The Problem of Poor Pressure
MIR MAHFUZUR RAHMAN considers how Bangladesh treats its weakest citizens.
Bangladesh has concluded 39 years as a country free from direct external control of its administration and resources. A society is judged by how it treats its weakest citizens. In that regard, where do we stand?
Over these almost four decades, Bangladesh has emerged as a country which very few people, and least of all the ever-dour Henry Kissinger, ever gave any chance of holding its head high. The challenges have been many -- including destruction of almost all its physical infrastructure, poverty for the majority of its citizens, famine in 1974, and the jolt of sudden political shifts which destroyed most institutions from laying any foundations to allow them to play any major role in governance. The macro-economic resilience in the face of endless challenges of the past two decades, i.e. abolishing of quotas, challenges of a floating exchange rate, oil price hike, food price spike and the economic meltdown, have made Bangladesh a strong case for growth due to basic increase in factors of production. Specific government institutions, especially Bangladesh Bank, have played a formidable role in keeping this macro-economic stability.
But where does all of this leave us as a country looking forward towards the next 10 years? As a society, and as a country, where do we want to see ourselves in 2020? Leaving aside the political rhetoric, we need to be able to have a benchmark on how we rank ourselves. Without reaching too high for a parable, Nelson Mandela has said about his almost three decades in prison, "You had time to think -- to stand away from yourself, to look at yourself from a distance, to see the contradictions in yourself."
While we are overjoyed at the prospect of USD 600+ per capita income -- as we feel that it will bring about a better life to all the hard-working people who are toiling every day in the fields and factories to earn enough to provide their children with a better life -- we are also inveterate lawbreakers. All of us have our own stories of unmitigated law breaking, which may mean something as simple as trying to run across the road or throwing the garbage just outside our homestead.
However, the clearest signal of those whose existence dominates the final judgment of how we as a people are doing can be explained by the huge masses of people who are coming into Dhaka, and other large divisional headquarter towns, in search of a livelihood due to the slow decline of the ability of the country to absorb rural unemployed. After all, a society is judged on how well it treats is weakest, and not how well its most powerful and wealthiest live.
Bangladesh squeezes its roughly 160 million population into an area the size of Wisconsin. More than 80% of those people survive on less than $US2 per day; many are under constant threat from floods, droughts and cyclones. During the 1990s, Bangladesh achieved sound economic growth and low inflation. On average, GDP per capita grew at around 3% per year, and during the last five years per capita growth reached a peak of 5%. This performance has enabled Bangladesh to achieve progress in reducing poverty. Between 1991-92 and 2000, income poverty declined by 1 percentage point a year from 59 to 50%. The level of income poverty declined both in the urban and the rural areas with the decline in incidence higher in the urban relative to the rural areas. The decline in the depth and severity of poverty has been greater in the rural compared to the urban areas.1
Despite this achievement, the number of poor living below the poverty line has increased, unemployment has gone up and joblessness increased by 3.3% a year throughout the last decade. Approximately 65 million people live below the poverty line (2,122 calories). Of those, approximately 55 million live in rural areas. Rapid urbanisation will mean an additional 20-25 million urban dwellers by 2015 of which around 20 million are expected to be poor, bringing the total number of urban poor to at least 30 million.2
Women and children are disproportionately affected. Almost all (95%) of female-headed households are estimated to live below the poverty line, with 40% being classified as extremely poor. Approximately a quarter of the population with income above the poverty line also remain vulnerable to falling back into poverty due to sudden income loss and other shocks such as seasonal deficits, natural disasters or illness of the income earner in the household. Many rural households still face yearly food shortages during September to November when illness-related expenditures are at their peak. Livelihood strategies are becoming increasingly complex. Rural dwellers frequently rely on a non-farm income for part of their livelihoods and migrate to urban areas to improve their livelihoods.
There is strong new research that looks at the adaptation in poor urban settlements of the developing world. There is now widespread agreement that climate change is happening and that the lives of the poor will be, and already are, negatively affected. This is particularly true for the urban poor who, over the course of the next 25 years, will become the majority of the world's poor people.
