Barriers to climbing out of extreme poverty

Barriers to climbing out of extreme poverty

"OVERCOMING poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings" -- Nelson Mandela
There are approximately 25 million extremely poor people or 6 million extremely poor families in Bangladesh. These families face a multitude of challenges that keep them trapped in their situations. While this is only a small portion of the extremely poor population, it is still a large sample size from which to understand the dynamics and complexities of extreme poverty. There are six key challenges that the extreme poor face.

Exclusion from public services:  The poorest are often excluded from services such as health, education, safety nets, clean water, hygienic sanitation facilities, etc. "I have no son and no house. When I was ill I took a loan for treatment. Now I can't get work and I have no safety net support," says one beneficiary from the North. A 2010 baseline survey found that 88% of female household heads and 74% of male household heads had no schooling. 92% of extreme poor beneficiaries were not receiving any safety net facilities though they were among the poorest 5% of the population.

Health and nutrition vulnerabilities:  A single illness can cost a family more than a year's income. Medical operations often plunge these families into such deep debt that they cannot recover from it. If a bread earner suffers ill health, this can have catastrophic effects on the entire family. In such situations, the family may be faced with life or death decisions, such as, to spend money on medication for the ailing family member or spend on food for the remaining family members. The prevalence of stunting (low height-for-age) in children younger than 5 years was 66% in 1990, but improved to 42% in 2010. Still, nearly half of the children in Bangladesh have chronic malnutrition. (Lancet Series, Nov. 2013)

Insufficient economic opportunities:  "There is only one earning member in our five member family," says a beneficiary in the South West. There are very few opportunities for extremely poor people to learn marketable skills and earn a living. Daily per capita income varies between Tk. 11 in the haors and North West to Tk. 25 in Dhaka, for beneficiaries at baseline. Millions of extremely poor youths are in need of skills training and jobs.  

Vulnerability to external shocks:  This includes man-made shocks such as eviction from slums, theft and dowries (which can cost up to an entire year's income) as well as external climatic shocks. 16% of extreme poor households at the baseline suffered major losses from a natural disaster within the last 3 years, 51% of which were floods. Cyclones, tidal surges, cold waves, water-logging, unhealthy salinity also hit the poorest hardest.

Gender Inequity:  Women suffer additional challenges in poverty due to their gender. Social norms, such as child marriage, dowries, intra-household eating patterns and decision-making tend to disfavour women. "My sister was murdered by her husband because of dowry," says a beneficiary from the haors. Women are at a disadvantage in the labour market, earning much less than men. 64% of women aged 20 to 24 were married before they were 18 years old (Plan International, 2013).

Marginalised group vulnerabilities: Religious and ethnic minorities face greater barriers accessing services and entering markets due to social exclusion. 6-10% of the 26 million extreme poor people have a disability -- roughly 2 million people (WHO). 5.5 million Dalits and harijans are living in occupational marginalisation (Mesbah Kamal, 2011).
Is this the sort of country we want?  What is your vision of our country in ten years?  What sort of country do we dream of?  Let us dare to dream big.  
Can we change this? Evidence shows that with adequate support, families can climb out of extreme poverty. Bangladesh has several successful GOB and non-GOB programmes that have transformed lives of the extreme poor through asset transfers or vocational skills training. Let's scale up our efforts! Bangladesh, it's time for us to do something extraordinary again.  
 The Manifesto for the Extreme Poor is a civil society document that has received great national support from private sector companies, civil society organisations, donors, NGOs, think tanks and academics. The Manifesto has one demand: the complete eradication of extreme poverty from Bangladesh by 2022. All the pieces of the jigsaw already exist for rapid eradication of poverty, now it's a matter of setting a target and working towards it. Yes, 2022 is an ambitious target, but why not be ambitious? 2021/ 2022 is a significant year for Bangladesh symbolically –the 50th anniversary of our independence. Let us honour our nation and our independence and build the beautiful Bangladesh we are meant to be.

The writer is Head of Advocacy at shiree.
E-mail: [email protected]


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