Democratising agriculture to end pauperisation of peasantry

September 8, 2009

By Tanim Ahmed*, NewAge, Anniversary Special, 8 September 2009

ONE of the sure signs of Bangladesh’s progress has been the increasing share of industries in the GDP and a steady decline of agriculture. From over 80 per cent, the share of agriculture has come down to about a fifth of the gross domestic product and is likely to decrease even further. But that is only part of the picture. In terms of employment agriculture is still the largest employer in the country and the driving force behind the rural economy. It employs about the half the labour force directly while almost two-thirds of the population, if not more, depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

According to projections, and despite increased migration from rural areas and agricultural vocation, the farm sector directly provides for the livelihoods of at least three crore people. A little more detail would clarify things even further. About 85 per cent of the farmers have holdings smaller than 2.5 acres (250 decimals) while it is said that 10 per cent of the people are landless, most whom find work in the farms. Again, and not surprisingly at all, concentration of agricultural land holdings is in the rural areas where almost three-fourths of the population live. Thus, in case of Bangladesh, but not at all unlike many other developing and least developed countries, agriculture could very well be the one sector that could bring benefits to the most deprived, downtrodden and poorest. If reforms and changes in the agricultural system beginning with the inputs to selling the produce generates benefits, then it could very well be presumed that those benefits are being accrued mostly to people who deserve them more than others.

To further make the case for agriculture, one need only look into the development paths of almost any developed or advanced developing country to see that the role that small-scale agriculture has played in those economies. It would also hold true for those economies that agriculture’s contribution decreased gradually as industrialisation took hold there. And even after they have become industrialised, agriculture continues to play a significant part of those economies, which is evident from the importance of trade negotiations in agricultural products under the World Trade Organisation, where developing countries like and India and Brazil as well as European Union and the United States are prepared to walk away risking blame when they don’t see any benefits for their farmers, or at least so they claim. Nonetheless, what becomes quite clear is that agriculture remains a very crucial part of the economy regardless of how matured it is. It remains a very sensitive part both politically and strategically for countries, because this sector provides the primary means towards food security without which everything else would amount to little.

There should be little debate that Bangladesh’s rules, regulations, policies or the administrative system related to agriculture needs substantial improvement, if not a complete overhaul. That there needs to be radical changes in the state’s policies governing the farm sector, should become obvious from the single fact that the 30 million people directly engaged in this sector are not even recognised as labour! The country’s labour laws concern themselves with industrial labour only. Consequently, there is no mechanism through which farm labourers or farmers themselves may expect some support from the government to ensure that their livelihoods are protected, except for some subsidies in fertilisers and sometimes in diesel.

That there should be changes, because the current system is not nearly good enough, should be quite evident. These changes, however, should have one overriding principle if the small and marginal farmers are to derive tangible benefits from agriculture. While some changes require sincere government efforts, other changes would best be articulated by the stakeholders, or farmers themselves. In order for this to happen, the problems faced mostly by the small and marginal farmers must be discussed. But even before that, the graver problems of increasing landlessness and unrelenting spread of corporate-style agriculture must be grappled with.

There is a strong contention that small-scale agriculture will never be able to compete with the economies of a scale that corporate agriculture could achieve. There are also counterarguments and debates regarding this. However, the reality is that Bangladesh’s agriculture is gradually, but surely, hurtling towards corporatisation. Already there are large patches of land in northern Bangladesh concentrated in a few hands, owing to the pervading poverty there. There are also increasing instances of companies or corporations leasing large tracts from the farmers and cultivating what they please, virtually turning small farmers into farm labourers. Sharecroppers find that the owners are turning their lands into fruit orchards because that means less hassle. Small-scale agriculture is gradually being threatened and that trend will all the more increase in future.

While this may be an inevitable fallout of industrialisation and a proliferation of food processing companies, it does seem that quite like other matters, the government is much late in reacting to trends triggered by private enterprise. Any casual observer would realise that agriculture is going through a transformation from the number of companies and brands selling such things as packed spices to fruit candies, from branded, packed and milled flour to locally produced and packed mustard oil. Urban consumers nowadays, and will increasingly in future, ponder over which brand of mustard oil is most fragrant and competition among spice brands are already evident in the television commercials. Increasingly less people will worry over where to get their mustard crushed or wheat milled. These trends only suggest that the entire agriculture sector is gradually becoming streamlined into a corporate system where farmers will have less and less option to sell their produce.

