Vol. 5 Num 179 Wed. November 24, 2004  

Containing monga in northern districts

The months of October and November are known as the "monga" the period in Bangladesh when food stocks run out and job opportunities dry up in some northern districts before the main harvest season in December. As a result, thousands of poor people go without adequate food for weeks. Widespread flooding in July and August has intensified the problem this year. According to the World Food Program's estimation, 80 to 90 percent of these people are agricultural day labourers and they have not had much employment to speak of since the floods. These are the same people, 20 to 30 million, who are the most vulnerable ultra-poor, they simply do not have the access to food on the markets.

The government has initiated a programme to sell rice at subsidised price and provide relief through 'vulnerable group feeding' (VGF) programme. Some piecemeal private relief operations have also been going on to overcome the problem. But as is expected, the programmes couldn't keep pace with the massive need. WFP estimates that one million children in Bangladesh are at risk of acute malnutrition and 500,000 pregnant and nursing women also are extremely vulnerable.

How acute is the problem?
More or less, every year 'monga' occur in some northern districts especially greater Rangpur and Dinajpur districts. Monga is described as a 'near-famine' situation. The situation becomes worse if preceded by devastating flood. With this the poor become ultra-poor, and those in the margin of poverty line again go back below the poverty line. The situation gets wide media coverage that ultimately falsifies all of our 'achievements' in eradicating poverty as well as gives negative signals on our target of achieving Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of reducing the proportion of people below the poverty line by 50 percent within 2015.

Why this is happening in the same area at the same time of the year? Some reasons can be identified: (1) Overall poor economic condition of the area; (2) Less scope of employment opportunity; (3) Low degree of economic activities in this area; (4) Most of the migrated day labourers of this area become jobless when other areas' harvesting is affected due to flood and other natural calamities; (5) Lack of income generation process for the poor etc.

How can it be solved?
Both temporary and long-term measures are required to solve the problem.

Temporary solutions
Government programmes: The VGF, 'Food for work' etc. are available to mitigate the problem. But it seems insufficient in response to the acuteness of the problem as well as the time of starting the programme seems inappropriate. Since the problem occurs almost every year, the government should have preparation for every year and the programmes should start from at least September.

Private relief operations: Private relief operations from different organisations and persons seem to be effective in dealing with the problem. Concerted private relief operations can be more effective in handling natural calamities in Bangladesh. If there is an acceptable coordinating body to manage the private relief operations, the volume of relief will increase as well as its efficient allocation and distribution can be ensured. Therefore, they can form a fund to operate relief operations in any future emergency such as monga. It would reduce our dependency on foreign donations and relief too.

Buy labour, sell loans: This can be a strategy of financial institutions and NGOs. Specialised financial institutions working in this region such as Rajshahi Krishi Unnoyan Bank, Grameen Bank, Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service etc. may take special development programmes in this area so that they can buy surplus labour for their special projects targeting Monga period. They can sell lump-sum loans to buy labour for the period, that is, people will pay back loan by giving labour.

Pre-cautionary measures from June: Some precautionary measures such as alerting people for that situation, motivating them for precautionary savings can be effective. Overall, high attention from government and non-government organisations are necessary to avoid the situation.

Long-term solutions Strengthening NGO activities: Our NGOs are always claiming that they are contributing substantially to the development of the country. Their claim is now under question in the backdrop of monga. Various NGOs are now engaged in these areas with different projects. Since NGO activities do not have significant impact on income generations of the poor people of these areas, now time has come to bring the NGO activities into accountability. It is a long-standing desire that there should be a regulatory body which can monitor and evaluate NGO activities. It is very surprising that these NGOs cannot take projects to overcome only two-month monga-period of a certain area, while they are running crore Taka projects in different areas.

Therefore, the NGOs that are active in these areas may be urged to take short and medium-term projects to help the poor people come-out of the monga cycle. If one member from each family can be brought into income-generating activities, the situation will be much different.

Revitalising rural banking activities: It is also widely discussed that our rural agricultural banking system is not so much effective in eradicating poverty through their loan-programmes. Since in most cases bank provide collateral-based loan, most of the poor-people cannot afford/obtain it. Therefore, it seems necessary to revitalise the rural banking system so that they can help rural poor people to come out of the poverty confine. For this, they need to come forward with innovative collateral-free loan or participatory-basis loan programme. Here participatory-basis loan means bank will actively participate in the invested business and bank staffs will monitor the production. After final product, profit and loss will be shared between the bank(lender) and farmer(recipient) according to the contract, at the same time bank will collect its loan.

Or, any other innovative programme a bank can undertake to overcome monga in October and November each year.

Enhancing economic activities: Setting a target of eradicating monga in some parts of Bangladesh can be a symbol of eradicating poverty from that part of the country. For this purpose, some medium and long term measures should be taken by both government and non-government organisations. Pre- and post-monga measures are necessary. Post monga measures may include concessional loans for different income generating activities such as poultry-farming, vegetables and other crop production, handicrafts making, flower plantation, valuable tree plantation, fishing etc. so that people can come out from poverty trap.

Some small and medium scale industries, agro-processing industries can be set up in these areas to reduce the unemployment situation. Besides these, there are many other ways to enhance economic activities in these areas.

It is expected that the government and non-government organizations will come forward with appropriate and effective planning to drive out "monga" from Bangladesh. It would be a one-step forward to alleviate poverty.

Manzur Hossain is a PhD candidate at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo.