Rallying Against Poverty

Aitur Rahman
Like-Minded Envirnomental Activist Group (LMAEG)

The Bangladesh Country Paper presented at the 1995 Social Summit committed to solve "the problems of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy" on a priority basis, to achieve a "comprehensive social and human development" in Bangladesh. Nearly a year has passed since the Social Summit. It will be interesting to see how public policies, particularly the government’s resource allocation mechanisms have been reflecting the commitments made by it at the summit.

The annual budget, normally announced in the month of June each year, is the most important occasion for demonstrating the government’s renewed pledges, and giving some indication of how far it can go fulfilling those commitments (in terms of allocation of public expenditure).

The Finance Minister of Bangladesh, while presenting the annual budget for 1995–96, reminded the nation that poverty alleviation was the most important item on the agenda of the government:

"Throughout the term of our government we focussed topmost priority to the alleviation of poverty. Quintessentially poverty constitutes the denial of a basic human right, the right to realize one’s true worth and potential. Poverty is not only of hunger, but of health, of nutrition, of knowledge, and of opportunities. Our enhanced investments on education, health, family welfare and other social services are directed towards the alleviation of poverty in the broadest sense."

Despite such bold statements, the progress made on the poverty front has not been entirely satisfactory. But this should not be interpreted as though nothing has been achieved. Definitely, some progress has been made in terms of lowering the percentage of the population below the poverty line, but the total number of the poor is still staggering, and constitutes the Bangladesh’s biggest development challenge. More than 40 million people live below poverty level income in Bangladesh, and this figure itself is an indication of a dismal picture. A number of more disturbing trends have been noted:

The poor are not a homogeneous entity. There remains a persistant hardcore poor (around 30% of the population), and their number is increasing. Again, nothing substantial has been done to check the growth of poverty at source. One result is that the number of marginal farmers is on the increase. They have not yet attracted sympathetic attention from the policy makers.

There are still pockets of seasonal food shortage and hence sudden aggravation of extreme poverty in those pockets during the lean seasons.

Women are the worst hit by poverty. The female–headed households are the poorest of the poor and deserve special attention. There is a fluid situation in the make up of those people in poverty. While some are doing modestly better and climbing up the poverty ladder, many more are also falling down the ladder.

1994–95 witnessed a contraction of agricultural production and hence the local food prices have risen.

Food prices are still uncertain and the country has been experiencing its largest food gap with a subsequent rise in food imports. Since rural poverty is highly sensitive to both food production and food prices, there is definitely a cause for concern for those who are below or close the poverty line.

The government’s budget allocations for poverty alleviation in sectors like agriculture, rural development, physical infrastructure, education, health family welfare, amd social welfare has been increasing in quantitative terms, although the same does not hold true in percentage terms.

According to an estimate, 29% of the annual revenue budget went for the above sectors in 1994–95, and the figure for the 1995–96 revenue budget is 28.4%. The development budget shows a similar trend. Together, the allocations (both development and revenue) have been stagnating at 34% of the total budget.

The allocations for education in both revenue and development budgets (1995–96) have not been encouraging either. The current budget (1995–96) has allocated 13.91% of its revenue expenditure and 12.27% of its development expenditure for education. Last year’s revised budget allocations for education were 14.13% (revenue) and 13.97% respectively. That means in percentage terms there actually has been a decline in the allocations. However, the size of the budget has expanded significantly and the total figures in total terms are perhaps much higher. The same is true for the health and family welfare subsector.

Mass primary education and the expansion of secondary school education, particularly for girls, are massive and important programmes, among others. School textbooks are supplied free to all primary school children. As an incentive to the poor to send their children to school, a food for education program (FFEP) has been launched. Under this programme, 1000 unions (our of 4451) have been covered through 1995, and wheat is provided free to poor families for sending their children to schools. In order to encourage female participation (particularly in rural secondary schools), the Government has exempted all girl students from tuition fees. This programme has had some success. Female enrollment as a percentage of total enrolment increased as shown in the table underneath:

   Year    Female enrolment over total
1981 27 %
1990 34 %
1994 42 %

Thus, overall secondary enrollment indicates a narrowing of the gender gap. Besides these programmes, there is now a national and global consciousness that the status of women needs improvement through integrating women in the development process. Women have to be socially and economically productive in order to improve their quality of life. The government of Bangladesh has a national and international commitment, and has undertaken a number of programmes to achieve that goal. The prominent programmes involve

  • integration of women in the development process
  • increasing employment and income opportunities of women and
  • expansion of health facilities, child care and family welfare services.