The existing system is such that the marginal or small farmers will invariably fail to secure a decent living from agriculture only. As a result, people who have been farmers for generations are compelled to change their vocations, or in the least have an alternative means of support besides agriculture. Needless to say, those who cannot are gradually reduced from small to marginal and from marginal to landless farmers. Factoring in corporate ventures in agriculture only suggests a faster rate of pauperisation of the peasantry.

But the millions of small farmers are not going to be transformed into agriculture labourers overnight. This process will take years, if not decades, to fully take hold of the sector. In the meantime small and marginal farmers are faced with myriad different obstacles to their livelihoods.

The first requirement for agriculture is land. But as of yet there are no land use policies that govern the future of arable land and its redistribution. There is a perceptible concentration of arable land with increasing investment in agribusiness. One study finds that if all government khas land is distributed among all the landless people in Bangladesh, it would ensure ownership of up to 100 decimals of land per head.

Although land reforms in the neighbouring West Bengal has seen marked improvement in agricultural productivity, this is a topic that would be frowned upon here since the very concept goes against a social fabric rooted on medieval feudalism. Ruling establishments, being an extension of that very feudal class, would instead turn to the second best option. But even on that front there has been little progress. In an open market, especially the predatory type that the governments generally practise in Bangladesh, the authorities are unlikely to initiate land reform or redistribution of government lands among the landless.

Moving on to agricultural inputs, mainly seed, fertiliser and pesticide, there is a constant shortage at the farmers’ end, especially in case of fertilisers. One thing to note here is that the country’s agricultural system has gradually become seriously dependent on chemical inputs and it appears that even in case of seeds, farmers will very quickly shift from traditional or high-yielding varieties to terminator seeds and then on to genetically modified seeds. Whether it was by design or default, whether it is a matter of conscious policy choice or not, the fact is that although the agricultural system is moving away from its traditional and natural roots to one dependent on artificial inputs, the government is losing its ability of effective intervention. Private quarters are gradually taking up the market of seeds and pesticides, often with little quality control or assessment of environmental impacts of pesticides.

In fact, the government machinery is increasingly being used in favour of private companies selling certain brands of products. Although there is substantial debate about unquestioned acceptance of terminator technology the policymakers have not engaged in consultation with the experts, scientists or farmers’ representatives to hear their opinion. On the other hand, the government has not scaled up its activities and initiatives appropriately to ensure that input supply matches with that of the rising demand.

It is widely recognised that chemical pesticides and herbicides destroy soil fertility severely and runoff from these lands ending up in nearby rivers and canals often kill off entire fish populations. Use of chemical pesticides has also severely limited fish production, which is part of the traditional rice farming system growing in the stagnant waters of paddy fields. Yet, there are no bars on sales of chemical pesticides, nor effective stress on use of natural and integrated pest management system.

That the farmers do not have access to sufficient finances is only evident from their desperation at the end of every harvest season when farmers are compelled to sell their produce, often at rock bottom prices only to be able to repay the local moneylenders charging exorbitant interest. In fact, there are no genuine agricultural loan packages from the government and the criteria applied by even the state-owned nationalised banks for agricultural loans automatically exclude the marginal farmers. The only mechanism meant for providing small farmers with some funds is the small loans of Tk 5,000 riddled with irregularity and corruption but even that is hardly an agricultural loan.

Compared to the loan packages, for instance ‘marriage loan’, ‘education loan’, ‘housing loan’ or ‘holiday loan’, meant for the urban consumers, of private banks the so-called agricultural loans do not take into consideration the crop cycle, its profitability, it growth cycle or its vulnerability. On the other hand, the urban consumer’s education loan factors in all those considerations. Besides this small loans programme there are no other policies or regulations that stipulate lending to the small farmers from any other financial institution or bank, private or public.

With increasing instances of extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones and droughts, apparently fallout of climate change, the small farmers’ vulnerability is also increasing. In this regard, there has been much talk about crop insurance but no effective initiative has followed.

It is a general complaint that the local agricultural extension office is not active enough and cannot really be relied upon. There is quite understandably a serious constraint of resources in the extension services but at the same time agricultural services could be strengthened and activated. Apparently, there are over 20 different services at the upazila level from the government including agricultural marketing, information, extension and veterinary services besides a host of others. Only a handful of these services are actually active so as to benefit the farmers.

