milk, eggs, fish and meat. We can only afford them twice a year, during the Eid festivals,” she says.
Around 47 million people live below the poverty line with 31 percent classified as extremely poor, earning around a dollar a day, making Bangladesh one of the world’s poorest countries.
Yet the picture is not one of unremitting gloom. Bangladesh has been lauded for making significant progress in achieving its UN Millennium Development Goals.
Since 1990, its economy has grown by 5-6 percent on average and average per capita income stands at US$ 1,810. Poverty has also dropped remarkably from 49 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2012.
The 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, nearly self-sufficient food producer. Last year, it harvested about 35 million tons of rice and more than a million tons of wheat, according to the state-run Food Planning and Monitoring Unit (FPMU).
Sadly, it is the people on the bottom rung, slum dwellers like Begum, who remain poor, hungry and apparently as far as ever from deriving any benefit from the country’s recent gains.
Mustafa Farooq, a deputy director with FPMU, admitted that the government has funding and manpower shortages to resolve before it can reach these most needy people. But he adds that “we hope to ensure food security for all by 2021.”
A recent survey sponsored by the European Union concluded that reaching this goal is an uphill task. But it is widely agreed that it is a task that must be addressed, with around 50,000 children dying of malnutrition every year, 4.8 million suffering acute malnutrition at some point in their childhood years and 40 percent of children below five years of age with stunted statures for their ages.
This is especially dangerous for girls as they mature, as it greatly heightens the risk of infant delivery complications and low birth weight babies, which perpetuates the chain of malnutrition.
Dr Emdadul Haque, a health expert from the World Health Organization says: “the government and NGOs have contributed to increases in food production and per capita income, but poverty and hunger pose a major threat and they must be tackled immediately.”
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