No more Hunger in Bangladesh?

A few days ago I read in the Daily Star that Bangladesh is set to be recognised by the UN for achieving “the most fundamental millennium goal (MDG) — halving the incidence of hunger — well ahead of the target year 2015.”

I was delighted but then rather confused as I read on.

According to the article, the number of Bangladeshis below the poverty line dropped from 58% in 1990 (the baseline MDG targets use to compare) to ‘around 29%’ now. This means Bangladesh has “succeeded in halving hunger” which is the first and most significant of the MDG goals. The Food Minister Mohammad Abdur Razzaque went to Italy to receive the award on the 16th June.

Hunger halved well before MDG time

I’m stunned, I really am.

While I desperately want to believe that 2/3rds of the population of Bangladesh are no longer hungry, malnourished, starving or even just below the poverty line, I see scant evidence of it. Perhaps the few remaining ‘poor people’ now all live in the Gulshan and Banani areas of the capital city – where the bideshis (foreigners like us) tend to live along with the business corporations, the politicians and the rich and famous – and up here in Dinajpur where LAMB is situated? After all, we see hundreds of beggars every day when we visit Dhaka and see thousands more poverty-stricken villages on the journey down along with even more living outside the rich areas of Dhaka (home to something like 15 million Bangladeshis). LAMB hospital, the clinics and my wife’s Rehab centre see the poor and malnourished flood in week after week. Are we really just that unfortunate that we’re seeing the worst of it all condensed into one? I would really want to believe that! What an answer to prayers that would be.

But – and it’s a big but – corruption is, unfortunately, very well-known in Bangladesh. It is almost impossible to get anything done without paying ghush – a bribe – to officials at every stage of any plan. LAMB has a policy of not paying bribes but the result is that everything takes a very, very long time to happen. Paperwork gets lost or has to be ‘re-submitted’ and a host of other issues to make permissions and visas hard to obtain. Standing the moral ground comes at a cost. Recently, the World Bank pulled out of financing a major new bridge-building project because of corruption at high levels of Government. Basically, the money the WB had given so far was going in pockets, not on bridges.

So, forgive me if I viewed this news with suspicion. Something is going on here, I thought. I decided to check out what the UN said. They should know, after all.

Sure enough, the UN website confirms the data giving several pages of glowing praise about how well Bangladesh is doing. Here’s some highlights from one page:

  • Less than a third of Bangladeshi live below the national poverty line, a reduction attained in as little as a decade.
  • Women, whether the four million working in the thriving textiles export industry or those with micro businesses such as backyard poultries and vegetable patches, are at the heart of this success.
  • Thanks to a UNDP cash-for-work programme for poor rural women, 91 percent of the children of participating women now attend school, compared to a previous 57 percent.

Well, yes, I know some of this is quite true. Professor Yunus’ ground-breaking micro-credit idea has changed the role of women across the country and the Garment industry is vital to the Bangladesh economy – which is why the Rana Plaza tragedy has such dire consequences which extend well beyond the awful loss of 1,127 lives.

But really? Less than a third are poor?

I looked a little deeper. Here’s the UN definition of the MDG goal in question and some of the results:

GOAL 1:
ERADICATE EXTREME POVERTY & HUNGER

Target 1.A:
Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1.25 a day

  • The target of reducing extreme poverty rates by half was met five years ahead of the 2015 deadline.
  • The global poverty rate at $1.25 a day fell in 2010 to less than half the 1990 rate. However, projections indicate that in 2015 almost one billion people will still be living on less than $1.25 per day.

Target 1.B:
Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people

  • Globally, 456 million workers lived below the $1.25 a day poverty line in 2011—a reduction of 233 million since 2000, heavily influenced by progress in East Asia.
  • Vulnerable employment —insecure, poorly paid jobs—accounted for an estimated 58 per cent of all employment in developing regions in 2011, down from 67 per cent in 1991, with women and youth more likely to hold such positions.
  • More than 80 per cent of working women in sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and Southern Asia held vulnerable jobs in 2011.

