Are MDGs an adequate mean to end poverty?

Zahid Rahman and Choyon Kumar Saha, Unnayan Shamannay,
Md. Mujibul Haque Munir EquityBD

Is Bangladesh responsible for its fate?

“The morality of global warming or climate change, or environmental degradation, is really quite simple. it steals from future generations, it penalises the poor, it is exaggerated by greed, it puts diversity at risk. Environmental pollution hurts all of life; it is in the interest of every living thing for human beings to do something about it”-Bishop George Browning, Convenor of the Anglican Communion Environment Network (2007).[1]

According to the World Risk Report-2012 of the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), the Alliance Development Works and The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Bangladesh is one of the most natural disaster prone countries in the world, occupying the 5th position among 173 countries. Bangladesh scores 63.78 percent in vulnerability, 86.84 and 61.03 percent in lack of coping and adaptive capacities respectively[2]. Risk of natural hazards along with others (e.g. social, economic and technological) is gradually amplifying, and worsening the human conditions of more and more people in all parts of the country, frequently affected by tropical cyclones, flood, drought and earthquakes. Climate change impacts affect achieving the MDGs of Bangladesh, particularly Goal One – eradicating poverty and hunger. Climate change is likely to directly impact the poor’s livelihoods in many ways, their assets and resources, their employment, income, access to water and natural resources. The poor in Bangladesh will face more food insecurity, water stress and health problems because of the rapidly changing climate that also undermines significantly the efforts to reduce poverty.[3]

But a huge question can be raised here: if Bangladesh is lagged behind in achieving the MDGs due to climate change, who will be held responsible? Is Bangladesh itself responsible for this phenomenon? The answer is nowadays very well known and scientifically accepted: through their accumulated high level of carbon emissions, historically and presently, developed countries have created climate change. Bangladesh is not responsible for it, even when it is severely impacted by global warming.


Accomplishments in MDGs

Despite the continuous mounting of climate risk and Bangladesh’s struggle against unpredictable environmental challenges, the country has achieved remarkable progresses in some areas of the MDGs, particularly in primary schooling, gender parity in primary and secondary level education, decreasing extreme poverty, lowering the infant, child and maternal mortality, improving immunization coverage, and reducing the incidence of communicable diseases, according to various governmental and non-governmental reports. On MDG number 4 (reducing maternal mortality), Bangladesh is among the 16 countries[4] who have received UN recognition for being on track to achieve the targets. The areas that need further attention are environmental sustainability, malaria and other diseases prevention, employment generation, energy consumption, increasing girls’ attendance in tertiary education. Global partnership development (Goal 8) is also lagging behind in some areas. The table below summarizes the country’s achievements and deviations that need more attention.

Millennium Development Goals: Bangladesh Progress at a Glance[5]

Goals and Target

Base Year

Current Status

Target by 2015

Status of Progress

Goal 1: Eradicate Extreme Poverty & Hunger

1.1 Proportion of population below national upper poverty line


(HIES 2010)


On track

1.2 Employment to population ratio (15+),%


59.3 (LFS 2010)

For all

Need Attention

1.3 Proportion of population below minimum level of dietary energy consumption (2122)




Need Attention 

Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education

2.1 Net enrollment in primary education , %


94.9 (BANBEIS 2010)


On track 

Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women

3.1 Ratio of girls to boys in primary education


1.02(BANBEIS 2010)


Goal met

3.2 Ratio of girls to boys in secondary education


1.14(BANBEIS 2010)


Goal met

3.3 Ratio of girls to boys in tertiary education


0.39(BANBEIS 2010)


Need Attention 

Goal 4: Reduce Child Mortality

4.1 Under-five mortality rate (per 1000 live births)


50 (SVRS 2009)


On track

4.2 Infant mortality rate (per 1000 live births)


39 (SVRS 2009)


On track 

Goal 5: Improve Maternal Health

5.1 Maternal mortality ratio (per 100,000 live births)


194 (BMMS 2010)


On track 

Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Other Diseases

6.1 HIV prevalence among population, %


0.1 (MIS DGHS 2010)


