I was on my way to Kuakata, a coastal town famed for its breathtakingly beautiful views and a beach where you can see both sunrise and sunset on the lap of the Bay of Bengal. There, I happened across Runu Begum, who told me that she only cares about the sunrise because it brings light to her home. Her kerosene lamp is too costly to keep it burning for long. She desires to have a solar-powered lighting system one day. I believe this wish may come true through our national budget which has been passed recently—and which the prime minister declared would bring light to every household in the country.
I am thinking about how Runu will be served by the budget. The World Bank has placed Bangladesh within the five fastest-growing economies in the world, its per capita GDP having climbed nine percent to USD 1,909 last year. But there are pockets of underdevelopment in the country where the residents have been left untouched by this growth, and Runu is one of them.
Runu is a single mother. Her husband is (was) a fisherman. He left her and married a Rohingya woman—without her permission, as was required by the law. He pays her no alimony or anything. Runu recognises the injustices but still she waits for him, convinced that he would realise his mistake, and return to her or at least start contributing to a better life for their daughter. She switches between past and present tense when referring to him.
Left alone to fend for her family, Runu is determined to make ends meet. She has no land, but a wealthy local has temporarily given her a little space of 1.5 decimal land for a makeshift shelter. On it she raises her cow, a calf, five ducks, three chickens and a small vegetable garden. She is praying to have a piece of the government’s “khas” land to make a permanent home. Meanwhile, she earns Tk 1,000 (USD 12) a month as a caretaker at the local school. But while at work, she must leave her disabled five-year-old daughter, Fatema, unattended at home. So, she constantly worries for her safety.
Fatema is entitled to a social safety net payment for her disability, which she has yet to receive. But even though the share of the national budget set aside for social safety net spending has decreased by 0.34 percent than last year, I am optimistic about Fatema because it promises to add some 1.5 million people to the government’s safety net programmes and the total amount has increased. However, Runu is receiving 30 kg rice monthly, a great help indeed.
On the face of it, Runu seems to be impoverished. Certainly, her contribution to the national GDP isn’t much to speak of. But to label her a “poor person” would be a mistake because in terms of her humanity, or human capital, I realised this woman is very rich. She avoids seeking help from her parents because it won’t help her in the long term. She feels similarly about social security from the government. Instead, she focuses on creating a sustained income. “If I can manage four to five more ducks and may be one more cow,” she says, “I can improve my situation.”
Her inner strength makes her an important member of Friendship’s community-based disaster preparedness committee. She knows cyclones are a reality in coastal people’s lives and has learned how to reduce risks to life and property. She recites to me in detail how to protect one’s property and assets during a cyclone, and then, confesses she owns none of these assets that she knows how to protect.
Bangladesh’s status as a middle-income country does nothing to show either Runu Begum’s economic strife, or her human richness.
If Bangladesh’s budget is that of a typical middle-income country, it might let down some of its most vulnerable beneficiaries. But, in keeping with the nation’s tradition of being innovators—consider microfinance, the unprecedented drop in birth rates, and cyclone preparedness—I hope that our budget has some innovative new ways to harvest the human potential of our citizens on the fringes.
Back on the road, I notice acres upon acres of empty paddy fields. Elsewhere, the amon crop is promising abundant returns. Here the fields are empty due to salinity. The farmers only grow crops during one season. The third-highest budget allotment this year is for agriculture, and I am hopeful that some of that budget might introduce saline-resistant crops to help increase farmers’ incomes.
As I pass the southern planes, I see lots of potential for innovation in our development model. I see a Kuakata where tourism brings in revenues and alternate incomes for the local community. I see protection and recognition of our heroic coastal fishermen, who harness our invaluable natural resources at great risk to their lives. I see a budget that brings all the partners and actors in one platform to reach people like Runu Begum and create economic balance in the country.
Kazi Amdadul Hoque is the Director for Strategic Planning and Head of Climate Change and Disaster Management at Friendship, and has over 22 years of experience in public health, disaster management and community development. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org