The farmers might benefit substantially from increased services and information through the agriculture department. Before that concrete and meaningful roles of each different department must be ascertained and duly assigned in consideration of farmers’ demands, needs and consultations with them. The agricultural services set a classic instance of gradual withdrawal of the state from providing services. Its revival will require substantial mobilisation of resources and sincere effort from quarters concerned.

Finally, all efforts would come to nought if the small farmers’ ability to effectively participate in the market spurred by the ‘invisible hand’ is not ensured, as long as the uncontrolled free market prevails. The small and marginal farmers can hardly participate effectively in the market selling their produce to the highest bidder. It is a commonplace scenario that marginal farmers are compelled to sell their produce to a certain party without any negotiations, which turns it into a buyers’ market at the periphery and a sellers’ market at the centre, where the urban consumer is almost hostage to the suppliers and the prices they fix. Farmers’ access to the urban market, or even the local market, and providing them with the opportunity to sell their produce could benefit the farmers as well as the urban consumers.

There might be initiatives from the government to set up a high-powered committee with experts and bureaucrats deciding upon the nature solutions. If precedents are any indications, the committee would not involve small and marginal farmers or their representatives and there would be a set of solutions, presumably vetted by the self-styled ‘development partners’. However, this would become much simpler if there were countrywide farmers’ associations in every district and also at the central level. The few farmers’ organisations there are are only wings of different political parties. But there are no farmers’ trade unions as such, which would effectively be able to articulate farmers’ demands and put forward their suggestions to solve the kind of problems that they face.

Formation of such organisations would have also solved the problem of deciding upon a minimum wage and compensation packages for agricultural labour, which would surely see an increasing need in the future as agribusiness corporations begin to expand their operations and employees. But the potential of such an organisation would be huge and this would give rise to the hitherto latent political significance of the peasantry simply because they are unorganised and scattered. But if farmers can be organised, without partisan inclination or motives that is, then these people could very well become empowered. Hand in hand with that empowerment would come negotiating leverage not only with the governments but also with the corporations, which would most likely lead to a more sustainable evolution of agriculture in a market economy.

*Tanim Ahmed writes for the NewAge, a leading daily newspaper in Bangladesh. Contact:


4.48m households absolutely landless in Bangladesh

June 8, 2009

Shakhawat Hossain, NewAge, June 8, 2009

The number of landless people in the country is growing steadily because of poverty, river erosion and legal disputes posing a grave threat to socioeconomic progress, according to experts and a government report.

The Agriculture Census 2008 conducted by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics revealed that out of 28.67 million households, 4.48 million or 15.62 per cent were absolutely landless.

The current rate of increase in landlessness is 12.84 per cent in rural areas against 10.18 per cent in 1996 and 8.67 per cent in 1983-84, added the report released on Sunday.

The main reasons for the growing number of landless people, most of whom end up in the sprawling slums and streets of cities, are poverty and widening income disparity.

Besides, river erosion and legal disputes have been found as other factors contributing to the present trend of landlessness hindering socioeconomic advancement of the country.

MM Akash, teacher of economics at Dhaka University, said most of the landless people migrated to the urban areas in search of job and livelihood putting huge pressure on the cities.

Slums are spreading while utility services like electricity, water and transports in cities struggle to cope with the mounting pressure of population, he said.

The BBS survey said that Dhaka and Chittagong witnessed a sharp increase in the number of rural migrants in recent years because of rapid urbanisation.

Akash pointed out that desperate struggle for survival forced rural migrants to take up informal jobs in cities and even into the underworld aggravating the law and order.

Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies director general MK Mujeri said landless people had become a major source of cheap labour supply without which wage rates could be many time higher in metropolitan cities.

They suggested immediate measures like land reform to halt migration of landless people to urban areas.

Besides, employment generation and skill development training are essential so that the country’s growing formal sector can absorb the swelling army of landless people, they said.

UAE pays out to former child camel jockeys

May 22, 2009

AlJazeera, May 22, 2009

The UAE has given nearly one and a half milllion dollars to Bangladesh’s government for the families of children used as camel jockeys before the practice was banned from the sport four years ago.

Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, tells the story of one child jockey and his family.

Putting a price tag on poverty

September 4, 2008

Tanim Ahmed*, NewAge, September 4, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Poverty is not merely a bundle of economic goods with price tags upon them. It is not merely so much rice, so many pencils or paracetamol. It arises out of the lack of one’s ability to effectively participate in social life or the lack of one’s voice in political representation. It arises from one’s sense of insecurity. It arises from the desperation and frustration of not being able to provide for one’s children. It arises from the sense that one is deprived of the opportunities to live a better, or in this case, a more human life.


Photo: NewAge

TO BEGIN with an oversimplified example, let us assume that human well-being is measured by their ability to pay for haircuts – the more haircuts one is able to pay for the better off one is. A haircut would cost around $10 in New York and about Tk 20 in Dhaka. It would mean that two persons with the same earning, for instance $10 or Tk 700 per day, would have distinctly different purchasing powers. One would be able to pay for one haircut while the other 35. Since haircuts are the basis of well-being, the Bangladeshi would be 35 times better off than the American. Needless to say, it does not work out that way.

Well-being does not depend on the number of haircuts but a host of other more essential services and commodities. Services, as one would find in the case of haircuts, boot polishing or plumbing, are comparatively far costlier in developed countries than they are in poor countries like Bangladesh, especially when compared to the proportional differences in prices of other commodities like food and clothing. In other words, between rich and poor countries, prices of commodities vary less than those of services, i.e. purchasing power would not vary as much in case of those commodities as it would for services in the United States and Bangladesh.

Before even going into the latest poverty figures released by the World Bank on August 26 and what it implies, one must first question the benchmark for poverty expressed in purchasing capacity called Purchasing Power Parity. The much popular ‘dollar a day’ was expressed in this purchasing capacity terms across the world and meant to be equivalent to the purchasing capacity of $1 in the United States – the base country – in 1985, changed to $1.03 in 1993 and, according to the latest study, $1.25 in 2005. The question is what the equivalent of $1.25 in takas meant to purchase.

The bundle of choice for households or individuals in dire poverty would be distinctly different from those better off. The poor spend a high proportion of their income on basic needs whereas those better off spend a lesser proportion on such items with a substantial portion of their incomes purchasing services. But such benchmarks are derived from national accounts and a more general pattern of consumption in different countries. There are two obvious problems here. Even in Bangladesh’s case, although services contribute about half the GDP consumption pattern of individuals or households living in poverty would hardly reflect such a trend. Secondly, the poor buy commodities in much small quantities that would naturally mean that they end up paying more in the long run – buying a few hundred milligrams of cooking oil instead of a five-litre pack for instance.

Another recent study by the Asian Development Bank strives to capture that precise difference attempting to arrive at a more balanced poverty benchmark for Asia. It shows that the bottom 30 per cent of the Bangladeshi population spend 65.6 per cent of their household expenditure on food and drink while the average household spends just over half. In purchase power terms $1 dollar translates into about Tk 14 according to general consumption patterns but it is about Tk 25 according to household consumption patters. What it means is that the poverty benchmark translates into a higher purchasing power when considered on the basis of general consumption but far lower when considered on the basis of household consumption. When Tk 14 is considered equivalent to the ‘dollar a day’ benchmark, it means that an individual would be able to procure enough commodities and services to escape poverty spending Tk 14 every day. In the other case it would mean that the individual requirement to escape poverty would be Tk 25.

The two figures could make substantial difference as regards the number and percentage of poor people in Bangladesh and challenge the government’s claimed progress in poverty reduction, especially in the context of Millennium Development Goals. It is not that attainment of these UN development goals would mean substantial improvement in the economic system that inherently breeds poverty, but the new statistics and benchmarks would certainly cause governments to revise their statistics and review their supposed progress based on this new information.

A new working paper from the World Bank, ‘The Developing World Is Poorer Than We Thought, But No Less Successful in the Fight against Poverty’, by two of its economists, Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion, revised the previous poverty benchmark to the equivalent of $1.25 in 2005 in the United States, instead of the $1.03 in 1993. This revision saw the number of poor people increase from about 879 million, as reported by the World Bank earlier, to almost 1.4 billion. That is a difference of over half a billion people living in extreme poverty.