Target 1.C:
Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger

  • About 850 million people, or nearly 15 percent of the global population, are estimated to be undernourished.
  • Despite some progress, nearly one in five children under age five in the developing world is underweight.
  • Children in rural areas are nearly twice as likely to be underweight as those in urban areas.
  • More than 42 million people have been uprooted by conflict or persecution

It is worth noting that it is only this last target that Bangladesh is credited with achieving. Elsewhere on the UN website it says this:

“Of those, 18 countries also reached the more stringent World Food Summit Goal of reducing by half the absolute number of undernourished people between 1990-1992 and 2010-2012. These comprise Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Djibouti, Georgia, Ghana, Guyana, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Nicaragua, Peru, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Venezuela and Vietnam.

The countries that met the anti-hunger aspect of the first MDG include Algeria; Angola; Bangladesh; Benin; Brazil; Cambodia; Cameroon; Chile; Dominican Republic; Fiji; Honduras; Indonesia; Jordan; Malawi; Maldives; Niger; Nigeria; Panama; Togo; Uruguay.”

I don’t quite understand what the difference between ‘hunger’ (which Bangladesh has achieved in reducing) and ‘undernourished’ (which it appears it has not) actually is. ‘Hunger’ turns out to be rather difficult to define. I looked at Wikipedia and got nothing obvious. ‘Hunger’ seems to get defined only by breaking it into other terms such as ‘malnourished’, ‘starvation’ and so on. But these terms are clearly not synonymous.

In a way, it doesn’t surprise me that this particular aspect of the MDG goals has been ‘achieved’ because it is also the vaguest. I will refrain from suggesting anyone has fiddled the statistics here – largely because I haven’t done enough research to justify my hunch – but I will make two final comments:

1) Bangladesh is a country that struggles to calculate meaningful data. There’s not even an accurate figure for the population which I’ve seen as anything from 120 million to 160 million. Different ‘official figures’ come to different conclusions. We’ve had census people come to our door over the last five years and each time we hear later of whole villages that were missed or we’ve seen papers that would be impossible for uneducated villagers to understand yet be expected to fill in. Add to this the fact that any country can ‘tweak’ its stats to say the things it wants to and I think I’m justified enough to say this achievement needs to be viewed with suspicion.

2) Foreigners (in this case UN officials) are easily duped. Do you really think that the major garment retailers had no idea of the problems facing garment factory girls in Bangladesh prior to the Rana Plaza tragedy? No. They had their officials come round and check regularly. In 2011 the McKinsey group had even written a glowing report on how wonderful the Bangladesh garment industry was. This was written by bideshis who, to some extent I am convinced, had the wool pulled over their eyes.

It happens – not just in Bangladesh – I’ve always maintained that corruption is as bad in the UK but just hidden under rules and by-laws which make it legal and seemingly acceptable.

I would really, truly, deeply and passionately wish to believe that this news is a true and accurate report on the state of Bangladesh today. But until I see it with my own eyes – or, more accurately, I don’t – forgive me if I am cynical and speak my suspicions out loud.

But one day, oh please one day…let it be true.

About D K Powell

British freelance journalist, author, writer, editor, musician, educational consultant. I lived with Wifey, Thing I (daughter) & Thing II (son) in Bangladesh for 5-6 years working for an NGO called LAMB. Wifey led the Hospital Rehab department and I used to teach O levels at the school before going full-time as a freelance writer in 2013. Now we're back in the UK learning how to be British again. When not writing or editing, I'm busy trying to complete a Masters degree in Intercultural relations in Asian Contexts and reading way too many books at once. I also drink tea - lots of it.
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3 Responses to No more Hunger in Bangladesh?

  1. Ariful Hussain says:

    Always a bad idea to attempt to draw a sum analysis based on what you are viewing with your own eyes. Remember that there are several cognitive biases involved here.

    Two points:

    ① You are originally from a developed country, so the contrast between that and present circumstances are more stark. In other words, you are probably making an absolute judgement, inevitably comparing with circumstances you are used to [the root of your bias]. However, what is important here is the relative position of Bangladesh [historically, to itself], compared with what was true a decade ago.

