Not Lost in Translation, After All.
I arrived in Bangladesh on the 9th of February 2012 and by the 11th I was in the field in the northern char areas, traveling with DEW to hear from farmers about their struggles and strengths as they adapt (or not) to the changing climate. We spent long days hearing from dozens of farmers like the indigenous Garo women of Tatihati village in Sherpur District.
Sitting in a central area surrounded by homes made of corrugated metal, the packed dirt ground freshly swept of debris, we listened to the women tell us stories of crop damage due to exceptionally foggy weather over the last several seasons. At the end of the meeting one woman approached me and said she has no hope for herself, but rather hopes for a better life for her children. Another woman simply asked me to pray for her. Nothing more.
Finally, a few women came close to me, clearly asking something and making forward clawing motions in the air with their hands. Confused, I turned to the person translating for me. He hesitated, and then explained the government has a program where the Ultra Poor (also referred to as Hardcore Poor) can get a job digging in the dirt to fill up holes in the road for food. I had no response. I thought perhaps I misunderstood or the language barriers limited explanation.
As we were walking back to our vehicles, I suddenly became overwhelmed not only by the sheer desperation of these suffering women, but also by the official answer to that desperation.
Several weeks later I reviewed a World Bank report from 2011 talking about the current economic status of Bangladesh. It turns out I did not misunderstand the translation: the formal government policy was spelled out in this report.
“Food for Work – this program operates in rural areas only. The beneficiaries are generally women selected by the Union Parishad who must be fit and willing to work in infrastructure projects in the area for food. The work includes planting trees, digging canals, building embankments, road building and maintenance, etc. The total budget allocation for this program in the current fiscal year is Tk9.9 billion” (World Bank, 2011, p. 12).
I also found another…
“Test Relief – a program administered by the Ministry of Food and Disaster Management, and undertaken as needed following large-scale or localized disasters. The participants are largely self-selecting, with wages and labor requirements set to discourage the non-poor from participating. Workers are paid 3.5 kg rice or wheat for every day of work.” (bold emphasis is mine)
This blatant exploitation of the vulnerability of the poor is breathtaking. People are starving so they’ll work for anything, in any capacity. In times of crisis, it is the poor who suffer most. For example, inflation is an ongoing concern in Bangladesh, but inflation of food prices is particularly acute. The World Bank reported in 2011 overall inflation year-on-year was 10.5% while food inflation was at 14%, noting food prices were last this high during the 2008 food crisis.
Food makes up 66% of the total household consumption expenses of the poorest 40 percent of households in Bangladesh. Rice, the main staple, accounts for about 33% of total household expenditures. Compare that to the US: A quick google search told me Americans spend about 10% of their household consumption on food. So when food prices rise globally, Americans are far more insulated from hunger than poor Bangladeshi families.
While arable land is increasingly being “developed” for industrial uses (further exacerbating the intense poverty and hunger), a majority of it remains cultivated for food, with rice production, at over 30 million metric tons, largest crop in Bangladesh. The irony of course is that those who produce the nation’s food are nonetheless struggling to feed themselves.
This blog started off as an overview of rice farming in Bangladesh. But I hope as you watch this video of stunning landscapes and hard-working people you keep in mind the heavy cost paid by those tilling the soil.