As other estimates and analyses point out, revision of these benchmarks by small margins result in huge differences in the numbers and as Sanjay Reddy, an assistant professor of economics at Columbia University in the United States, points out, such a difference in result with slight changes in the benchmark would render the benchmark itself ‘unfit for use’ in most cases pertaining to economic statistics. According to analyses, if the benchmark is revised upwards to $1.45 in 2005, which is closer to $1.03 in 1993 in terms of prices, then the number of poor increases to 1.72 billion. If the year 2005, on the other hand, is taken back to 2003, the developing world’s poverty reduction rate shows substantial deterioration so as not to favour the claim made in the World Bank paper.

Then, of course, there is the factor of China and India that skews the overall poverty figures substantially and make allowances for the claim of having attained substantial poverty reduction, although sub-Saharan Africa’s number of poor have increased by all estimates. The Asian Development Bank’s set the poverty benchmark at an equivalent of $1.35 in 2005 in purchasing power, which according to the Key Indictors of the Asia and the Pacific 2008 is Tk 22.64 in 2005.

The general contention of most critical analyses regarding the World Bank’s poverty estimates is that it undercounts poverty and thereby projects a rosier picture of poverty. Critics, therefore, make the claim that poverty estimates should be made in a more inclusive manner taking into consideration a wider variety of data to make it more robust and acceptable.

Another point that must be made is that the global context has gone through significant transformation in the past two years with fuel and food prices rising phenomenally and inflation increasing markedly. During this time currencies have seen their purchasing power decrease and cost of living rise. In the case of Bangladesh, these months have also seen a perceptible increase in employment that could only mean further decrease of real wages.

Regardless of all the analyses and estimates and regardless of the robustness of whatever estimates are employed to ascertain poverty around the world, these estimates would necessarily concentrate on the precision of a certain bundle that should allow one to escape poverty. The central debate then would revolve around the precision of that bundle and its market price and how best to translate that value into a globally acceptable unit such as the purchasing power parity. The value of PPP dollars then would require further revision. However, this bundle would typically include ‘needs’ or ‘necessities’ that are tradable in the market; items that have a price tag to be more precise. Thus, it would include food, shelter, clothing, medicine and books but not such things as security or happiness or leisure, which should be considered as crucial when ascertaining even dire poverty.

The very proposition that an individual’s degree of happiness be included as a factor for assessing dire poverty might well be summarily dismissed considering that it is a luxury that not even the rich might claim to have. Let us consider the advertisement of a Bangladeshi mobile operator that captured the imagination of many. In ‘din bodlaise’ – roughly meaning ‘times have changed’ in English – the young boy in monochrome grows up to inherit the livelihood of his forefathers who were fishermen, but does not have to sell his catch to the parasitic middleman and therefore is ostensibly better off.

That young boy in monochrome had wanted to visit the fair and by evening, after his father had sold the entire catch for a paltry sum, realised that it was not to be. The look on his father’s face told him a visit to the fair was out of the question. It appears he tears himself away from the fireworks that shoot off the fairgrounds as night settles and his father tugs his hand. In the next generation that young boy, now a man, having sold his catch for a good price, takes up his young son – who has stood first in his class by the way – in his arms declaring that they would visit the fair that evening.

Poverty is not merely a bundle of economic goods with price tags upon them. It is not merely so much rice, so many pencils or paracetamol. It arises out of the lack of one’s ability to effectively participate in social life or the lack of one’s voice in political representation. It arises from one’s sense of insecurity. It arises from the desperation and frustration of not being able to provide for one’s children. It arises from the sense that one is deprived of the opportunities to live a better, or in this case, a more human life.

Agencies and organisation such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank will continue with their exercise to attain a better estimate for poverty and demonstrate how the market works to alleviate their poverty, if only to vindicate their work and justify their existence. Critics would dissect their methodology to prove them wrong. But that entire exercise is limited to putting a price tag on poverty. However, the question for governments must be one of principle – how they regard poverty. As an institution that serves the citizens and must look towards the welfare of the common people, attainment of a price tag must not suffice.

*Tanim Ahmed:

Millions Stand Against Poverty in 24-Hour Global Rally

October 20, 2007


By Haider Rizvi, Republished from

UNITED NATIONS – Anti-poverty activists Wednesday organized thousands of meetings and demonstrations across the world to highlight the plight of the downtrodden and the poor.

