Better understanding the problems of poverty

It brings money into the country – an awful lot of money indeed! – ending up where none knows! It does not usually reach the target groups who have reconciled with it as a fait accompli. It goes to those who talk, write, and prepare tons of documents about it. Successive governments in Bangladesh for the last 45 years have undertaken hundreds of projects in the name of creating jobs or works for the poor.
They prepared volumes of project proposals pinpointing the problems and explaining the sure shot solutions in lucid language. Donors swallowed the bait and generously gave money for the implementation of those projects in the shape of many alluring subject-headings coined like Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) and the like.
Traditional tools to poverty reduction are becoming unsuccessful and bringing only peripheral changes, for example, occupational mobility matters very little these days since low-productive non-farm sector could hardly sustain livelihoods. Nor a shift from agricultural labor to farming serves the soup to the poor in the presence of low return from tenancy. Therefore, the successful strategies should embrace, inter alia, geographic mobility, increase in earning for members of households, increase in education for earning members, access to electricity that has much effect on poverty reduction, etc.
Bangladesh is a strange country abounding with the zealots coming out on the streets demanding not an end to acid violence or going after those who raise prices at every Muslim religious festival but on the removal of the sculptures in the capital and the country. But dismantling the sculptures will not bring the rice on our plates. Government has to draw the line for such zealots as those behind them have political ambitions. Household Income and Expenditure Survey [HIES] of BBS shows that Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet cities have less poverty while Khulna, Barisal and Rajshahi have higher poverty levels. Now it is time to look at the policy options to remove this regional disparity. Strong evidence is there that two metro cities – Dhaka and Chittagong – have emerged as the main centres of economic activity of the country. The capital Dhaka with a population of 16 million and the main port city Chittagong with a population of 6 million together account for 90 per cent of the nation’s metro area population and 41 per cent of the total urban population. Estimates based on HIES indicate that the average real per capita expenditures in these two cities is about 40 per cent higher than in other metro areas.
The dominant seats of major administrative and economic functions– Dhaka and Chittagong–act as the main domestic and international trading hubs, are also attracting large numbers of migrants from other places of the country. There is also evidence that spatial concentration in Dhaka and its surrounding areas has increased in recent years.
A substantial part of the economic activities in Bangladesh is clustered around Dhaka and to a lesser extent, Chittagong. This concentration around the two biggest cities is also seen from the spatial distribution of employment by industries. Employment in the largest category of industry, agro-processing industry, is concentrated in Dhaka and to a lesser extent in Chittagong. Dhaka alone accounts for 80 per cent of the country’s RMG output and half of manufacturing sector employment. Complementary business services, particularly finance and real estate, account for a much higher share of total employment in Dhaka relative to the rest of the country.
Factors like remoteness from markets and towns and lack of infrastructure, like electricity and gas, are found to be important characteristics of poor areas and are strongly correlated to each other. This in turn suggests that certain areas in Bangladesh have a combination of factors likely to lead to concentration of economic activities, giving rise to the so-called growth poles. Poverty differs substantially between integrated region and less integrated region, according to HIES . The poverty rate in the integrated region is 38 per cent while less integrated region 55 per cent, a gap of 17 percentage points. Under the circumstances, one can only suggest that improving connectivity of remote areas to growth poles, establishing interregional transport and communication systems, investment in infrastructure, bridging the information gaps to avert asymmetrical intelligence, between integrated region and less integrated region, can promote regional development to lift the poor out of the poverty trap to an appreciable degree.
All that said, it is now to note that there is a rise in the poverty level in Bangladesh in recent times. Two reasons can be cited to explain the predicament: high prices of essential and natural calamities. One other reason, unemployment, could be added to these two factors. That brings us, necessarily, to the question of what needs to be done about tackling the poverty issues, and not by mere words but by real deeds. Campaigners for good governance (by Shujon, etcetera) note that poverty exists more in rural areas than in urban. That being the reality, it is now time for us to go back to the perennial question of land reforms and especially the issue of addressing the needs of the landless and marginal farmers. There is little question that the numbers of those who own no land or are being compelled to sell off land have in the past few years has been going up. Such a situation holds the very dangerous potential of social disorder in the future unless it is handled sagaciously.
The government must go seriously into the business of devising social security programmes in a manner that will gradually cover all vulnerable groups in the country. Providing subsidies to the farmers is a crucial necessity. Apparently the figures for subsidies go up regularly, but to what extent such subsidies actually percolate down to the really poor and needy farmers remains a pertinent question. Without adequate guarantees that locally influential and partisan people will not lay their hands on what should be going to the poor, the campaign against poverty will not make any headway. In a larger sense, poverty alleviation is not possible due to our kind of social algebra and environmental matrix but its reduction is dependent on grass-root participation in the drive to take the poor out of the misery cycle. Unless the people are involved, through local bodies and other means in poverty reduction programmes, a sustainable economic development process cannot be ensured. It is here that the political parties have a clear responsibility to carry out. They ought to be giving out a clear sense of direction through concrete and specifics-based poverty reduction programmes. With the nature and substance of politics hopefully changing for the better, the political parties should be able to figure out the realities on the ground and formulate effective responses to them.