Tracey Koehlmoos: The view from Bangladesh on global poverty reduction

A report released by the World Bank on 29 February highlighted that, despite the global recession, the number of people living on $1.25 per day has reduced across all regions of the world. For South Asia in general the bank reported that the poverty rate fell from 61 percent to 39 percent between 1981 and 2005 and fell a further 3 percentage points between 2005 and 2008. The proportion of the population living in extreme poverty is now the lowest since 1981. The world has achieved the Millennium Development Goal 1 (MDG 1) to reduce extreme poverty by half, years ahead of the 2015 deadline, despite the economic downturn and slow recovery in the United States and Europe.

In Bangladesh, the situation is also very promising. In July 2011, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics in partnership with the World Bank released the results of the Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES), which was conducted in 2010. The findings showed that poverty had declined from 40% in 2005 to 31.5% in 2010. Further, in a country where approximately 72% of the population still lives in rural areas, the good news was that rural poverty had declined from 43.8% to 35.2% during that same period.

In terms of achieving the proportion of population living below the upper poverty limit, at the baseline in 1991, the poverty level was 56.6% and the target is 29%—so that the current standing at 31.5% puts Bangladesh well on target to achieve this MDG. Further the poverty gap ratio (9%) was already within one point of its target (8%) as early as 2005. In the event you missed that day in development economics during graduate school, I can help you by pointing out that the poverty gap ratio is the mean shortfall of the total population from the poverty line which is then expressed as a percentage of the poverty line.

The improvements in Bangladesh have been visible over the last seven years, especially in the urban areas. Construction has been booming. My students and junior colleagues have been buying cars and computers—which were previously considered luxuries. Even the venerable rickshaw is starting to become motorised. Although environmentally, I am not sure that more motor vehicles are a good sign or a bad sign.

Also, a surprising number of the poor and people in rural areas have mobile phones. When I first moved to Bangladesh I was amazed that the people who worked in my house had mobile phones and still it is amusing when visiting a poor household in a remote corner of Bangladesh that someone’s cellphone receives a text. (In the US, mobile phones and their coverage always seem so cost prohibitive so that I end every conversation saying, “Please, can you send me an e-mail, I am about to run out of minutes.”)

More importantly perhaps is that Bangladesh has maintained greater than 6% per year economic growth since 1996. This level of growth was resilient to the global financial crisis despite repeated natural disasters (like Cyclone Sidr). The great strength of the nation is in the power of the people. To me, the most awe inspiring sight in Bangladesh is the army of young women walking to work in the garment industry each morning. It is the most amazing display of beautiful and determined faces, with every other woman wearing orang,e that peaks around 7.45 am on the streets of Dhaka. In the fiscal year 2010, the total exports from their labours brought US $12.3 billion to the nation. Further, some 1,500 young men leave Bangladesh every day to work abroad, primarily in the Middle East. Their remittances totaled approximately US$11 billion in FY10, accounted for almost 25% of GDP.

Despite the tremendous progress, it still seems that there are miles to go to achieve equity in the nation. More work is needed particularly in female employment and in creating economic growth in lagging areas like the coastal areas and the urban slums.Tracey Koehlmoos is programme head for health and family planning systems at ICDDR,B and adjunct professor at the James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.