Making the Invisible Visible
Sanjan Haque spells out the importance of a poverty eradication day
By the time this piece has been published and circulated, the dust, leftovers, decorations and fanfare of Extreme Poverty Eradication Day will have been swept up and discarded. The grand announcements will have been made, oaths pledged, ideas shared and applause long faded. What comes after the microphones are stowed away and flashbulbs have been tamed is what really matters and what the event's theme making the invisible visible is all about. The argument for observing such a day seems rather baffling when one imagines every think tank, intergovernmental organisation and even the Bangladeshi Government is resigned to the fact that chronic and extreme poverty are inevitable, beyond our control or even a God-given curse. Then why, one might ask, spend large sums of money organising a conference in lavish surroundings with international and national dignitaries when such resources can be diverted to help the very people the conference hopes to address? It's rather simple: the extreme poor are seldom recognised by the political elite: government policies seldom, if ever, reach the economic bottom 10 percent of the population, and state safety net programmes fail to mitigate their poverty and often confuse them with the moderate poor. There are a number of other reasons but essentially, high-profile events like this year's Extreme Poverty Eradication Day provide a platform to reach the highest levels of government and advocate for change.
Shifts in the governing norms
On 17 October 1987, over 100,000 Parisians gathered to honour the victims of extreme poverty, violence and hunger. It was in this same city that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948 and UN member states proclaimed that poverty was a violation of human rights with the affirmation that all humanity was required to unite to fight this plague in all its guises. In 1992 this belief was institutionalised within the UN through a resolution adopted by the General Assembly which invited ''all states to devote the day [17th October] to presenting and promoting, as appropriate in the national context, concrete activities with regard to the eradication of poverty and destitution''. This resolution provides the space for intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations to assist states in undertaking the necessary activities to properly observe the day.
The purpose of such a day is not only to highlight the obvious truththat Bangladesh remains mired in institutionalised chronic povertybut also to look beyond dehumanising facts and stamp a human face on the extreme poverty faced by nearly 40 million Bangladeshis. The UN resolution, which gave life to this day, accepted all the frailties of contemporary poverty reduction strategies and provided the space for state and non-state actors alike to promote and plan a road out of poverty.
A shift in donor attitudes and approaches over the past decade has resulted in new policies which include building government capacities and providing frameworks through which both state and non-state actors can dispense public goods. This has resulted in an improved governance framework for aid distribution and created a space where state and non-state organisations play a more cohesive role in the overall development agenda.
Millennium development goals and poverty reduction strategies
Bangladesh''s commitment to poverty reduction is highlighted by the government''s election manifesto, which emphasises the need to eliminate poverty & inequality and maintain economic stability over commodity price hikes .
Bangladesh is likewise committed to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted at the turn-of-the-century UN Millennium Declaration . The MDGs set targeted time bound and specific goals for extreme poverty reduction throughout the world. The first goal -- popularly referred to as MDG 1addresses the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger and remains the biggest challenge for the Government of Bangladesh.
For too long the political elite have been indifferent to the needs and the policy requirements of the extreme poor. The failure of the state to provide public goods since independence led to the flourishing of non-governmental organisations and presently social businesses. The initiatives undertaken by these, and a range of other sectors, have failed to inspire the political elite to push for effective long-term policies to lift the extreme poor out of poverty. Raising awareness among policy-makers, ensuring bureaucrats are provided with specific targets and charging state machinery with the necessity of tackling, extreme poverty head on is an absolute policy imperative for the Bangladeshi political elite.
Azizur Rahim Peu/Driknews
Here a distinction must be made between the moderate poor and the extreme poor, who make up nearly 40 million people in Bangladesh. The popularity of micro-finance institutions to provide credit to the poor, much highlighted by the international accolades heaped on institutions like Grameen Bank, diverts attention from the failure of such institutions to reach the extreme poor. Not only does this highlight the frailties of the micro-credit scheme, it brings to light a fact that both civil society and government are ambivalent about admitting. The simple truth remains that a bank will only lend collateral-free loans to individuals with the greatest probability of repaying the loan; the extreme poor, with no fixed assets and intermittent income generating ability, fail to fulfil the banks'' criteria for receiving such loans.
