World Bank’s tale of poverty reduction in Bangladesh

Dr Zahir Ahmed

It could be said that, while the statistics is credible enough to represent the poverty reduction, I personally do not harbour rosy illusions about ‘poverty alleviation’ in Bangladesh. To me, the poverty condition in everyday life in Bangladesh society seems to have come all pervasive as majority of the ordinary people do not have access to basic needs. Naturally, one may not agree with the World Bank’s report on poverty reduction. One may not like what the report says about the quantitative aspect of poverty, and one may not like that the bank and other organisations are coming up with new plans for the successors, the SDGs — and there are some NGOs who have made similar points to the one I have made, that the SDGs shouldn’t be designed without reference to context or without focusing on inequality.

WE HAVE recently been told by the World Bank that Bangladesh is well on its way to achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goal in poverty alleviation within the year 2013 (, June 20). The World Bank president Jim Kim’s speech in April at Georgetown is relevant here. He said, ‘We are at an auspicious moment in history, when the successes of past decades and an increasingly favourable economic outlook combine to give developing countries a chance — for the first time ever – to end extreme poverty within a generation.’ I have had ample opportunity to discuss this ‘achievement’ with my colleagues, students and some ordinary people. I have found a mystical answer to their predicament by referring to their own livelihoods — has my poverty reduced? I am not a pessimist, ignoring the ‘chance to end extreme poverty’ that the World Bank’s president informs us of. I am willing to imagine that others like me might have projects different from the World Bank. And my discussion must not be read as ‘visceral’ reactions to the findings released.
This makes me confident than to rely upon others. I have something to say against the explanations of the World Bank on poverty and its reduction. I could talk about my research that stretches back to 1996, telling a complex story about peasantry in rural Bangladesh. I could unveil the complex ways in which villages have been connected into the global economy for many generations, and the transformations that have come to them. In some ways a ‘poverty tale’ could be told across Bangladesh — a story about politics of destitution and rural livelihood, about a move away from an agrarian economy and about how whilst some people have managed to grow wealthier and improve their standards of living a great many have stayed, or become, very poor.
For the sake of space, I will restrict to some digesting of experiences related with poverty and livelihood I had gained through the longitudinal study on a research project on ‘Mining, Social Networks and Poverty in Bibiyana in Sylhet’ in 2008-2009. I, therefore, want to share some of the stories of poverty and my observations, but also talk in particular about the increasing tendency of so-called poverty reduction in Bangladesh society, as well as offering some empirical reflections on the nature of poverty and its relations with socio-political connections/relations that are vital for understanding livelihoods as well. I hope these will be necessary to comprehend the poverty reduction hypothesis, and that my observations in rural Bangladesh can feed into a more general discussion on poverty reduction. Let me consider what the World Bank has had to say first.
Very recently, in their ‘poverty assessment’, the World Bank has declared that Bangladesh has reduced poverty significantly and will achieve the target two years ahead of the schedule. Based on purchasing ability, the report said that incidence of poverty came down gradually during the last decade from 63 million poor people in 2000 to 47 million in 2010. The picture of the poverty situation in Bangladesh can be illuminated by comparing statistics we have been provided by the earlier report of the World Bank. The World Bank said that 57 per cent of Bangladesh’s population was below the poverty level in 1990. For the sake of comparability, the poverty level was to bring it down to 29.5 per cent within 2015 under the Millennium Development Goal. Anticipation has also been made on the basis of this analysis. The report predicted that by 2015, ‘the poverty rate in Bangladesh will be 2 per cent lower than the target set originally — around 26 per cent — even if somewhat affected by a low growth of 3.8 per cent’ (bdnews24com, June 20).
If we look at the ‘extremely poor’ level, the scenario is rather ‘promising’. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics 2010 household survey has calculated that 31.5 per cent of the total population lives below the poverty line — including 17.6 per cent who are said to be ‘extremely poor’. This downward poverty trend is against the report of the World Bank in 2000, which had reported that about 48.9 per cent of total population was living under poverty line including the 34.3 per cent ‘extremely poor’. And the conclusive note is that Bangladesh reduced poverty by 1.74 per cent since 2000 each year on an average.
