In a conversation, Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar, Vice President, and Country Director, The Hunger Project Bangladesh, explicates the importance of social mobilization and shares his vision for the future.
We have come a long way since our independence, what are the aspects of development we could have done better? What are the obstacles we need to overcome to achieve desired growth?
Yes, we have come a long way. Bangladesh was considerably impoverished, in terms of economic activities or per capita income; we were at the bottom of every ranking imaginable. Poverty and hunger were widespread, but we have come a long way. Statistically, the overall level of hunger and poverty has gone down. However, we have not done as well as we could have. For example, Bangladesh and South Korea were at a similar level of per capita income, in 1971. After five decades, their (South Korea) GDP has skyrocketed to $ 38,260, and we are lagging far behind with around $ 5,000. The distinction is depressing, considering we have always had the upper hand. South Korea had negligible natural resources; on the other hand, we have natural resources like fertile soil, sweet water, and some gas and coal – unfortunately, we have failed to materialize them.
Our greatest strength is the growing number of young population, and it implies that the share of the working-age population is larger than the non-working-age share of the population. A lot can be achieved if we can make proper use of this demographic dividend. If we fail to materialize the demographic dividend through increased investment in health and quality education to create opportunities; it will turn into a demographic nightmare. Generally, young people are very vulnerable; if not provided the right opportunities and positive mindset, they might be inclined to substance abuse or be exploited politically. We are not investing in quality education.
The biggest concerns for us are the rise of discrimination and disparity. One of the most significant contributing factors to our economic growth is the mega projects. I do not believe all of them (mega-projects) are beneficial for our nation. Some of them will harm our environment. Unfortunately, many of these megaprojects are financed by the suppliers’ credit; their terms are often unfavorable for us. We have to import most of the materials even if they are of low quality; we are also bound to hire a large number of foreign employees. We have workers at home who are not getting enough opportunities in their own country. Moreover, we are losing a large number of foreign reserves due to gratuitous hiring.
Poverty is a multidimensional phenomenon, how does “The Hunger Project” design poverty reduction programs/projects to address multi-dimensional aspects of poverty?
We feel that building the capability of the poor is vital for poverty eradication. According to Amartya Sen, capability means freedom and opportunities, which the government has to ensure. The Hunger Project is a volunteer-based organization, with over a quarter of a million volunteers of all distinctions, including women and youth. What we have realized is that in poverty eradication there is more emphasis on individuals rather on society. We have also realized that handouts do not help anybody in the long run. We are trying to animate the poor, instill confidence in them and help them gain skills so they can become authors of their own future. We help the poor and disadvantaged get access to government and non-government services and opportunities which create an enabling environment for them to succeed. We also advocate policy changes so that the poor get their due share in the national resources. In addition, we mobilize communities that create social capital – an invisible capital that can supplement financial capital. When people come together, miracles happen. If a community comes together, works together with a shared vision and there is greater trust among the people, social capital is created.
We mobilize communities which creates social capital by bringing people together and creating social harmony. Unfortunately, our volunteering sector, to a great extent, has moved away from social mobilization. The social mobilization as an approach has become less and less prominent, so we are trying to rekindle that for which Bangladesh has been known for. If there is greater understanding, fellow feeling, a greater sense of community among people and they work shoulder to shoulder, a lot of social ills can be redressed by fomenting social movement and social resistance. For example, child marriage, violence against women, safe sanitation and many of the environmental problems can be effectively addressed through social movement. Social capital is an instrument of development that has not been recognized appropriately in literature or practice. We have been trying to focus on individuals and society alike, with a large number of volunteers working as a catalyst to empower the poor to take responsibility for their own future and at the same time to bring the communities together.
We are also advancing participatory action research. We have mobilized the poorest of the poor, those who are left behind, using a methodology called Participatory Action Research. It is developed by Prof. Anisur Rahman, who was a member of our first planning commission. Poor is the foremost expert on poverty because they have to live with it. We bring them together and through a guided conversation, in which they use their own thinking power to identify the dimensions, causes, remedies and their own role in keeping in place and redressing poverty. Through this process, they become barefoot researchers. They form self-help groups and catalyze their savings. We do not touch the money; only help them regarding technical issues. Then they use the money to start various economic activities. Sometimes we provide skills training so that they become economic entrepreneurs. They also initiate campaigns against many of the social ills which keep in poverty, and in the process become social entrepreneurs.
Rural people of Bangladesh are bearing most of the financial burden of climate change, how is THP assisting rural communities across the country to be more resilient to climate change?
We are doing irreparable damage to our environment and the consequences will be perilous. In terms of climate change, the government will have to make it a top priority because Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries. The public, private and government sectors do not have the necessary resources to combat the effects of climate change. We (The Hunger Project) are trying to create awareness. We just came back last week, after planting 100, 000 palm trees, an endeavor achieved by volunteers. Adaptation is critical, as well as coping with the reality of the situation. State and volunteering sector needs to work together. We, as a nation, unfortunately, are not doing enough, we need the leadership of the government, and everyone needs to work together to cope with the impending emergency, which might eventually destroy our country.
Despite strong collective efforts, the Child Marriage rate in Bangladesh is highest in South Asia and the fourth highest in the world. What can we do to reduce this practice across Bangladesh?
The government framed a law to curb child marriage law at first, but unfortunately, they (government) backtracked. Children below 18 can be married with permission from parents. There is a loophole, which I am not sure why it exists.
The Hunger Project has developed a very innovative program. The best insurance against Child Marriage and a high fertility rate are to keep the girls in school. Our program Safe Schools for Girls, mobilizes the students (girls and boys), teachers, guardians, and volunteers to make schools safe for girls to prevent dropouts. We not only animate girls, and create awareness that child marriage is dangerous, but ensure their security on the way to and from schools too.
We are instrumental in starting International Girl Child Day, in 2000, we asked the government to declare the second day of Children’s Week to be National Girl Child Day. The government was happy to do that. We have been celebrating this since 2000 – the idea is that girls are important, they are not a burden, they are our assets and we must invest in their future. Now we are happy that following our footsteps, the UN declared October 11 as the International Day for Girls. We are proud to have pioneered that.
What is your vision for the future?
“A democratic, peaceful Bangladesh, where there is respect for people. We want a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality, and justice, political economic and social will be secured for all citizens” that was the vision of our valiant freedom fighters. That is also my vision.