Organizers said about 39 million people joined the international anti-poverty campaign during the 24-hour period, setting a new Guinness World Record for participation in mass rallies against poverty.

People participated in more than 6,000 rallies in 110 countries in support of the campaign called “Stand Up and Speak Out.” This year, the event coincided with the 20th International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

From workers to peasants to students, those who joined the global campaign against poverty urged governments to fulfill their commitments on achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.

The MDGs include a 50-percent reduction in poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three quarters; the promotion of gender equality; and the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.

“Every day 50,000 people die needlessly as a result of extreme poverty,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement, noting that the gap between rich and poor is getting wider.

Like demonstrators across the world, Ban took world leaders to task for the slow progress towards achieving the MDGs. “(The) record is mixed,” he said. “Many countries are still off track.”

UN experts on development say, worldwide, almost 1 billion people are still living on less than a dollar a day and some 72 million children are not in school.

In Ban’s view, poverty can be eradicated only if governments of both developed and developing countries live up to their promises. He urged poor countries to spend more on health and education and, in the same breath, appealed to wealthy ones to increase the level of their official funding for development.

For his part, UN General Assembly President Srgjian Kerim noted that more than anywhere in the world, it was in sub-Saharan Africa where governments were failing to achieve the MDGs. Kerim said that, as this year marks the midpoint to the goals’ deadline, the world community must recommit its efforts to eradicate poverty.

The president said he would use the current General Assembly session to “build consensus” for urgent actions to achieve the MDGs.

Last year, 23.5 million people took part in the mass rallies to support the MDGs; 3.6 million in Africa; 19 million in Asia; 55,000 in Latin America; 520,000 in the Middle East; and 900,000 in Europe.

“By standing up last year, millions around the world demonstrated their frustration with the lack of real progress in poverty eradication,” said Salil Shetty of the United Nations Millennium Campaign before the event. “This year, millions more are joining this growing global movement of people who refuse to stay silent in the face of poverty or broken promises to end it.”

For this event, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) and the UN Millennium Campaign worked with large numbers of national and local partners — from schools and universities to local community groups and women’s groups, choirs, and sporting clubs to faith groups, trade unions, and corporations.

The events planned were meant to be entertaining and engaging, while making a strong impression on national and regional politicians and governments, as well as state and global institutions. Millions of people also joined the campaign in cyber space, posting blogs, wikis, videos, and pictures on various online communities such as Facebook, MySpace, and Bebo.

In Italy, Microsoft created a dedicated micro-site for the action, and in many poor countries — especially in Africa — mobile phone technology enabled groups to pre-register their activities online view videos of “Stand Ups” in other countries.

In Rwanda youth groups organized a “Stand Up” soccer tournament with 20 primary schools. A youth network in Ghana appointed “Stand Up” ambassadors to lead events all over the country.

In Bangladesh an umbrella movement of youth groups mobilized 10,000 young people to block a busy crossroads with a human chain, and in India, a local organization planned a march of 20,000 Dalits (also known as “untouchables”), focusing on land rights and the achievement of the MDGs for Dalits in the State of Madhya Pradesh.

Similar events also took place all over Europe and North and South America. In Germany the Euro 2008 Qualifier soccer game against the Czech Republic saw fans starting the match with a massive “Stand Up” moment. In The Hague the national anti-poverty campaign displayed 200 life-size avatars representing members of the public from across The Netherlands.

In London trade union representatives, students, and the UN Deputy Secretary-General used a white band — the symbol of the global anti-poverty campaign — to call for renewed commitments on more and better aid, debt cancellation, trade justice, gender equality and public accountability.

Religious leaders in many parts of the world also joined in.

During the campaign, many activists highlighted the link between gender inequalities and poverty because women constitute the majority of the world’s poor, largely as a result of their unequal opportunities and access to resources, discriminatory laws, and unequal distribution of household resources.

Women: The Missing Piece of the Poverty Puzzle

October 18, 2007

By Anita Petry, Inter Press Service, October 17, 2007


UNITED NATIONS – Women are seen as the key for ending global poverty and the issue of gender equality is receiving special attention at events marking the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on Wednesday.

