From famine to food basket: how Bangladesh became a model for reducing hunger

A recent UN report on global hunger highlights Bangladesh – a onetime food basket case – for having cut chronic hunger by more than half since 2000.

Pavel Rahman/AP/File
Bangladeshi Muslims gather to buy traditional food items for breaking fast on the first day of holy Ramadan at Chalk Bazar market in Dhaka, Bangladesh. A recent UN report on global hunger highlights Bangladesh – a onetime food basket case – for having cut chronic hunger by more than half since 2000.

Four decades ago, the newly formed and desperately poor South Asian nation of Bangladesh saw its already-high levels of extreme poverty and chronic hunger skyrocket with floods, leading to the Bangladesh famine of 1974.

Farmers and farmland were swallowed up in rampaging waters, distribution of the imported food supplies that the country depended on became impossible, and an estimated 1.5 million people died. The country – which former Beatle George Harrison raised money and awareness for in the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh – became associated for the long term with hunger and malnutrition.

Today, the onetime food basket case has transformed into something of a food basket – and a model for hunger reduction for the rest of the world.

A recent United Nations report on global hunger highlights Bangladesh for having cut chronic hunger by more than half since 2000. The generally upbeat report, which finds that the number of hungry people worldwide has fallen to 795 million from 1 billion in 1990, cites Bangladesh as one of a number of bright spots in a global effort to eradicate hunger by 2030.

“Bangladesh is one of three success stories of the last 10 to 15 years – Ethiopia and Nepal are the other two – that give us some hope on this goal” of eliminating hunger, says Glenn Denning, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York and a noted expert in development and nutrition.

“These kinds of successes have demonstrated that if you bring certain things together” – he lists economic growth, improved agricultural productivity, a focus on farmers’ market accessibility, and social safety nets for the most vulnerable – “you can bring hunger down.”

In Bangladesh’s case, a revolution in rice production beginning in the 1980s has helped turn a country that was dependent to some degree on food imports into a self-sufficient producer. Small-farm mechanization, irrigation, and particular attention to boosting women’s participation in the economy, along with girls’ education, have combined to erase the old image of Bangladesh as a hunger hot spot.

“I would list three drivers of poverty reduction and hunger reduction, and all those things are happening in Bangladesh today,” says Akhter Ahmed, chief of strategy support at the Dhaka, Bangladesh, office of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

He lists regular economic growth; “human development,” which he defines as a focus on education, health, and nutrition; and a “safety net” that provides cash transfers and other assistance to that part of the population that can’t participate in the “growth process” as the “essentials” that have worked together to bring down high poverty and hunger rates.

“I do believe Bangladesh can serve as a model,” Dr. Ahmed says, “particularly to other countries in South Asia that haven’t done so well.”

One standout poor performer in the neighborhood is India, which, despite its regularly higher economic growth rates, has been a laggard in hunger reduction. The UN report places India atop the world hunger list with 195 million chronically hungry people – or about a quarter of the world’s underfed total of 795 million.

But another big neighbor, China, accounted for two thirds of the global reduction in hunger since 1990.

India’s stubbornly high hunger numbers amid impressive economic growth have led to what Columbia’s Dr. Denning says is widely referred to as the “Indian enigma.” But underneath the head-scratching, he says, is a web of “complex issues,” ranging from stalled rural development (particularly roads to get food production to market) to cultural factors.

Not the least of those cultural factors, for example, is rural Indians’ preference for what is delicately referred to as “open defecation.” That practice leads to sanitation and public health problems, which are linked to high rates of malnutrition and hunger.

In contrast to India, Ahmed notes, Bangladesh in its four decades of independence from Pakistan has been open to deep cultural change – like a generalized participation of women in the economy, notably in the garment industry – and to a significant role for nongovernmental organizations. Those are both identified as important factors in Bangladesh’s reduction of hunger.

Bangladesh is the birthplace of what has become a global movement for microfinance, by which very small loans enable small-business creation that in turn boosts economic development.

It was also a pioneer in the area of social safety-net development with its “Food for Education” program. In the 1990s (and with the help of US foreign aid dollars), the program launched the idea of providing cash or food vouchers to families that pledged to send their kids to school.

The idea has now spread around the world, with the UN hunger report citing such safety-net programs as a key to reducing hunger – while crediting the implementation of such programs in Brazil, Mexico, Honduras, and elsewhere for Latin America’s reduction in chronic hunger.

In addition to those elements, Ahmed of IFPRI recalls how the government of Bangladesh responded to what became known globally as “the great food crisis” of 2007-08. Food-importing Bangladesh was caught off guard when India suddenly halted food exports to respond to a global spike in food prices. Efforts were redoubled and new ideas implemented to ensure that Bangladesh would become self-sufficient in food production.

“I really haven’t seen the willingness anywhere else that successive governments in Bangladesh have had to reform and to try new ideas to achieve social improvement,” says Ahmed, who has worked in a number of developing countries from Asia to Africa.

None of which is to say that Bangladesh has solved its hunger problem.

Bangladesh, Ahmed says, has three key hunger challenges: continuing chronic hunger, with the UN report finding that about 27 million Bangladeshis are still underfed; “transient food insecurity,” or the sporadic lack of sufficient food supplies, largely as a result of the natural disasters that Bangladesh has increasingly experiences; and what Ahmed calls the “hidden hunger” resulting from nutritional deficiencies.

This last factor includes what many international experts consider to be Bangladesh’s biggest failing in an otherwise impressive food production and accessibility policy: its stubbornly high child stunting rate. “More than one third of children are still stunted,” says Ahmed, using a term that refers to a child’s height in relation to age. “This tells us that nutrition is still poor and that there is too much dependence on rice in the diet.”

Globally, experts see a largely parallel, but in some aspects differing, story. Like Bangladesh, the world must still press ahead on reducing chronic hunger, and developing countries in particular will have to focus increasingly on food-production disruption as a result of climate change.

And food waste – whether it’s the tons of good food that go in the developed world’s dumpsters, or the high food loss in developing countries from poor storage and inadequate transportation – will have to be addressed everywhere.

But Denning says that even as the world tackles those challenges, it will have to confront what he describes as the “much more complicated” scenario of 21st-century “malnutrition” – which includes both under-nutrition and over-nutrition, increasingly in the same countries.

“What is so alarming is how rapidly this double burden of malnutrition, with continuing under-nutrition at one end accompanying skyrocketing rates of over-nutrition and obesity at the other, is occurring in poor countries,” he says. “Many poorer countries suddenly find themselves having significant numbers of people in both baskets, and they are not prepared to deal with it.”

Denning, who is a regular consultant to the UN on nutrition and development issues, says he’s watching for world leaders to pay more attention to the double malnutrition burden that developing countries face as they move toward adoption of a list of global “sustainable development goals” in September. So far, however, he sees negotiators of the new goals giving the emerging problem too little attention.

What does give Denning hope is the growing attention he sees the world paying to hunger and malnutrition issues. “We know we have the tools to bring down hunger,” he says. “When you see everybody from Bill Gates to the leaders of the [Group of Seven] putting up big resources to address this, you know it’s an issue that’s out there, and one that people know has a solution.”

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