Vol. 5 Num 922 Sat. December 30, 2006  

Matters Around Us
Will poverty alleviation remain a far cry in South Asia?

Recently, Bangladesh capital Dhaka witnessed unique meeting of great international personalities, who have earned laurels for their relentless efforts in the direction of poverty alleviation and uplifting the economic conditions of the toiling masses. Incidentally, these personalities are Bengalees, who have made us proud across the world in recent times for works that are extricably linked to socio-economic progress and such endeavours are seen as a kind of revolution for improving the quality of life of the vast multitude who are mired in abject poverty.

Nobel laureate for Peace for this year professor Dr Muhammad Yunus and earlier Nobel laureate for Economics Dr Amartya Sen shared dais in Dhaka on different occasions where they spoke on the various aspects of the poverty and economic related issues that are of paramount importance for the developing and poverty-ridden nations and also relevant for the developed countries in many ways because not that all of their people are free from acute economic problems. Internationally acclaimed founding-leader of BRAC, the world's largest NGO, Fazle Hasan Abed's joining hands with two Nobel laureates in their commitment to fight poverty and illiteracy will undoubtedly further reinforce the daunting task that they have in their hand for a better world particularly for the economically handicapped and the less fortunate. All these three Bengalees spoke in same tune on the imperative of creating a more happy and healthy society by successfully fighting the main enemy "poverty."

This year's Nobel peace prize on issues related to poverty almost synchronised the international day of eradication of poverty on October 17 as the coveted award was announced in the same week. However, the award in a critically important field like micro-credit for improving the economic life of the poor has added a different dimension since a large number of people across the world are victims of the curse of abject poverty. Unremitting efforts to reduce the scale of poverty are being met with mixed fortunes, but there is hardly any option than continuing such efforts with greater vigour and determination both at government and the non-government level.

Speculations made rounds before the announcement of the Nobel Peace award that 2006 prize was likely to go to political leaders or statesmen and some names were also mentioned. But finally it was Bangladesh's micro-credit "guru" professor Muhammad Yunus and his famed "Grameen Bank" that were chosen for the award setting at rest all such speculations. Indeed, such a prize for a critically important area like micro-credit for poverty alleviation is a fitting tribute to a great cause and this has added further impetus to the struggle for gigantic task of rural development and improving the life of the poor. The award has infused new enthusiasm in this seemingly Herculean but not impossible task. Some positive results are already palpable in recent years not only in Bangladesh but in some other countries as well as the product of micro-credit and other economic and social innovations.

The drive at national and international level for eradication of poverty is receiving greater attention following this year's Nobel peace prize and this impact can be seen in South Asia. It is just not a co-incidence that the largest political party in the biggest country of the region, close on the heels of the 2006 Nobel Peace award, has announced that it is reverting to "Garibi Hatao" (eliminate poverty) as its main political slogan as it felt this was genuinely aimed at ameliorating conditions of the masses. The Congress led by Sonia Gandhi, which is the main partner of the rainbow ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in India, announced that it was bringing back this slogan which its leader late Indira Gandhi coined and helped the party win resounding victories in the early seventies. Over the last three decades, India made remarkable progress in many areas ranging from information to nuclear technology, but progress in the field of "Garibi Hatao" has been disappointingly scant. This is one reason which contributed to the defeat of the previous NDA government led by charismatic Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the last election when "Shining India" failed to attract the voters in the rural areas to the glittering urban development that is really spectacular.

The present Indian government is attaching more importance to rural development and poverty alleviation. Prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh and chairperson of the ruling UPA alliance Sonia Gandhi have profusely congratulated Prof Yunus on his winning the Nobel prize while praising the micro-credit progress of the "Grameen Bank". One may be inclined to believe that this award might have encouraged the Congress to revert to the "Garibi Hatao" slogan. Pakistan prime minister Shawkat Aziz, known as a successful administrator in the field of economy, while congratulating Prof Yunus said his country was following the concept and wants to enlarge its application. Other South Asian nations struggling to improve the socio-economic conditions of the vast multitude in the rural areas, are expected to be encouraged by the award.

The SAARC and the CIRDAP (centre for integrated rural development in the Asia and Pacific), which have already swung into the task of eradication of poverty with all seriousness, aslo find new encouragement in their work from this award as it has come this year to the region and in the field relevant to their work. Numerous non-government organisations working for uplift of the poor have been encouraged by the international recognition to micro-credit and other programmes that are aimed at bettering the life of the marginalised section of the society. But SAARC and others need to take up more action-oriented work to attain the objectives.

However, euphoria over the Nobel peace award for Bangladesh must not lead to the impression that milk and honey would flow for the poor since still much needs to be done in the area of rural development and poverty alleviation. In fact, the poverty that is discernible is simply the tip of the iceberg and much deeper problems lie beneath. It is important that such problems be identified more accurately and concerted drives are launched to resolve them as far as possible with greater success. Amartya Sen, "the son of Dhaka" shot into prominence for his research and theory of hunger that he saw in most cruel form in this part of the world. Professor Yunus gave a new dimension in the direction of economic uplift of particularly the rural poor -- mostly women.

Fazle Hasan Abed has covered wider areas including removing literacy. When these three persons share the same occasion and call for strengthening the movement against hunger and poverty, this definitely gives a new stimulation to the big cause of uplifting the poor. Other persons and organisations too are engaged in the noble effort and all deserve commendation. This situation notwithstanding, much more remains to be done and especially in the South Asia where critical economic problems stalk most of the 1.4 billion people.

The Bangladesh capital was the venue for launching the SAARC in the month of December, 1985 and the forum has been a remarkable development in the region even though its progress has been somewhat sluggish and not upto the expectations. When eminent personalities met in Dhaka in the same month and called for facing the challenge of poverty with greater determination and planning, it should make bigger noise and impact not only nationally and regionally, but at the global scale for economic uplift of the down trodden.

Zaglul Ahmed Chowdhury is Chief Editor of BSS.