The Wretched of the Earth: A Look into the Dimensions of Poverty
On May 29, 2008, a special seminar titled ” The Wretched of the Earth: A look into the Dimensions of Poverty in Island Chars of Northern Bangladesh” was held at PKSF auditorium, PKSF Bhaban, Agargaon, Sher-E-Bangla Nagar, organized by the Institute of Microfinance (InM). Dr. Atiur Rahman, Chairman of Unnayan Shamunnay, was the keynote speaker at the seminar.
Dr. Mahabub Hossain, Executive Director of BRAC, was the key discussant. Professor M.A. Baqui Khalily, Executive Director of the Institute of Microfinance, chaired the seminar. The event was attended by distinguished scholars, high government officials, members of international organizations, policy makers, media, and development practitioners.
In his keynote presentation at the seminar Professor Atiur Rahman said that around 5-6 million people live in char areas and that the most affected and the most vulnerable people who are extreme poor, live in these char areas. Livelihood shocks and stress are high in the chars. Both wage employment and self employment are very low. Migration is a major option. Life is highly vulnerable mainly because of non-existent infrastructural facilities, poor sanitation, and lack of primary health care and educational facilities, severe indebtedness and lack of social protection such as VGD and old-age allowance.
Professor Atiur Rahman said that the incidence of poverty at the national level stands at around 43.8 percent, while in the char areas the rate is 86.4 percent. He also said that in the char areas 61 percent people suffer from food insecurity occasionally while 31 percent face food scarcity round the year. He also mentioned that the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) acknowledges the problems in the chars and focuses on several issues but unfortunately, in most cases char issues addressed in PRSP are neither sufficient nor focused. He urged the government to formulate a separate Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) for the well being of the char people. He addressed some policy suggestions for solving char livelihood problem.
The key discussant, Dr. Mahabub Hossain, said that in char areas life is highly vulnerable and people who live there do not have any option other than to go outside for income earning. He said that we know rice doesn’t grow well in the char lands, but that there are many crop varieties which may work well in these environment e.g sweet potatoes that yield 6 times more than other varieties. He also mentioned that lack of proper market is a major constraint for what they want to trade. He said that as the char people have no formal training and the cost of migration is high, training should be provided so as to make migration a more viable option. In his speech he also addressed some issues, such as policy suggestions for solving the problem of char dwellers.
From the participants of the seminar one said that because of bureaucratic problem of the government, the program allotted for char dwellers is not properly implemented. They also said that NGOs are less interested to work in the char areas.
Based on the keynote speech, comments of the key discussant and the observations made by the participants of the seminar, the following policy suggestions are put forward:
- The Social safety net needs to be increased in proportion to the scale of poverty.
- Open market sales (OMS) should be introduced in the chars.
- PKSF is encouraged to develop a partnership with NGOs working in chars.
- A special program should include a focus on youths, to help them get training so that they can earn money from cities and abroad.
- A Char Development Fund should be established.
- Encourage NGO Foundation to increase its coverage in the chars.
- Local Governance Support Project (LGSP) should be enhanced in Unions with chars. Program budgets should include a focus on chars.
- The Government should facilitate all activities relating to development of char livelihood.
- Provide entitlement over land. In this respect the government can take step to determine the ownership of char land and provide a little bit more land for the char people.
- Increase in livelihood opportunities, e.g either by making shelter for surviving against flood or a permanent housing structure for the char people supported by government.
- Provide assets at least for two years, e.g boats and nets for fishing.
- Contract farming, collaboration with NGOs and development organizations may help the char farmers to ensure good production and market access.
- Introduce other crops, such as sweet potatoes, which may work well in this environment. Government should provide basic health and education.
- Emphasis on non-farm activities & in the case of livestock MFIs can provide livestock instead of money. Ensure securities of property and lives through appropriate law enforcement agencies.
- We should constitute a Char Development Board which will give tenure and land to the char dwellers, encourage private investment and develop club for the char people.