On track

6.2 Prevalence of Malaria per 100,000 population


512.6 (MIS DGHS 2010)


Need Attention 

Goal 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability

7.1 Proportion of land area covered by forest, %


19.33 (DoF 2011)


Need Attention 

7.2 Consumption of ozone depleting CFCs in metric tons per capita


128 (DoE 2009)


Need Attention 

Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development

8.1 Proportion of bilateral ODA of OECD/DAC donors


100 (ERD 2010)


Goal met 


MDGs: Necessary means do not lead to justified ends

The MDGs in Bangladesh are seriously lacking of ownership, participation and partnership. which are the core principles in implementing pro-poor development strategies. The poor are the best experts on their own situation, but the goals and targets have been set with a top down approach. Those suffering from deprivation have not determined the priorities and have had no role in defining the concept of poverty and of what is needed to reduce poverty and suffering in the Bangladeshi context. The definition of poverty of Bangladesh or of any other developing countries should be multi-dimensional and cut across a variety of issues. The MDGs define poverty only based on income, ignoring many intangible factors which characterize poverty in this country. To be valued, to be treated with dignity, to be free to participate politically culturally and economically in one's society are also basic needs for a human being. Powerlessness, voicelessness, dependency and humiliation are also some other dimensions of poverty. So, in a broader sense, poverty eradication should include empowerment of people to acquire the tools to meet their needs, to create alternative and parallel power structures, to participate in political processes and to demand accountability from state and non-state institutions.

The MDG poverty reduction target for Bangladesh was set at 29.4 percent, which is half of the proportion of people in poverty than in the benchmark year of 1990. Even if the nation achieves the target, the total number of poor people would still remain extremely large in 2015, at some 40-50 million. If 2000, the year of the Millennium Declaration, had been chosen as benchmark, the target for poverty reduction would be more relevant. Considering recent population growth trends, it is estimated that by 2015 the actual number of poor persons can be about 60-62 million. Those left behind in the race to eradicate poverty will certainly be a most desperate, frustrated group of humanity.[6]


Debt and MDG: Debt repayment is hindering the MDG’s attainment

To achieve the MDGs within the timeline, the annual requirements of aid for Bangladesh were estimated at US$ 3.5 billion per year.[7] In actual terms, Bangladesh received US$ 1.58 billion on average annually from the donors. Bangladesh is not getting the support promised by the international community. The developed countries’ commitment of providing 0.7 percentage of their GDP as aid was made in the seventies, but only Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg and the Netherlands can claim to have met the target so far. The contributions from other rich countries are way below.

In Bangladesh, aid statistics show a large gap between the flow of total foreign aid and net foreign aid, due to the increasing volume of payments (principal) over the years. During July-March FY 2011-12, total foreign aid increased by 4.55 percent over the same period of FY 2010-11 but it was 20.89 percent lower than that of FY 2009-10. During the same period, total payment (principal) and total net foreign aid increased by 11.91 percent and 0.03 percent respectively compared with the same period of FY 2010-11.

Total debt of Bangladesh in FY 2010-11 amounts USD 23,322.417 millions – that is 22.21 percent of GDP. Total external debt of Bangladesh amounts USD 21,347.44 millions – that is 20.24 percent of GDP. The per capita debt burden in FY 2010-11 in Bangladesh has increased by 8.41 percent than that of FY 2009-10 (USD 151). In FY 2010-11, per capita debt burden stood at USD 163 that is 22.99 percent of per capita GDP and it might increase to USD 171.83 in FY 2014-15.[8]

Each year a major portion of the budget expenditure goes to interest payment. In FY 2006-07, 11 percent of the total development and non-development expenditure has been paid on interest payment, while payment on social security and welfare was only 4.9 percent. In FY 2009-10, the interest payment has risen to 13.9 percent while social security and welfare was only 7.3 percent.  


