Category Archives: Poverty

Bangladesh: what went right and why were so many wrong?

Author: John Magrath

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Aklima Khatun (left) sends her village’s milk on its way to the dairy by rickshaw. First stop is a
chilling centre where it will be cooled and quality-checked for its fat content before being
transported to the main dairy. 
Rachel Corner/Oxfam 2013.

In my previous blog, I reflected on how and why Bangladesh had proved so many sceptics wrong: how in the 1970s and 1980s, Western media tended to see Bangladesh as impoverished, disaster-prone, and a Malthusian catastrophe in the making. In fact, the share of people living in poverty has shrunk and food security has improved for most people. As Oxfam GB’s CEO Mark Goldring observed on a recent visit back to the country where he worked in 1991, Bangladesh has reduced poverty by more than a million people per year since 2000 and every development indicator has shown remarkable improvement, including life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality, immunisation rates and female literacy.

A particular aspect of the gloomy predictions that I remember from my school days concerned the Green Revolution, which was then much in the news. Social scientists said that rich landowners would capture the benefits of the newly developed high-yielding strains of rice because they could afford irrigation, fertilisers and machines. Therefore they would get even richer and expand their farms by taking land off small farmers, while mechanisation would cut the need for wage labour and reduce the labour force to destitution. Thus, what would happen in Bangladesh would follow the pattern set by the agricultural revolution that convulsed Britain in the 19th century.

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Bangladesh: dispelling notions of gloom

Author:  John Magrath

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Joygun Islam at work with her husband Nazrul gathering chillies. Joygun is a member of the chilli producer group, and has been receiving training from Oxfam on growing and selling chillies. For her, they signify a huge change in her life over the last three years. Rachel Corner/Oxfam 2013.

When I was finishing my schooling back in – oh dear! – the 1970s, I recall writing an essay about Bangladesh, newly independent after a savage war. My memory is that I parroted the gloomy predictions common in British media at the time, that Bangladesh was a congested country prone to regular disasters and likely to be a candidate for a Malthusian catastrophe as population growth outstripped food supply.

And yet – thankfully – none of this has happened. Bangladesh today has twice as many people – now 150-plus million – but generally its population is better fed, better educated and less poor than was considered possible even 20 years ago. And what is more, the benefits of development have been spread widely; inequality has not increased. That too is remarkable because in the 1970s and 80s another assumption  was that in such a semi-feudal rural society, rich landowners would capture any rewards of development, especially the benefits of improved rice seeds, then expand their landholdings at the expense of the poor and generate a spiral of even greater inequality.

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Beyond Resilience to a New System?

Katherine Trebeck, Global Research Policy Advisor, Oxfam GB

Oxfam and many others have identified inequality as one of the defining challenges of our time.

We’ve launched a campaign – Even It Up, backed by a hefty report laying out why inequality undermines efforts to reduce poverty – it is not a matter of either/or.

In January 2014, just in time for Davos, we published a report which highlighted the extent to which a few people have amassed extraordinary wealth – 85 people own as much as the bottom half of the world’s population.

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