Propelled by improvements in health and education, reduced vulnerability, and economic growth, Bangladesh is expected to leave the LDC category by 2024. The country has witnessed significant struggles to improve the well-being of its people. It has successfully continued to maintain a six-percent growth over the last six years for which the efforts of its government and especially relentless hard work by the working-class people are to be credited. Importantly, the country has done remarkably well in reducing extreme poverty from 34 percent down to 13 percent in just 16 years (World Bank, 2017). However, the question is what else it needs to do to maintain its progression.
One of the key tasks is to continue working towards poverty reduction. Although extreme poverty is being addressed, there are still about 24 percent of the population living below poverty line. Furthermore, overall positive changes in people's well-being hide the diversity of poverty across the country, with a disproportionately large number of people in the rural areas in Bangladesh still experiencing abject hardship. Very often, existing approaches to poverty alleviation also overemphasise material problems experienced by rural people such as those linked to lack of mobility, employment opportunities, and limited access to resources, and fail to address non-material issues such as powerlessness, inadequate participation, cultural marginalisation and isolation of the poor.
We would like to share our understanding of poverty and its complex issues from our recent public engagement activities in one of the remotest villages in Satkhira district in southern Bangladesh, and Mymensingh district in central Bangladesh, which are often overlooked within existing anti-poverty programmes. We are privileged to have been able to work directly with the rural communities to challenge existing poverty stereotypes and explore experiences of hardship which cannot be categorised in simple monetary terms. As a part of the PACONDAA international project focusing on aquaculture and poverty alleviation, we unearthed often “hidden” poverty stories and different experiences of hardship related to gender, class and race by giving voice to the poor people themselves. We had extensive conversations and visual ethnographic work with more than 300 poor farmers, who wanted through their stories of rural life to break down an image of the “average” poor person emerging from asset-based approaches to poverty alleviation. After two months of engagement events with more than 30 local communities that included interviews, questionnaires, collaborative art workshops with the local children, painting, drama and cultural events based on local traditions (storytelling, crafts), we collectively developed a bigger picture of poverty that goes beyond material assets and income.
Poor people in the villages of southern Bangladesh portrayed poverty as insecurity, lack of prestige, fear, anxiety (about work and family), and low social standing that, in their own words, make them “mentally poor”. They also recognised that poverty is linked to isolation so that poor people are often forced to keep things to themselves and try to hide their hardship from others in fear of being stigmatised. Also, local people see poverty as a lack of access to power networks which include local political institutions, welfare benefits system, and local NGOs. For many poor people, luck, trust in God and fate were as important as access to material resources, so that many disadvantaged villagers were prepared to take risks, put hope into non-rational emotions and feelings that can get them out of hardship. Such poverty cannot be expressed through discrete variables measuring disadvantage in terms of mobility, income or opportunity, and it challenges material focus on the existing poverty alleviation policies.
The conversations with the disadvantaged people also revealed the complex construction of the very category of “the poor” and challenged the fixed view of poverty as exclusively economic. To explore these changing views of poverty, rural dwellers produced hand-made drawings of the “poorest” people in the village that questioned static poverty stereotypes. Drawings can depict the situation beyond realism as they help people to overemphasise specific poverty practices and highlight times of hardship they consider particularly important. Hand-drawn pictures of poverty are creative means allowing illiterate and less-educated people to express the values and understandings of hardship that is close to their hearts. Many of the drawings portrayed widowed or divorced women, an old person without a son or daughter, and beggars as the poorest people in the village, who also suffered from lack of respect and stigma attached to poverty. In so doing, rural people stressed social and cultural dimensions of hardship, as well as emotional and affective risks linked to rural disadvantage that need to be addressed in anti-poverty policies in Bangladesh.
These reflections on poverty co-produced with the disadvantaged people themselves open up the experiences of rural hardship that were previously denied or often unknown. They provide a new window for rethinking current poverty reduction programmes focused on income and asset. The thoughts of the poor people stress the need to think about the non-material and subjective dimension of poverty. Many of the stories and images shared with us by the rural people do not conform to the obvious policy-related headings and measurements of poverty, because of which disadvantaged people with “unusual” experiences often drop out of existing anti-poverty programmes. The outcomes of community engagement and creative interactions with the most disadvantaged people also call for alternative anti-poverty mechanisms addressing issues such as cultural exclusion, social and emotional risks that the rural people consider so important for their well-being. Although Bangladesh has already achieved a lot in terms of poverty reduction, more needs to be done to challenge existing approaches to evaluating poverty exclusively in economic terms, and to directly involve the poor in sustainable development to create new spaces of justice for the poor.
Dr Sergei Shubin is an associate professor at the Department of Geography, Swansea University, UK. Dr Tanjil Sowgat is a post-doctoral researcher at Swansea University, UK, and an associate professor at Khulna University, Bangladesh.