One of the largest is the International Women’s Tribunals on Poverty, which will highlight the feminisation of poverty.There will be four major tribunals this week presenting testimony on the worsening conditions of women worldwide, and discussing strategies to tackle the root causes at the political and economic level. They will take place at the United Nations in New York, in Cairo, Egypt, Lima, Peru, and in Delhi, India.


“We know already that the concept of Women’s Tribunals has been very successful and we are expecting the biggest ever alliance of women’s groups and NGOs in India to join together on Oct. 17 in Delhi to discuss responses to poverty that the government can deliver on this year, especially for women,” said Ciara O’Sullivan of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, a three-year-old movement that claims nearly 2,000 member organisations and millions of supporters worldwide.

“Three hundred women from 20 states are attending this unprecedented moment,” she told IPS.

The fact that so many women live in poverty means they are critical — but often ignored — players in reversing poverty itself. While figures from the World Bank estimate that 1.1 billion people live in “extreme poverty”, surviving on less than a dollar a day, women represent a disproportionate 70 percent of the world’s poor.

The U.N. Population Fund notes that worldwide, women on average earn slightly more than 50 percent of what men are earning, while women and girls are often the last to eat, and women’s health problems are considered less important than other family priorities.

The huge numbers of women affected means that empowering women is critical to the effort to halve extreme poverty by 2015, one of the so-called Millennium Development Goals set by world leaders meeting at the United Nations in 2000. They also include gender equality and reducing child deaths by two-thirds and maternal deaths by three-quarters, although these goals are lagging in nearly every country.

This week’s events are organised by many different institutions, but one of the biggest campaigns is “Stand Up and Speak Out”, supported by GCAP and the Millennium Campaign. The Stand Up and Speak Out campaign, now in its third year, consists of a global call to action against poverty and inequality, and for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

The U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and Women’s Funding Network recently established a partnership to draw international attention to women during the Stand Up Campaign by launching a call for greater investment in women by governments and donor institutions.

UNIFEM notes that among the factors that place women at risk of poverty are their unequal access to resources and capabilities, such as education, skills, land and property, the discrimination they face in the labour market and their lack of political voice. In all countries, women do most of the unpaid household and care work — yet this work is not counted as contributing to national economies.

The partnership is a unique initiative because it also focuses on the mobilisation of a vast online community to support the message that, in the fight against poverty, gender equality is an essential target.

“The Economist [magazine] estimates that over the past decade, women’s work worldwide has done even more to fuel the global economy than has the stunning growth of China,” said Joanne Sandler, UNIFEM’s acting executive director.

“We know what is possible when women are recognised as agents of change,” she said. “To realise this vision we must remove obstacles such as discriminatory ownership and inheritance laws to help women embark on asset building.”

“Women are indeed the missing piece of the poverty puzzle,” agreed Christine Grumm, president and CEO of the Women’s Funding Network, a U.S.-based group that mobilises private donors and foundations to support a range of initiatives for women and girls, including programmes to help women start businesses, leave violent homes, gain access to health care, raise their self-esteem, and advocate for fair public policies.

While the network has raised more than 400 million dollars over the last 15 years, it notes that just seven percent of all philanthropic dollars overall are earmarked for programmes for women and girls.

“Our network’s experience in the area of economic empowerment has convinced us that policy supporting women’s economic empowerment — from education to job training to child care to financial literacy to microfinance and beyond — holds the potential for vast change, and fast change. Our cooperative outreach with UNIFEM will call on policy makers to recognise the untapped potential of women in eradicating extreme poverty,” Grumm said.

More than 720 different events are to take place in over 100 countries in the 24-hour period from 9 p.m. GMT on Oct. 16 to 9 p.m. GMT on Oct. 17, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. These events will range from major rallies and concerts to gatherings in school assemblies, town halls, and refugee camps.

The international gatherings are intended to help the poorer, marginalised people of the world get actively involved with existing campaigns, become aware of the work that is being done and become actual agents of change.

According to GCAP, last year, 23.5 million people were part of the campaign and literally “stood up” against poverty in a 24-hour period, setting a new Guinness World Record. This year, GCAP and the United Nations Millennium Campaign hopes to break that record, although it is unclear what the lasting impact would be.

A wide variety of organisations, institutions and community groups are expected to call on political leaders to deliver more and better aid to the poorest nations, implement fairer trade conditions, cancel debt, and ensure gender equality.

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

October 18, 2007

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: