Bangladesh aims to eliminate extreme poverty by FY 2031, thirteen years after this FY. Given the past record of reducing poverty by over 1.0 per cent per year, the target is not a tall order. Allegedly based on a linear notion, the apparently 'ambitious' aim has been anchored in various government documents. Of course, the recently-released results of the Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES 2016) seemingly fade the fear of a failure.
Moderate poverty --per cent of population below the Upper Poverty Line (UPL) -- has fallen from about one-thirds in 2010 to one-fourths in 2016, a decline by 1.4 per cent per annum; extreme poverty --per cent of population below the Lower Poverty Line (LPL) --has declined from about 18 per cent over the same periods, again a decline by about 1.0 per cent per year. By and large, both moderate and extreme poverty has reduced by an average of a little over 1.0 per cent per annum during the last five years or so.
The raison d'être of the 'comforting' news is not far to seek - relatively rapid economic growth at over 6.0 per cent spanning a decade, public spending on health, education, social protection claiming about one-tenths of the budgetary outlays, massive investment in infrastructure etc. Besides, rapid inflow of external remittances and expansion of micro-credit programmes have helped reduce poverty. Further poverty reduction would warrant a impetus to the progress on these fronts. Arguably speaking, these contributing factors in poverty reduction coming out of research findings have duly been documented and used in the government's poverty reduction strategy and related policymaking tools.
Sadiq Ahmed, an eminent economist and vice-chair of the Policy Research Institute (PRI), tends to argue that the average incidence of poverty, as shown earlier through HEIS 2016, could mislead policymakers engaged in Bangladesh's poverty reduction. He throws some points to ponder upon: "But there is one major policy gap that has not received adequate attention. Research shows that poverty and the population's vulnerability to natural disasters are positively correlated. Those falling in the extreme poverty group are most susceptible to natural disasters owing to the absence of adequate coping mechanisms. Yet, policy progress with reducing vulnerability of the poor to natural disasters has been weak. Continued neglect of this aspect of poverty strategy could jeopardise the government's ability to eliminate extreme poverty by FY 2031".
In support of his contentions, Mr Ahmed delved deep into the district-level data set of HIES 2016 to observe that the poverty reduction progress, hilarious though, has been highly uneven across the country. "The top 10 poorest districts of Bangladesh have poverty incidence ranging from 70 per cent to 42 per cent (based on UPL) as compared with the average poverty incidence of 24.3 per cent. Indeed, the poverty gap between the poorest district (Kurigram with 70 per cent poverty rate) and the least poor district (Narayanganj with a poverty rate of only 2.6 per cent) is astounding". In fact, there are some districts with a range of 25-42 per cent.
The heart-breaking news is that 70 per cent of the people in Kurigram district are found to be poor even after 45 years of independence. This rate of poverty relates to the earlier years of Bangladesh, when the country was war-ravaged, underdeveloped in physical and human infrastructure, and shrivelled with food shortage. Given this grim reality, "a deeper analysis of the determinants of these large spatial variations in poverty incidence must be done to inform policymaking".
The role of geography and exposure to natural disasters matter. "Kurigram is an extreme of this. Year after year, the district suffers from massive flooding from the overflow of the Brahmaputra river. It is little comfort to give the exposed population annual dose of relief supplies, small financial handouts, access to microcredit and better toilet facilities. Unless a permanent solution to the river-flooding problem can be found, Kurigram will continue to show high poverty and thwart the government's efforts to eliminate extreme poverty".
More generally, as shown by the researcher, the location map of the top 10 poorest districts indicate that they are either a part of the Barind Tract area of the country's north-west (Dinajpur and Rangpur) or a part of the river and estuary belt (Lalmonirhat, Kurigram, Gaibandha, Jamalpur, Magura and Kishoreganj). Because of location, they face a range of vulnerabilities presented by river-flooding and water-logging in the monsoon and water shortages in the fall and winter seasons. The remaining two (Bandarban and Khagrachhari) are a part of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) with little access to usable water combined with difficult land terrain and episodes of flash flooding and land-slides from water runoffs. The environmental problems are compounded by over-exploitation of ground water and deforestation.
More importantly, "all these districts are heavily dependent upon agriculture for livelihood that makes them so much more vulnerable to river flooding, flash floods, water-logging, soil erosion and water shortages. Without a sea change in the poverty reduction strategy that is targeted to benefit these districts through specific interventions to reduce the vulnerabilities imposed by geography, natural disasters and climate change, there is a huge risk that these districts will not benefit in a sustained manner from the current poverty reduction strategy and will continue to be left behind as presently. This will likely compromise the government's ability to eliminate extreme poverty by FY 2031".
With a view to attaining the goal of elimination of extreme poverty, Mr Ahmed suggests some solutions of short, medium and long-term nature. First, he reckons that the adoption of the government's Delta Plan 2100 (BDP 2100) will be a major step forward that identifies the major sources of vulnerability of the population of Bangladesh to geography, natural disasters and climate change and seeks to address these vulnerabilities at source through a well-thought out strategy comprising policies, regulations, institutions and investment programmes. "If the government is serious about eliminating extreme poverty by FY 2031, it must move speedily to adopt the BDP 2100 and initiate its implementation".
Second, addressing acute poverty with small doses of safety net or microcredit programmes would possibly help postpone the pain in the very short-term, but could turn out to be a wasteful use of resources when pitted against sustained long-term impacts. "Sources of vulnerabilities must be addressed to achieve sustained progress with poverty reduction." Third, degradation of land and underground water resources from deforestation, soil erosion and over-exploitation of ground water must be checked and reversed through regulations, investments and sustainable cropping practices. "Institutions must be established and cost recovery policies instituted to ensure participation of beneficiaries in policymaking, adoption of correct O&M practices and sustainable financing of investments. Production diversification must be ensured to create off-farm jobs in small scale manufacturing, transport, trade and other services." Fourth, improving access to international migration will be helpful by increasing the income base of the vulnerable families.
Finally, there is need for a better access to microcredit and social protection programmes to help reduce poverty on a sustainable basis provided these interventions are a part of the broader strategy that seeks to reduce poverty by addressing vulnerabilities at the source.
Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Jahangirnagar University. firstname.lastname@example.org
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