It's always interesting to see how we react to poor people on the streets of Dhaka. Most of us look the other way when a beggar comes, while some just look them straight in the eye and humanise the experience. The sensitive amongst us go home and vow to make a difference the next time we hit the streets. One would like to believe that we do this because there is altruism in most of us, but more likely we do it simply as a coping mechanism: we just can't deal with all the poverty and pain all around us. What we don't know is that the beggars on the street are merely the tip of the iceberg; while they may be poor, there are unfortunately others who are far worse off. These are the extreme poor, people have no one to rely on, no support structure, and no one to help them in their daily struggle.
One of the major reasons they are often left out of popular discourse is that they are not readily seen, and as we know, out of sight is out of mind. But obviously that is not to say that they don't exist; in fact they exist in large numbers across the country. It's just that we tend to bunch them together under the "poverty" banner without really understanding how their extreme poverty is different from other who are just "poor."
Often, the extreme poor slip between the cracks of our development jigsaw because we don't understand their needs and can't conceptualise how to bring them into the mainstream development debate. To put it bluntly, they need more than a handout; they need a structure to fall back on, and a way to make ends meet. A few organisations work tirelessly for the extreme poor, but they are not enough and one doubts they ever will be.
Large-scale government support and encouragement is necessary if their needs are to be dealt with. But that must go beyond such measures as the 100 days guaranteed work scheme, which bears a murky resemblance to John Milton Keynes observation that a government could promote economic growth by hiring people to dig holes and then fill them.
What the government must first do is understand the concept of extreme poverty and then formulate a strategy to help them. That sounds much easier than it actually is, but the effort must be made. The government's allies in this fight against extreme poverty should be those who have worked with the extreme poor for so long. The organisations and individuals that have helped the extreme poor for years could give the government a crash course in what the problems are and how to deal with them. This is a fight we as a nation cannot afford to lose.