MDG sets poverty line at Tk 15 a day: Campaigners remain silent over deflated targets

Tanim Ahmed*, NewAge, October 18, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Anti-poverty campaigners are not aware of the actual value of the poverty benchmark of $1 in purchasing power parity set by the UN Millennium Development Goals. Although they agree that the measurement of poverty should be redefined and modified to one more appropriate to the local context, initiatives and programmes taken up by many of these activists do not question either the flawed poverty reduction targets set by the government or the rather low poverty benchmark.

According to an MDG progress report, jointly published by the government and the UNDP, about half the population of Bangladesh earned less than a ‘dollar a day (PPP)’ or less than Tk 15 in 2005. According to this document, Bangladesh’s poverty reduction target is to reduce this proportion of people (earning below Tk 15 per day) from 50 per cent to 29.4 per cent by 2015.

Publications, monitoring reports and assessments of the development goals brought out by citizens’ organisations and anti-poverty campaigners, who are also part of larger coalitions and networks to fight poverty, continue to reproduce the data without questioning the validity or authenticity of the government’s poverty reduction targets.

Taking into account the data of the World Development Report 2007 (per capita income of $470 and $2,090 in PPP), the MDG poverty line for Bangladesh is Tk 15 per day, meaning that an individual earning more than that amount would be considered one above the poverty line.

Sayed-ul-Alam Kazal, coordinator of Bangladesh secretariat for the People’s Forum on MDGs, said the value of $1 PPP fluctuated but wrongly put it in the range of Tk 69 to 70, which happens to be the value of market dollars.

He agreed that the definition of this poverty benchmark should be modified to suit the local context. Kazal told New Age on Wednesday that advocacy was a continuous process and that it continued in different forms across the country. ‘The people’s forum is a coalition of coalitions. Our main objective is to raise the awareness of the people about what the development goals actually are.’

Similar forums in other countries, such as the Philippines, have already lobbied and convinced their respective governments to redefine and modify their poverty benchmarks to something that are more acceptable. Officials of the UN Millennium Campaign have previously vowed to support any such move from the citizens’ organisations of any country but point out that it is essentially the responsibility of these campaigners.

Atiur Rahman, chairman of Unnayan Samunnay, a non-governmental organisation, and also the local chapter of the Social Watch, said Bangladesh might reach the development targets on time but that would hardly change the scenario. He also agreed that the poverty benchmark had to be redefined according local needs. ‘I prefer to use the term localising our development goals so that they are more meaningful.’

Anu Muhammad, a professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University, said the UN development goals were in fact a retreat from the level of ambition that had been set by the Bangladesh government in its five-year plans. ‘These targets actually lower the level of ambition and would amount to nothing meaningful even if they are achieved.’

Anu told New Age, ‘There is a continuous effort to change the methodology to measure poverty so that it undercounts the poor and projects a better image of poverty around the world.’ He said the ‘dollar a day (PPP)’ devised by the World Bank was also such a ploy.

‘I do not think poverty is a problem by itself but a manifestation of problems elsewhere. Thus reduction of poverty must be approached through productive and social sectors.’ He said otherwise one would merely engage in an ornamental approach which would allow the basic reasons of poverty to remain as they are.

*Tanim Ahmed works for NewAge, a leading english daily newspaper in Dhaka, Bangladesh. he can be reached at: tanimahmed@gmail.com

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