It is argued that two main successful factors contributed to this. First, wage hike, which increases buying capacity of the majority of the poor. The second major factor is decline in population growth rate which led to a decreased pressure on resources and incomes.
So, the tale is that Bangladesh cannot be disparaged anymore. The World Bank has now posed it as an example of imperative for development against the previous labelling as ‘backward’, ‘overpopulated’ and ‘underdeveloped’. One of the most striking features is that, unlike other Third World countries, Bangladesh did not experience a rise of poverty, but rather a trend in which poverty was coming down despite the global economic crisis after 2007. One policymaker comments that ‘Though about 40 per cent of the poor people are still outside its coverage, this has helped a lot.’
According to the World Bank report, we have altered the ‘traditional’ habit of depending on one earning member. We are now practical when many of us have multiple earning members; 36.3 per cent of our poor people are now using mobile phones which were almost zero in 2000; 28.5 per cent of our net poor population is now covered by electric connections, up from 10 per cent in 2000, and by our achievement made every year on average during 2000-2010, ‘1.8 million people have been pulled out of extreme poverty by improving their living standards’. And, for a few years now, we have a growth of average 6 per cent or more’. These listings give us the inevitable picture of poverty alleviation, but one would question both the reasoning that underlies it, and the fashion in which it has been put forward.
It could be said that, while the statistics is credible enough to represent the poverty reduction, I personally do not harbour rosy illusions about ‘poverty alleviation’ in Bangladesh. To me, the poverty condition in everyday life in Bangladesh society seems to have come all pervasive as majority of the ordinary people do not have access to basic needs. Naturally, one may not agree with the World Bank’s report on poverty reduction. One may not like what the report says about the quantitative aspect of poverty, and one may not like that the bank and other organisations are coming up with new plans for the successors, the SDGs — and there are some NGOs who have made similar points to the one I have made, that the SDGs shouldn’t be designed without reference to context or without focusing on inequality.
Contrary to the World Bank’s approach, poverty study cannot be teleological. We do not see poverty as a series of steppingstones toward the achievement of some desired goal. We are also less concerned with poverty as a discourse that articulates with some syndromes and effects. My concern with poverty is both methodological and epistemological. Studying poverty in their causal relations talks about quantity: a property to be attained. The quantity of poverty is thus often thought of in terms of achieving attributes such as competence and skill. If someone achieves a particular competence/skill, say in population control, they increase their per capita income, they can alleviate poverty. Understood in this way, the idea of ‘poverty’ as a kind of ‘disease’ to be alleviated by injections of modernity in programmes designed like MDG is too simplistic. However, once we examine it more closely, check this kind of assumption against everyday experience of the local poor people, and then the quantity aspect of poverty analysis begins problematic. In what follows I want to discuss it in relation to my own research experience.
Recently, I have collaborated on a research project with a group of anthropologists both at home and abroad. It was funded by ESRC-Dfid, looking mostly at investigating the ongoing transformations in rural Sylhet as well as the effects of the gas field, focusing in particular upon the poor. The research was based primarily in two villages called Karimpur and Kakura. It involved 12 months fieldwork spanning from 2008-2009. I should mention that the two villages were located in international Londoni migrant areas in Nadampur in Habiganj. Katy Gardner, a British social anthropologist who has been working in the area for a long time, mentions that the notion of poorness in the areas is highly related with overseas migration. She unveils that the poorest inhabitants are those who have no connections either with foreign countries, or with Londoni families.
In our empirical research we were not antiquated fuddy-duddy because we did not look for cause and effect relations of particular attributes. Our aim was to bring out the salient features of everyday economic life in the villages surrounding Bibiyana. Our approach was longitudinal and we asked the villagers to tell us how they made a living. Throughout the year, we regularly visited selected case studies, allowing us to closely monitor the lived picture of their livelihoods over the year. The case study events centred around household economics we collected provided us with a vivid pictures of poverty. We found that even among households which are sharecropping were making a precarious living. Let me explain what we have got from two villages: Kakura and Karimpur.
The basic economic information of two villages of Bibiyana can be presented by examining some statistics we collected through comprehensive household survey in 2008-9. Our data suggest that many of the poorer households in Kakura and Karimpur were starved; none of these households had a connection to a Londoni family. Life was a constant struggle. Our findings on household coping strategies showed that the poorest lurched from crisis to crisis, needing to borrow money which they couldn’t repay — a flood, illness or bad crop could tip these households into crisis which would take them years to recover from. The livelihoods of most inhabitants in two villages were dependent on local networks of employment and support, either through working as labourers or servants for richer households in nearby villages or through the informal economy (e.g. rickshaw driving, begging, engaging in micro-businesses).
In contrast to the other villages in adjacent Bibiyana, Kakura was largely comprised of chronically poor households. Kakura had 83.1 per cent of inhabitants who were landless at the time of survey. This was a figure which local accounts suggest has changed little since the 1960s/70s. The village has, therefore, always been extremely poor, and has never had the links to Londoni migration privileged by the other communities in Bibiyana.
Kakura can thus be considered as one of the poorest villages in Bangladesh. They didn’t have Londoni patrons, although many people from Kakura have historically worked for Londoni families in neighbouring village Nadampur and therefore can still be linked with them to a degree for support in times of crisis. A more vivid illustration of the poor infrastructure was given by the responses to the question of the conditions of present day Kakura. The majority of people believed that they did not have access to a power supply or running water, and there was no formal school in the village. They also did not have access to giant energy company Chevron’s employment opportunity, and did not tend to use the Smiling Sun clinics funded by Chevron. The respondents also reported that during 2008-9 many of the inhabitants only ate rice twice, or sometimes once, a day. This was due to the price hike.
As in Kakura, the rate of landlessness in Karimpur was very high (76.8%) with almost all land are owned by the Londoni families. Unlike Kakura, which had no Londoni inhabitants, these wealthy villagers have had long standing relations of patronage to the poor, providing informal safety nets (or shahajjo: ‘help’) for them in times of need, as well as land for sharecropping. Thus although extreme poverty was also found in Karimpur it was not quite on such a large scale as in Kakura and the ultra poor in Karimpur were more likely to rely on the support of wealthier neighbours in Karimpur, with whom some have had long lasting relations of patronage.
Wage labour and agriculture were by no means the only survival activities available to poorer household in Bibiyana. As the livelihoods of landless households were highly precarious; many depended to a large degree on the support of wealthier kin and neighbours, who supplied credit and other forms of support in times of crisis. For the poorest households these informal links acted as a ‘safeguard’ between them and destitution. What we also learnt from talking to people in Kakura and Karimpur was that what they really wanted and needed was secure and regular employment, plus the benefits of formal social protection (ideally from the state).
Three main features emerged on this precarious affair. First, people constantly borrowed money and/or rice from their Londoni patrons in order to keep themselves afloat. Several case studies showed that livelihoods are a repeated round of borrowing, repaying and borrowing again. Maintaining social connections were keys. This is most likely happened to the Londoni families who provided ‘help’ with thousands taka at times of dire needs, on the one hand, and neighbours, local shop keepers or relatives developed long term lending relationships through loans at the cost of interest on the other. Our findings suggest that the majority of the poorer households we spoke to were caught ‘in a continual cycle of debt,’ which they could never fully repay.
Secondly, the rural landless in Karimpur and Kakura faced extreme insecurity to meet their basic needs. It was such a context where land was a dwindling resource, everyday necessity were rising and inflation soaring. Agriculture was not a rewarding activity anymore, largely because floods disrupt yields and the producers become ruined. The only way was to survive was by taking on more debt. For the sharecroppers, cash was important but scarce. Only those who were well connected with Londoni get loans. Under the circumstances of continual shortfalls and the constant threat of hunger, it was easy to see why poor villagers sought help or shahajjo from those who could provide what today’s development discourse calls ‘safety nets’ (very recently ADB emphases on these safety nets). Seeking connections from the patron was the main social capital in the two villages for the poor, and it took place at times of crisis every day. Making connections required some kind of indulgence of the rich households, which was deeply embedded in social relations based on religious moralities discussed in the third point.