The urban population of Bangladesh now exceeds 40 million and is growing at 3.4% per annum. Urban poverty is on the rise, in contrast to a declining rural poverty rate. With 20 million people potentially displaced by rising sea levels in coming years, both urbanisation and urban poverty rates seem likely to increase. Despite these figures, policies in Bangladesh focus on rural areas. Knowledge remains limited on the deepening problems of earning a living, accessing basic services, keeping healthy and raising children in poor urban communities.3
Already facing a surfeit of environmental crises, Bangladeshi policy makers have been quick to cry against global warming; environmental groups have sought to raise the spectre of climate migration. On the ground, however, the consequences of climate change are often similar to those of development, overpopulation and natural disasters, and it is hard to tell them apart.
However, whatever may be the cause, it is of vital importance that specific measures be taken to address the issues of the urban poor, who are ultimately the most vulnerable. It is better to be poor in the countryside than in the city, according to a UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) study of Bangladesh.4
"Before, the conception was that rural populations were worse off when it comes to social development," Carel de Rooy, UNICEF representative, as quoted by IRIN. "This report shows very clearly that in fact, urban slums are at the bottom of the pyramid."5
The under-five infant mortality rate in Bangladeshi slums is almost double that of the rural and non-slum urban rates, and the national average for secondary education attendance is three times higher in the rural or urban populations than for the city-slum dwellers, the study shows. With slum populations rapidly growing across the country, (roughly 30% of the urban population in the six largest cities now live in slums), the report calls for more targeted programmes for the urban poor.
The rise of extreme poverty is higher in urban areas than in rural ones for the simple reasons of demography and lack of social safety nets. With almost 40% of the population under 25 years, and with increasing rural landlessness, it is just a simple step of having to deal with an exogenous shock -- whether environmental, social or personal -- that drives masses of people to find a better livelihood.
In fact, studies have shown that Bangladesh's biggest problem is arguably population pressure: there is no more land. If our population was half of that it is currently, the ability of the country and its resources to deal with the changes would have been far easier. Although we have succeeded in arresting the rate of population growth from around 3% to around 1.4% per annum, experts agree that this is not enough. Environmental groups and media reports have seized on suggestions that as many as 20 million people could be forced to leave their homes in coming decades.6
Landless families often end up in the slums of Dhaka, while luckier ones live on government- owned land in rural areas. Millions of Bangladeshi households have lost their property, either through poverty, natural disasters or land grabbing by corrupt elites. Of Bangladesh's more than 160 million inhabitants, close to 4.5 million are completely landless, mostly in rural areas, according to a 2008 Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics survey. According to a report by researcher Tahera Akter, published by the Dhaka-based Unnayan Onneshan think-tank, on average, 39 million people in Bangladesh are displaced by each major flood, with three million more displaced by each cyclone.
Facing economic hardship, many farmers take out loans from mohajons [loan sharks] and then lose their land when they fall behind on repayments. "Landlessness of the farmers leads to their insufficient purchasing power to buy adequate nutritious food for their families," states a Unnayan Onneshan report.
According to a study on land-ownership patterns in developing countries, by Habibur Rahman and Somprawin Manprasert from Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, rural landscapes in developing countries are characterised by highly inequitable social structures, or what many have called 'bi-modal agrarian systems', in which expansive commercial estates control vast tracts of fertile land while large numbers of landless or nearly landless people cultivate little or no land".7
Landlessness can inflame social problems as "land-oriented poverty and rural-to-urban migration without any expansion in the housing and utility services lead to the expansion of slums with all affiliated social problems". Research has shown that, on average, people move 11 times within their local area before migrating to urban centres; only 3% go overseas. This implies that people are not rushing to Dhaka as the first option. Most of the people who come to Dhaka have already completed their rounds of moving to other areas of their own region.
But for the poorest of the poor, there is still a long way to go. When we look at Dhaka in 2020, at the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of 1971, we shall be faced with even bigger challenges. We need to ensure that life is liveable not just for those with roofs over their heads.
1,2 Embassy of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, www.ambdhaka.um.dk
3 Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester, http://www.bwpi.manchester. ac.uk/ research/ResearchProgrammes/ Climatechangeandurbanpov.html
6,7 http://ww.irinnews.org/PrintReport. aspx?ReportID=89399
Mir Mahfuz ur Rahman is a corporate advisor for capital markets.