Reaching the most vulnerable
THE impacts of the current financial crisis are being felt around the world. But whilst the media focus is on the collapse of the big banks, the silent victims are the poor. For countries like Bangladesh, the economic crisis underlines the importance of building up its economy using the talent and resources available in its population.
Protecting Bangladesh's most vulnerable citizens, and providing more jobs for poor people, will be essential if the country is going to weather the global downturn and continue to make progress. This means providing healthcare, education and justice to the whole population, even groups who in the past have been on the margins of society. A well-educated and healthy population will contribute massively to Bangladesh's already growing economy.
On a recent visit to Bangladesh, I saw for myself the work that the UK government is doing to improve the lives of some of country's most vulnerable citizensthose living on remote and precarious island chars, street children, women who are victims of violence and the survivors of acid attacks.
During my visit, I saw how UK aid is helping directly to improve the lives of over a million of the poorest people in the country living on chars (sand islands) in the Jamuna riverpeople who, without help, face an increasingly uncertain future as climate change threatens their communities with more regular and more severe floods.
I met people whose lives have been transformed by the Chars Livelihood Program (CLP). By raising their homes above the flood level, the char dwellers no longer have to abandon their homes and their possessions when the floodwaters rise. At the local CLP health clinic families are able to access the only reliable form of health care for miles around.
Here, trained health workers deal with basic illnesses and help women give birth safely. This essential provision is something that too many women in Bangladesh have to do withoutbirths attended by trained staff are still in the minority in Bangladesh, and every hour of every day a woman dies unnecessarily from complications in childbirth.
I also met women who, for the first time in their lives, were able to eat more than one meal a day; women who were investing in their families' futures using money earned from rearing cows, donated by CLP, to buy land and grow vegetables, so they could earn an income and feed their families better. These women are already lifting themselves and their families out of poverty and contributing to the local economy.
At Dhaka's main railway station, I met a few of the 700,000 children living on the streets of Bangladesh's cities. Another UK government funded program is helping some of these children to get a basic education. For children ready to make the transition to life off the streets, the program offers shelter, counselling, education, vocational skills and health care. I met Jamal, who 10 years ago was himself living on the streets. Now, as a result of the program, Jamal has finished high school and is working as a "street educator," helping youngsters to survive on the streets and make the change to a more secure, stable life. As the future of Bangladesh, these children deserve the best possible start.
One of the most vulnerable groups in Bangladesh are the survivors of acid violence. My visit to a refuge for the survivors of acid violence will remain a vivid memory for a long time. It was here that I met some of the thousands of people, most of them women, who over the last decade have had nitric or sulphuric acid deliberately thrown at them to disfigure them permanently. The attacks are usually due to disputes over land or relationship problems.
Whilst the number of attacks has reduced by half since 1999, acid throwing remains an appalling crime meant to destroy the lives of its victims. I will always remember the warm welcome extended to me by a bright five year old boy, who when he was seven weeks old was fed acid by his aunt and uncle, who were jealous that he would inherit his family's land. Without the refuge, which is partly funded by the UK, he and others like him would not have the all-round care and support they need to help them to rebuild their lives.
As well as directly helping the most vulnerable groups, the UK is working with the Bangladesh police force to build their capacity to support the victims of domestic violence and trafficking. It is because of this partnership that Shathi, who was beaten and thrown out of her home, was able to get urgent medical treatment and legal support to file a case against her husband.
The vibrancy and resilience of the people who I met during my visit highlighted to me the massive human capital available within Bangladesh. The UK is proud to be Bangladesh's long-term development partner as it works to tackle poverty and grow its economy.