Debt cancellation: Way of the repatriation

According to World Bank and IMF calculations the debt-export ratio for Bangladesh stands at 146 percent, which is below the official threshold of 150 percent. According to Jeffrey Sachs (2005), debt relief is not aligned with the Millennium Development Goals. The targets for debt relief are based on arbitrary indicators (debt-export ratios) rather than MDG-based needs. Bangladesh has regularly paid its debts and expanded exports, and is now being punished for its success (Bhattacharya 2006). The pace of MDGs attainment is largely dependant on its financing, which can be possible shifting the so called debt servicing finances to the MDG activities. So Bangladesh demands a full debt cancellation for effective utilization of its own finances to achieve the MDG targets by stipulated time.


Bangladesh deserves climate justice

As climate change impact is creating severe hindrance in achieving the MDGs, Bangladesh deserves climate justice. It should be recognized and addressed by the international community that Bangladesh is least responsible for climate change while it is experiencing the greatest impact of that change. Historical responsibilities of high carbon emitting countries should be determined, and there should be established legally binding obligations to ensure compensation for Bangladesh. The government has earmarked more than U$S 10 billion in investments for the period 2007-2015 to make Bangladesh less vulnerable to natural disasters. Despite this effort, the direct annual cost of natural disasters over the last 10 years is estimated to be between 0.5 and 1 per cent of GDP.[9] A World Bank report estimates that Bangladesh needs about U$S 5.7 billions as adaptation cost to face the increased risks of cyclones and inland monsoon floods in a changing climate by 2050 – U$S 3.3 billions for railways, road networks, embankments and drainage infrastructure, and U$S 2.4 billions to avert further damage and loss from cyclonic storm surge in a changing climate.[10] This amount should come from the countries which are historically responsible for the phenomenon. Apart from compensation, Bangladesh also deserves technology and capacity building support from the industrialized countries.


The structure of IFIs must be revisited

The rules of international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank and the IMF for the developing countries are full of controversies and confusions. In the name of poverty reduction in the developing countries, these IFIs are actually triggering more complexities. The World Bank and the IMF often attach loan conditionalities based on what is termed as the ‘Washington Consensus’, focusing on liberalization of trade, investment and the financial sector, deregulation and privatization of nationalized industries. Often the conditionalities are attached without due regard for the borrower countries’ individual circumstances and the prescriptive recommendations by the World Bank and IMF fail to resolve the economic problems within the countries. [11] Moreover there is in fact no participation in decision making by the developing countries as the voting power is determined by the ‘dollar’, not by the ‘membership’. Bangladesh is already facing various financial constraints by IMF-imposed conditions like expanding regressive taxes, such as the VAT, and by reducing subsidies in essentials sectors. Therefore, a strong reform of the IFIs structure is needed. Decision of these bodies should be participatory; there should be a "one member, one vote" policy. 


Setting new Goals, Keeping sustainability in mind

New, effective sets of goals are needed for Bangladesh to ensure a sustainable development. But this should be within a framework of sustainability, ensuring the preservation of Mother Earth and the life and livelihood of all human beings. The MDGs have a "one size fit all" approach, not directly related to sharing the resources with equity and justice. In fact, all the UN covenants are based on equal rights to life and livelihood. Today the rights framework has to be widened to consider our rights as well as those of our Mother Earth. As a country, Bangladesh needs to identify its goals according to its own needs and the needs and the solutions should be defined from within the country.

[1]              Excerpted from James S. Pender, Climate Change, Its Impacts and Possible Community Based Responses in Bangladesh, 2010.

[2]              United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNUEHS), The Nature Conservancy, Alliance Development Works, World Risk Report-2012: Environmental Degradation and Disaster.

[3]UNDP Human Development Report 2007 , Background Paper on Risks, Vulnerability and Adaptation in Bangladesh

[5]              GOB (Government of Bangladesh), 2012, The Millennium Development Goals: Bangladesh Progress Report 2011

[6]              Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, The Millennium Development Goals: A Panacea or yet another agenda

[7]              MDGs Need Assessment and Costing 2009-2015 Bangladesh report, 2009

[8]              Unnayan Onneshon, Bangladesh Economic Update, 2011

[9]              GoB and UNDP, Assessment of Investment and Financial Flows to Adapt to the Climate Change Effects in the Agriculture Sector, 2011

[10]             The World Bank, The cost of Adapting to Extreme Weather Events in a Climate Change”