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Strength and vulnerability

  • Published at 09:32 pm September 16th, 2014
Strength and vulnerability

The most recent UNDP report on human development holds an interesting lesson for countries such as Bangladesh. It talks about vulnerability, and that it is necessary to take steps to reduce vulnerability among the poorer sections of the world population. The reasons are clear and well known, and have been shown over and over again in numerous studies.

The poor are not lazy, contrary to what the self-congratulatory rich would have it. The poor work hard, often very hard. There was once a study that followed a poor woman in New York. She handled three different jobs, travelled between them on public transportation, and in addition, sought to create the best opportunities for her young daughter. This woman was working or helping her daughter with homework or travelling between jobs 17 hours per day, including Sundays.

She did not watch television, she did not take time off to sip coffee in a coffee bar. And for all her effort, she was still poor. She did not have time to follow that advise so often given, to be innovative, to think outside of the box, to take evening courses that can lead to better income.

We are not talking about the extremely poor here. She did earn enough to meet the basic needs. But she was poor in the sense that she did not have anything beyond what would cover the basic needs.

Now, there are other reasons for poverty. Many poor may not work hard at all and are poor because of a lack of opportunity. In the bad old days in Bengal there was only one paddy crop per season. The rest of the time people did not have much to do. “Amra boshe thaktam,” they told me.

But lack of income, whether from too little work or too little time to be innovative and create new income, is still lack of income. It means poverty. And poverty means vulnerability.

This is the situation for a large proportion of the world population today, even if poverty levels are falling. 20 to 30% of the world population, or 50 to 60%, depening on how you calculate, continue to live with vulnerability. Many scrape by. Such as our woman in New York. After all, she works and does not depend on others to sustain her life or that of her daughter. But my point is that she scrapes by only just.

And what if she falls ill one day? Then she would not be able to work, there would be no income, no food for her or her daughter. To live she would depend on others, or she would starve. We know that illness is the one main cause that can make individuals and families tumble from poor to extreme poor.

The world success story today is that many families climb out of poverty. But it is still a major problem that many fall down, preventing the number of poor from declining even more. In countries where there is no or very limited public healthcare, illness is the one factor that cause families that are climbing up, to fall down.

Healthcare alone is not enough. The UNDP report states quite simply that the most successful antipoverty and human development initiatives have taken a multi-dimensional approach. Income support and job creation have been combined with expanded healthcare and education opportunities and other interventions for community development. The daughter of our New York woman needs education, the woman herself needs healthcare, additional education, opportunities.

Now, here is the lesson: All the countries at the top of the human development index list are in Northwestern Europe, or they are culturally derived from Northwestern Europe. The Scandinavian countries, Germany, the Netherlands, the US, the UK, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. There is one significant exception, and that is Singapore. But Singapore is a special case, and we may leave that aside for the present purpose.

These countries are mostly Protestant Christian. The historical clue to their later success is in what this particular faith led the state to do. It was a fundamental idea in Protestant Christianity that every individual should himself or herself (yes, including women) read the Bible in order to achieve salvation. Hence the Bible was translated into the vernacular, and schools were organised in every village. This happened from as early as the 17th century onwards, and since those days, illiteracy was slowly but significantly reduced – almost to the point of non-existence.

Literacy, as we know, gives people information, and renders them conscious and aware. Healthcare, innovation, the sustaining of public institutions, and interpersonal trust were easier in societies that consisted of informed populations. And so, when democracy was introduced, in some cases, many generations later it found resonnace and could be sustained.

In the US, typically, when democracy was introduced after the American Revolution, people would subscribe to newspapers all over the country and follow events in Washington. Even in small cabins in the Appalachies and far flung farms in the west, families subscribed to newspapers, and they kept a small library of books – the Bible, novels perhaps, the constitution, and textbooks on law that helped them understand their own rights in their own local community.

Today, societies do not need to turn to religion to legitimise state interventions such as schools. We know there is a connection between literacy and development. We know there is a connection between quality healthcare to all and development. We know this, and for those of us who wish to take the example of Vidyasagar and other leading Bengalis seriously, a welfare system that caters to the poor and the vulnerable is the logical aim to work for.

Can Bangladesh afford a welfare system? Can it afford a multidimensional state intervention that ensures quality schooling to all, a proper healthcare system, and pensions to the old and infirm? The interesting point in the UNDP report is that many countries introduced such schemes at a point in their development history when they were much poorer on average than Bangladesh is today. China, Rwanda, and Vietnam are names that are pointed to in the report. And the Scandianavian countries and others too, started to introduce such schemes in the 19th and early 20th century, when they were still relatively poor.

The opportunities and security created by such schemes helped generate a healty, aware, innovative, conscious, and productive population. For Bangladesh to become a middle income country it needs to make the best use it can of the resources it has, and while it has very limited natural resources, it potentially has a vast pool of human resources. The key to success in the most successful countries was precisely this, to make the most of the human resources. 

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