Catalyst for change
Bangladesh's second Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, Moving Ahead, identifies the effects of longstanding institutional frailties that have led to the widening economic divisions between urban and rural areas, rich and poor, east and west, and Bengalis and adivasis. The widening poverty gap between the eastern (Dhaka & Chittagong Divisions) and western regions (Barisal & Khulna Divisions) highlight historical deficiencies in developing human & infrastructural capacity and the intransigence of the political elite to institutionalise effective social safety net programmes. A closer look at these widening gaps reveals various pockets of poverty located throughout Bangladesh: inhabitants of char areas, hill tracts, the coastal belt and indigenous populations throughout the country are continuous victims of extreme poverty.
The catalyst for change does not only lie within the chambers of government or lofty ambitions of intergovernmental bodies but with individuals acting out of their own accordoften against the tideto instigate a body of supporters willing to push policymakers to divert greater resources to the extreme poor. Parliamentarians are elected by the vast majority of extreme poor, who are disenfranchised from state resources when they should be the biggest recipients, least empowered to express their grievances when their voice should be heard first and marginalised from mainstream society when they should be included. The process of election is one of the few moments when the extreme poor are both empowered and included within the greater spectrum of society. But they are the first to be forgotten by elected officials, first to be exploited by local elites and first to be ignored by the state.
The various development plans undertaken by autocratic and democratic governments have provided the foundations for change in Bangladesh. The country lies at a particular crossroad today, experiencing a sustained annual economic growth of around six percent but still suffering from high levels of poverty. A tailored approach to development intervention requires advocacy at the highest reaches of government. Events like Extreme Poverty Eradication Day provide the platform for governments to highlight successes and failures in state interventions but also provide non-state actors to project various approaches to poverty reduction required at various stages of intervention according to social, economic and cultural divisions. In the case of this year's event, the venue allowed for non-state actors to highlight the plight of the extreme poor to the political elite in an attempt bring about a qualitative shift in the manner which government formulates and articulates policy towards poverty reduction; improve allocation of resources to reach the bottom 10 percent of society; begin the process of institutionalising long-term policies with bipartisan support; improve cohesion between the bureaucracy and elected officials.
A number of projects, under the auspices of various government ministries supported by donors, are currently underway throughout Bangladesh. These include the much applauded Chars Livelihood Programme, working in the Jamuna chars; shiree, a challenge-fund that scales up and supports innovative projects for poverty reduction; Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction, working towards asset transfers for the extreme poor and Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction, supporting the reduction of extreme poverty in urban areas. The overall goal remains the reduction of extreme poverty in support of MDG 1, but the specifics of each project are tailored to suit the context of each particular working area.
The purpose of such events is to ensure that the political elite can begin to empathise with the extreme poor, who continuously vote and remain active citizens, but receive minimal support from the state. A universal poverty reduction strategy will not succeed and one message that resonated throughout the 18th October event was the necessity of understanding local contexts and tailoring government policies to fit with the needs of targeted populations.
The existence of extreme poverty is a perversion of human rights, affirmation of ignorance and denigration of the constitution. If Extreme Poverty Eradication Day has achieved a single thing, let it be that the gong of a startling wake-up call struck bureaucrats, the political elite and those with the power to affect change: if Bangladesh is to move forward with any long-term vision, the country must embark on a wholehearted effort to eradicate extreme poverty and now is no time to hit the snooze button.
The views expressed are those of the author and in no way reflect the views of their employers.
Sanjan Haque is an Adviser at a project under the Ministry of Local Government & Rural Development (LGRD) supported by the British Government, and a member of the youth organisation Jagoree.