The third feature was that the Islamic ethos of charity is central to people’s needs for social connection in Bibiyana. The charity of Londonis was closely related to Islamic ideals of almsgiving, and close social networks of support and reciprocity. It meant that it was very much in villagers’ interests to have social connections to Londonis. For the Londonis, it helps keep them connected to the desh; these kinds of links are highly common in what are known as ‘transnational communities’.
Our aim was to explain social relations as well as to interpret them. We believed that there may be causal links of poverty, but we wanted to clarify causation because we aspired to understand why structural entitlements arose out and how did the poorer households make their living, but under precarious conditions. We do not believe that poverty is just ‘lack of equation’; we think we have a commitment to try to understand the ‘facts’ that undergird their lives. Our political positions from where we stand reflect the perception of poverty (our ontology) and the way by which we see it (our epistemology). We wanted to know what factors were responsible for shaping that reality, in both time and space. In our research we devoted our efforts the trajectories of poverty by which particular individuals or groups (be they local powerful individuals or multi-national Chevron) livelihoods of the poor villagers within the grid of corporate capitalism.
One might ask: Can’t we take a step back and consider what we mean by poverty? Don’t we recognise that poverty can also be understood in the social context in which it exists? That is what Bremen was talking about the conceptualisation of poverty. He says that poverty is ‘a state in which a regular lifestyle is disrupted by a cumulative shortage of elementary necessities – in the first instance…’ Amartya Sen’s theory of entitlement is another way of thinking about why some people get enough to eat and others don’t. As Sen argued, structures of entitlement are at the root of famine and malnutrition, not lack of food per se. We therefore need to examine different structures of entitlement in different contexts.
Taking example from Bibiyana, I want to suggest that people’s entitlement to resources is determined by their social connections, or degrees of relatedness to others, especially to Londonis. I also suggest that there is a difference between measuring poverty in its quantitative terms and employing some attributes to be judged on to people as though they were machines to be upgraded.
The notion of poverty, as we have seen, is highly mediated by social relations, social relations maintained by the poor people through their long standing connections to the livelihoods. The relationships to each other are significantly hierarchic and power relations and so do the outcomes, which are uneven. Thus, the state of poverty is not monolithic, it does not reduce through some attributes and in a timeframe, it does not happen everywhere at the same form, or at the same rate, or in exactly the same way. From the World Bank report, we remain in doubt about the total ways in which poverty may be understood through vivid analysis of unequal social relations and historical contexts; we are not yet confident that we can use poverty reduction strategy as universal rules applied for Third World countries cut across different histories; we are not yet sure that peoples’ livelihoods are often varied and complex, and may involve access to political and social resources in order to go beyond technical understanding of poverty reduction.
‘Virtually eliminate extreme poverty’ does not take us so far — attention is not given to the contextual factors which reproduce poverty like the patronage and debt I have described in Bibiyana – and of course measuring poverty with reference to wages and prices doesn’t always give a clear view of the debt relationships that underpin inequality — in Bangladesh and increasingly in even the ‘developed’ world. (There are now burgeoning micro-loan companies in the UK, and while a few people cannot afford to eat, there are many people caught in a cycle of taking out short-term loans to cover previous loans from companies like
I am talking about ethnographies of poverty which can help us understand what happens in a specific situation. Hence, we believe that to declare ‘poverty reduced before the schedule’ is risky, a shortcut and, above all, an abstraction. ‘Poverty reduction’ is an uneven process; it is gradual and multifaceted, it cannot be ended within a time span. To address the fuller aspect of poverty reduction, it should not be enough to say that the GDP has increased and now homogenised people have been put on the developmental road; nor to anticipate, however enthusiastically, their imperatives to the development plight. That there are some fortunate is likely, that there are certain sections that have increased their buying capacity; that increased mobile phone use cannot be the symbol of wellbeing anymore; that there are other ways to the story of poverty reduction to be heard.

Dr Zahir Ahmed is professor of anthropology at Jahangirnagar University.

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