Every day, we as a nation, open the papers and look with horror and sadness at the meaningless violence taking place in our country. While our politicians play games for power, it is our poorest people that suffer most. Day labourers are unable to work or earn without risking their lives, and as a result, their families go without meals, sometimes go into debt, and are thrown into such depths of poverty, that they may never be able to climb out of their nightmare.
Little boys taking lunch to their fathers and mothers who cannot afford to stay home are hit by bullets and lie bloody on our roads, as we wonder how our “leaders” will get over their differences and let democracy play itself out. We want our leaders to stop nurturing personal bank accounts and instead, do what we are voting them into power for – and that is – serve the people.
In our beloved country, 17.6% of the population lives below the lower poverty line. That is approximately 25 million extremely poor people or 6 million extremely poor families.
Jui is an extremely poor girl I met in Rajshahi. She is chronically underfed, malnourished and frequently ill. She faces social, economic and gender exclusion. Her father left her mother, as is common among extremely poor families. Her mother owns no assets, savings or land. She has no skills or education. They will remain in abject poverty throughout their lives and from one generation to the next.
Is this the sort of country we want? What is your vision of our country in ten years? What sort of country do we dream of? Let us dare to dream big. Let us dare to dream of a nation where young single mothers are not left without support to raise beautiful daughters like Jui, where children can eat, learn to read and write, find safe jobs, and live with dignity.
Bangladesh, despite its huge population, political instability and climatic vulnerability, has had remarkable achievements in development. We invented Micro Finance and ORS. We have had great results against MDG indicators. We have reduced maternal mortality, improved family planning and scored well on several social indicators. We have achieved significant reductions in poverty, including, extreme poverty, over the past 10 years. Women’s participation in economic activity has increased from 8% to 57% between 1983 and 2011, putting Bangladesh ahead of neighbours such as India (29%), Pakistan (22%), and Sri Lanka (35%). Our success is considered a paradox and has made us the global poster child of development. The world looks to us to lead the way in poverty-reducing innovations.
Economic growth is high but the benefits don’t trickle down to the poorest. We are still a nation with high inequality, governance challenges, lack of justice, especially for the poorest, rights and entitlements are not always upheld, political instability, poor infrastructure, not enough jobs, vulnerability to climate change.
What can we do?
We will be judged as a nation by the way we treat our poorest. How can we answer to our own conscience and to our children if we do not move to eliminate this poverty?
Transforming extreme poverty into economic capacity
These conditions need not continue. Evidence shows that with adequate support, families can climb out of extreme poverty. Bangladesh has several successful programs (CLP, BRAC-CFPR, shiree, REOPA, FSUP, Nobo Jibon, UPPR) that have transformed the lives of the extreme poor through asset transfers or vocational skills training. Let’s scale up our efforts.
Benefits of eradicating extreme poverty
Some of the benefits are obvious – the elimination of severe hardship and suffering of 25 million fellow citizens, national solidarity and pride. Also, this will mean enhanced economic benefit for all of us. As the extreme poor join the economy, they will consume, produce and buy more. Our labour force will be stronger (well nourished, skilled, capable) and there will be a multiplier effect, increasing economic growth. Internationally we will also be better respected.
Manifesto for the Extreme Poor
The Manifesto for the Extreme Poor is a civil society document that has received great national support from private sector companies, civil society organizations, donors, NGOs, think tanks and academics.
The Manifesto has one demand: the complete eradication of extreme poverty from Bangladesh by 2022. All the pieces of the jigsaw already exist for rapid eradication of poverty, now it’s a matter of setting a target and working towards this clear objective. Yes, 2022 is an ambitious target, but why not be ambitious? 2021/2022 is a significant year for Bangladesh symbolically – our 50th anniversary. If we eradicate extreme poverty by 2022, the nation will truly have come of age.
Once we establish a healthy, democratically elected government, let us start to tackle issues of real relevance. Let only those who love to serve their people come into power and then, let us work together, those of us who can, to mobilise the resources and actions necessary to relieve 25 million people of their pain and suffering. We can be a country where girls like Jui will have a fair chance at a good life. Let us honour our nation and our independence and build the beautiful Bangladesh we are meant to be.