Health and family planning is another important component of social sector which has received great attention from the government and family planning coverage has increased. The infant mortality rate has been reduced from 94 to 84(per thousand live births) in 1990, the maternal mortality rate to 4.5 and life expectancy at birth has increased to 58% year from 56%. The success of the EPI and the increased use of oral rehydration therapy has contributed significantly to improving child survival. The contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) has increased to about 45% and the fertility rate has fallen from 4.3 per women to 3.4. ("Economic Review", 1995, GOB)

However, allocation is one thing, and the incidence of actual expenditure on different sub–sectors may have quite different implications.

Although the budgetary allocation for primary schools has increased (44% of the total educational budget in 1994–95), it is far below the expected figure, for example, in South Korea, which is 84%, and in Indonesia, 79%.

Only an insignificant proportion of the increased budget goes to improving the quality of education. Not even 1% of the total education budget goes for teacher training. For example, Bangladesh spends around 3–4% of GDP on education, as against 10% in Zimbabwe.

Even this expenditure is spent unwisely. Bangladesh spent Taka 532 for a primary school student in 1990–91, as against Tk 4273 per madrasha (religious student). A pre–military school student got Tk.40300. Unless one questions such differentiations within the educational budget, it will be quite misleading to assert that greater emphasis is given to the education sector for poverty alleviation. Some improvements have been made, however in women’s participation in education. The Independent Review of Bangladesh Development (1995) clearly sees this improvement with some reservations:

"...in recent years there has been some improvement in the allocations priorities given to primary education which are reflected in improved enrolment rates and improved female participation at all levels. These gains have been largely realized through a substantial increment in investments by aid donors in improving the reach of the primary education system. In most other areas, whilst modest gains have been registered, particularly in the rate of female participation at all levels, both as students and teachers, there is widespread concern at the qualitative deterioration in the educational system of Bangladesh." (Centre for Policy Dialogue, 1995: 417).

The impact of modest gains in female participation in education is yet to be felt in the wider context of gender development. The gender situation in Bangladesh is still appalling.

Situation of Women in Different Economic Roles

Gender Inequalities

The situation of women continues to be dismal despite some successful micro–interventions in their favour. The macro–policy analysis has not yet made gender equality the central concern for development. Planning and investment priorities are yet to be reoriented to develop gender sensitive strategies. The Fourth Five Year Plan of Bangladesh acknowledged that an overwhelming majority of women in Bangladesh are illiterate, malnourished, poor and deprived. By traditional and cultural norms, women enjoy much lower status compared to men. The discrimination in the treatment of male and female starts at birth and continues throughout the different phases of life. Gender inequality is established through socio–economic inequality and distribution of authority and assets between sexes as determined by the family organization and stratification of society. Even within the same socio–economic class, women are worse off than men in their nutritional, health, educational and social status. Women’s roles are generally limited to the domestic roles of a daughter, wife or mother in the family. The nutritional and health status of women and girls remains extremely poor. In Bangladesh boys under five years of age receive 16% more food than girls of that age group, and girls face a greater risk of malnutrition in times of famine (UNCTAD 1991)

The daily per capita calory intake for women (1599 K.Cal) is lower than for men (1927 K.Cal) which also highlights the higher incidence of chronic, long–term malnutrition among women (Battacharya, 1994). Contrary to global norms, the life expectancy at birth is lower for females in Bangladesh. The average age for marriage is 18 years. Female wages are generally lower than male wages for similar work. Wage rates for women in Bangladesh are about 58% of those of men, and go as far down as 43% during the slack season.

The contributions of women to the production of goods and services have remained undervalued, because most of these activities have been provided on a non–monetized basis. However, recently, rural poor women are defying tradition out of economic necessity and are seeking employment to supplement their family income.

According to the Labour Force Survey (1989) 20.90 million women were in the civilian labour force, which constitutes 41.4% of the total civilian labour force. In 1985/86 there were 3.20 million women in the labour force. A note of caution here is that activities which in 1986/86 were not counted are counted in 1989 as economic activities, which drastically increased the participation rate of female workers. Out of 20.90 million female workers, only 1.50 million are urban females. Self employment in rural areas and wage employment in urban areas are the major economic activities of the female labour force inBangladesh. The agriculture, forestry and fishery sectors are the largest employers of female labour (90%). The production, transport and service sectors are the second most important sectors (7%). Only 8000 out of 20.762.000 females are in administrative jobs. This pattern of female labour has been changing rapidly. At present around 800.000 female workers are working in the Ready Made Garments (RMG) area where approximately 84% of the workers in the garment industries are female (World Bank, 1994)

Rural Women and Their Work

Women are at present actively taking part in the field of agriculture and are surpassing their traditional boundary of post–harvest work. Studies by NGOs and Grameen Bank revealed that rural women have the potential for becoming important food producers and earning an adequate income if they are provided with the necessary access to credit, skills and human development training. (Rothschild and Mahmud, 1989). Increased incidence of female headed households resulted in women’s active roles in the monetized economy. In addition, men’s increasing rural out–migration has left women as farm managers of marginal and small holdings. The participation of women in small scale fisheries is also quite substantial. The marketing of fish in the coastal areas is predominantly in the hands of women. (Rothschild and Mahmud, 1989).