    ② You have access to only limited information, since you are not aware of the histories of the people you come into contact with [yes, the families you meet are poor. The question is, are they poorer or richer than those who went before them?]. This is also true of data concerning the sum total of the population, as opposed to that which you just “see”.

    I am not disparaging the notion of what you are saying. Corruption is rampant in Bangladesh, as it is across nearly all developing countries. Therefore it is important for you to criticize the system so we can analyse further. But I think we must use both anecdotal evidence [such as yours] as well as statistical evidence, to make our overall analysis complete. I think a helpful solution in this regard, would be how to make the system of collecting such information more transparent. Perhaps computerization and distribution across publicly accessible networks? Of course it would have to be cheap enough to implement.

    A further reason I am asking for caution regarding your skepticism is with contemporary experience in India. I refer you to a column written by SA Aiyer:

    http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/swaminomics/entry/why-no-applause-for-138-million-exiting-poverty

    Here he bemoans the strange lack of praise for India given it’s poverty reduction as compared to China.

    He actually doesn’t really outline reasons why people would doubt India’s poverty-reduction efforts. He merely states that if you praise China for it, so too should you praise India. But I think I can take a stab at why countries like India & Bangladesh do not attract the same sort of praise. It’s because the infrastructure in South Asia compared to East Asia is relatively poor, and East Asian “showpiece” cities like Beijing & Tianjin look light-years ahead of what is currently in South Asia a Tier-1 city.

    When you travel to Beijing, it is not difficult to accept that the country that this city resides in has reduced poverty by a substantial load [despite the presence of poverty in large swaths of the countryside]. But looking at the same issue from Dhaka or Mumbai, doesn’t inspire the same level of confidence. Moreover, because of how the cities develop, and the concentration of capital centers, in Beijing you really will not find the types of slums that you will in the latter two. So you can be forgiven for thinking they basically do not exist.

    I’m not saying that Bangladesh is [at the moment] anywhere near the league of China, and it is certainly poorer than India. But you can see from the example why it is so difficult to judge statistical poverty distributions with the naked eye alone. You need to first collect the data, and then do the sums.

    You might be surprised with what you find.

    So a word of caution, then.

    Like

    • Thank you for your long comment Ariful. I feel I must respond to some of the points.

      I think you are misunderstanding the point I was making here. And it making that mistake you shot yourself in the foot but assuming that because I am from the west I must be making assumptions of my own. You don’t know me and can’t make such assumptions. To do so nullifies your own argument where you claim I have made assumptions.

      In fact I DO have extensive information about the level of poverty in Bangladesh and it is not all anecdotal information at all. My point on this blog post – and I maintain it to be almost impossible to refute by anyone who cares to actually take a look – is that the statistical claims that only 29% of the population is below the poverty line (a quantifiable line – we’re not talking about comparative development here but a ‘line in the sand’ which is either right or wrong) is absolutely false. I don’t know or care how the figures were fudged but fudged they were. Far more than one in three in Bangladesh live below the poverty line.

      You then come close to making an assumption – instead just advise ‘skepticism’ – that I’m failing to give credence to how Bangladesh has developed. You do this with your parallel to the article you linked about India’s development and how the world has ignored it. In fact, I am well aware of Bangladesh’s impressive record of development and have taught this to Bangladeshi children for their qualifications in Bangladesh Studies for the Cambridge board for many years. I frequently praise the immensely laudable improvements which have taken place making the country one of the fastest developing in Asia and you will find examples of that throughout this blog. But that is not what this post was about. Relative development is one thing, claims of quantifiably provable reduction of poverty is quite another. The fact is, Bangladesh continues to know a great deal of poverty – more than being claimed through the statistics. Data HAS been collected and sums HAVE been done and organisations such as LAMB have collected such information for a long time. While the nature of the piece stressed the eyewitness aspect of my observations, it does not come from a western naivety.

      A word of caution back then – don’t let your own prejudices blind you to what is actually being said. Fight fair with counter-arguments – not suppositions about how a person has reached the conclusions they have stated.

      Like

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