Bangladesh: Of Disasters and
A Disastrous Development

Peter Gillespie

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 is required.

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)



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