In some parts of Bangladesh, women take part in weeding and harvesting activities. Gender disparity in wage rates in these activities is quite evident. In the rabi season of 1992, the male wage rate was 35 Tk./day, whereas the female wage rate was 25 Tk./day in Dinajpur, a northern district of Bangladesh. (IFPRI–CIMMYT Wheat Farm Survey, 1992–93). The employers argued that although the productivity differential was minimal, the weak bargaining power of the women’s labour force resulted in these significant disparities.

Urban Women and Their Work

Female workers accounted for 14% of the total manufacturing employees in 1988–89 in Bangladesh. (Battacharya, 1994, calculated using CMI). Participation of female workers in joint venture projects was highest (35 person per unit), followed by the public sector (20 per unit).

Most of the urban women workers are engaged in garments, textiles, pharmaceuticals, electronics and fish processing. Sectorial distribution of female manufacturing employment remains very skewed where the garments sector alone employs 77% of the women industrial workers. (Bhattacharya, 1994). Female employees share of the total wage bill in the manufacturing sector remained at 8%. The female–male wage differential is 49% but this gap has been much lower in the export–oriented industries. Majumder and Zohir (1993) found in a sample survey that women workers are young and the proportion of female workers in the reproductive age group –20–30 years of age– is 46%. Only 61% of female workers had a written job contract, whereas 73% of male workers did. Vertical mobility of female labour remains very narrow and horizontal mobility sometimes results in lower wages for women. Married women remained more mobile and earn comparatively more than unmarried women and the presence of young children did not hinder their mobility.

Perception of the Poor About Public Expenditure: The People’s Initiative

Proshika, a leading NGO in Bangladesh, has been playing a greater advocacy role for increased public expenditure for the poorer sectors. Immediately after the announcement of the budget, IDPA, an advocacy institute of Proshika, organized a public seminar on how poor people perceived the national budget. In addition toscientific presentations from the academics and policy makers, the poor themselves participated in the debate on public resource allocation. A paper presented by Dr. Atiur Rahman of BIDS concluded that:

  • Like other organized groups, (e.g., chambers, professionals), the poor should also be consulted while preparing national budgets.
  • A certain proportion of the national budget (50%+) should be earmarked for poverty alleviation.
  • The government programmes/policies should try to replicate success stories on poverty alleviation made by NGOs in Bangladesh.
  • There should be a continuous monitoring of public expenditure by both the experts and the poor.

Some representatives of the poor also shared some of the above concerns. Below we quote a few of them:

Kulsum, from Chanpara slum, Dhaka:

"Budget can never be fair. Every year we see the Finance Minister giving budget through TV. By raising fingers he gives various amounts to the poor. But in reality we never see those money. There are 40.000 people in Champara slum. Why there is no government school there? Why there is no health centre there? Why there is no electricity in this slum? But some NGOs have moved in. We at least have some rays of hope".

Mohammad Sohel, Mohakhali Chowdhury Para, Dhaka

"The children in Bangladesh are the most unfortunate. They cannot go up. Nearly half of the Dhaka dwellers are poor. They do not have shelter, clothes and medical facilities. The government wants us to save. But how can we do this? The poor can hardly meet these needs. We do not have our representatives and the representatives of the rich would not speak for us. This discussion on budget organized by IDPA caught public eyes and local press picked up the idea. So Proshika has started monitoring budget and plans to present the findings every year."

Another significant development has been the grand rally of the poor recently concluded in Dhaka. It is estimated that about 200.000 poor belonging to people’s organizations came to that rally. The local press again welcomed this development.

Jonokantha, one of the largest Bangla dailies had this to say about that rally:

"The urban elites were visibly surprised to see the wretched of the earth coming from rural areas and slums and speaking one after another on the rostrum without any hesitation about their rights and dreams.

These were not puppets. They were the confident bunch of people speaking fearlessly on their behalf."

Sangbad, a well known daily said:

"This was perhaps one of the biggest mobilizations of the recent times. The grassroots leaders expressed their concerns about growing poverty. This event clearly negates the claims of the government about the success of poverty alleviation programmes."

The Daily Star, an English newspaper said:

"As believers in the worth of the poor themselves to change their lot, we noticed with great satisfaction that those who participated in the convention are no ordinary rack–pickers of paupers, rather they have gathered some experiences in the art of economic self–reliance. They are organized and rudimentarily successful among the teeming millions of poor in the country, the pioneer generation ready to show the way out of the mire their unorganized brethren are stuck in."

Surely, if the findings of the annual budget review now being conducted on behalf of the poor can be shared with them every year in a rally like this, it will go a long way in realizing some of the aspirations of the social summit.