Bangladesh: Of Disasters and
A Disastrous Development
Bangladesh is once against occupying the world's head-lines. As
information about last week's cyclone is gradually becoming available,
it is clear that the scale of the disaster is enormous. The death
toll will continue to climb since millions have been left without
food, drinking water or shelter. The final death toll could make
this the largest natural disaster of the century. In the days and
weeks ahead a massive international relief and rebuilding effort
The frequent disaster visiting upon Bangladesh result from a lethal
combination of geographic and social factors. The geographic factors
are well-known. Bangladesh is a low-lying delta, subject to monsoon
floods which originate in Nepal and India to the North. In the coastal
region, the major river systems annually deposit enormous amounts
of silt into the Bay of Bengal. These silt deposit create "chars"
which people settle on virtually the moment they emerge above the
sea level. The chars are little more than islands of silt and offer
no protection from the storms that sweep across the Bay. People
living on the chars were the first victims of last week's cyclone.
The social part of the disaster equation relates to the dynamics
within Bangladesh which compel large numbers of people to live in
the vulnerable coastal char areas. The migration of Bangladesh's
poorest people to settle in these areas continues, despite the fact
that people are well aware of the risks. This migration is a reflection
of a declining rural economy and growing insecurity throughout rural
Bangladesh. Without addressing these social and economic factors,
there is a little hope in arresting the toll of such natural disasters
in the longer term.
Deepening impoverishment is the reality of everyday life in rural
Bangladesh. Over the past several decades there has been a steady
increase in the numbers of people living on or below the poverty
line. Today, two thirds of the population live on the very threshold
of survival. For Bangladesh's poor, the development experience of
the past several decades has been disastrous.
A key factor behind growing poverty is the increasingly insecure
relationship between people and the land. Land is the most important
resource in this primarily rural and agricultural country. Without
owning or having access to land, people cannot sustain themselves.
Over the past 30 years, the dispossession of small peasant producers
from their land has increased dramatically. Today at least 60 per
cent of rural families are landless. These people are turned into
seasonal labourers, working or sharecropping on land belonging to
others. For many, migration to newly-formed coastal chars is the
only alternative to set up homes and small farm plots.
Some development theorists view increasing landlessness as a result
of the pressure of too many people on a limited land base. While
increasing population is an issue, it is not a central cause of
declining rural prospects. A more important factor is a badly skewed
pattern of land ownership in which 10 per cent of the population
owns almost 50 per cent of the agricultural land. Another problem
is that nearly one quarter of Bangladesh farms are owned by absentee
landlords who rent out their land to sharecroppers. Sharecropping
is a very insecure arrangement for those who work the land; it is
also a very in efficient approach to agriculture.
Bangladesh's future lies in its enormous agricultural potential.
But without altering the land ownership and tenure structure, there
is a little hope for development; moreover, there will be a continuing
migration of rural people to burgeoning urban centers as well as
to the vulnerable coastal chars. If an appropriate mix of land reform
and agricultural development policies were adopted, Bangladesh could
meet its food needs as well as put vast numbers of people to work.
Whether the new Bangladesh has the political will to adopt such
policies remains to be seen.
In addition to agricultural development, there is a need to create
many more sources of non-farm incomes for rural people. This will
also require substantial policy change aimed to encourage the production
of goods for local consumption. An example is the production of
textiles. Bangladesh produced some of the finest cotton textiles
in the sub-continent; indeed, Dhaka was once considered to be the
Manchester of South Asia. Now the local textiles industry has all
but been destroyed by machine-woven imports. If government adopted
an appropriate rural industrial framework, the weaving industry
could potentially be revived.
The urgent need to stem Bangladesh's deepening tide of rural poverty
is beyond dispute. However, the development strategies pursued by
government and international donors over the past several decades
have emphasized urban-based industrial development. This industrial
development strategies has done little for the rural poor and has
diverted resources away from the rural sector. The general pattern
of international assistance has emphasized physical infrastructure,
food and commodity aid rather than other options which would potentially
have a more beneficial impact on the poor.
Canada is currently reassessing its development assistance program
to Bangladesh. Bangladesh has been a high priority for Canadian
aid and Canada has contributed over a billion dollars worth of assistance
since 1973. Over this period the emphasis has been on food and commodity
aid, although there are some promising signs that Canada is adopting
a more poverty-focussed strategy. However, there remain some serious
constraints and contradictions. One policy which needs to be abandoned
is the requirement that a large percentage of Canadian aid be tied
to the purchase of Canadian goods and services. Tied-aid policies
are inappropriate for poor country like Bangladesh; the tied-aid
rule presents the danger that Canadian aid will be predicated on
domestic political and economic considerations, rather than on what
Bangladesh needs. Another problem is the Canadian practice of restricting
access of Bangladesh textiles to the Canadian market. Such trade
practices mean that our aid and trade policies work at cross-purposes.
All this may seem along way from the current crisis facing Bangladesh.
However, without dealing with the problems of increasing poverty
and an inappropriate development strategy, Bangladeshis will continue
to suffer. The wrenching, daily existence of the majority of Bangladesh's
people rarely reaches the headlines, but it is this long term disaster
which must be addressed.
(Peter Gillespie works for INTER
PARES, an international development organization based
in Ottawa. An edited version of this article appeared in the 9 May
edition of the Globe and Mail)
If you found this article valuable, please consider donating to Connexions.
Connexions exists to connect people working for justice with information, resources, groups, and with the memories and experiences of those who have worked for social justice over the years. We can only do it with your support.