That Bangladesh has been gaining on the ground in terms of sharing the cake in addition to its sterling success in nominal per capita GDP defying challenges like Global Financial Crisis and the ongoing pandemic has been vindicated by several indicators. Besides winning the ‘SDG Progress Award’ from the UN and Earth Institute at Columbia University, the Concern Worldwide confirmed by its Global Hunger Index (GHI) that Bangladesh has been making consistent progress in eradicating hunger as well. This is a real gain on the ground as many of its peers have been failing to keep pace with it in terms of progress in real economy and social development. No doubt, Bangladesh has been making stunning progress in raising average life expectancy to about 73 years along with fall in both mortality and fertility rates. On all counts of progress in social development, Bangladesh appears to be an outlier in the region. Let’s now look at the GHI in more details. According to the GHI 2021, Bangladesh ranked 76th among 116 countries globally. This index uses a 100-point scale, with lower scores indicating higher progress in the hunger index. Bangladesh’s score this year is 19.1, just like Nepal's. However, Bangladesh's score is much better than that of India and Pakistan. This year, India has ranked 101st, with a score of 27.5. Pakistan's score is 24.7, and it's in the 92nd position. Both countries' rankings have been lowered significantly from that of last year. India slipped to the 101st position this year from 94th last year. Pakistan’s position dropped from 88th to 92nd during this period. Although Bangladesh has slipped only one notch, its score has, however, improved.
If we go a little back and look at Bangladesh's score, we can understand how much the country has been improving in the global hunger index over the last decade. In 2012, Bangladesh’s GHI score was 28.6, which dropped to 20.4 in 2020 and further down to 19.1 in 2021. This means that during last nine years, from 2012 to 2021, the score declined by 9.5. The fall was more than a notch annually on an average while our neighbours either stagnated or fell further. More impressively, this year Bangladesh's hunger level has improved to “moderate” from “serious” category for the first time. India and Pakistan, however, remain at the 'serious' category. What is more encouraging, Bangladesh is now one of the fourteen countries in the world to experience a 25 per cent reduction or more in their GHI scores during 2011-21. We also need to keep in mind that this progress occurred at a time when Bangladesh and the rest of the world were struggling with the unprecedented threats and impacts of the Covid-crisis. Both income and employment were lost significantly throughout the world. Bangladesh was no exception. But thanks to some prudent policy initiatives of the government, including steady vaccination and robust rural economy which ensure consistent better consumption, Bangladesh’s economic fallouts were not that much. Accordingly, the hunger situation did not deteriorate. Rather the index declined in number indicating progress.
What does this progress stand for? According to this index, a country can only progress if malnutrition levels drop among children under five years of age; if the proportion of child stunting (children with low height and weight for their age) decreases; and if infant mortality rate declines. This means that increasing food production alone is not enough, the distribution system of the produced food is also very important. The pattern of consumption of the people of Bangladesh shows that there has already been an improvement in the average as well as a qualitative change in the food consumption of children. India is now a food surplus country. We also import many food items, including rice, pulses and onions, from India. Nevertheless, the consumption pattern of Bangladesh is better than that of India (validated by the progress in the hunger index). Moreover, the positive impact of this consumption is also reflected in the growth rate of our nominal per capita GDP, which is the best in emerging economies of Asia. Consumption and its stability have been increasing over the last decade or so, even during the pandemic. It may be noted here that 63 per cent of Bangladesh's per capita GDP growth comes from consumption. The global hunger index says that children's proportion in food consumption is also increasing. No doubt, the Gini-Coefficient for consumption in Bangladesh has been hovering around 0.35 compared to that of income going up to 0.48 (2016). This indicates that while income inequality has been worsening (mainly due to unbridled growth of the number of super-rich) the consumption distribution remains stabilised to a great extent. Yet we need to be careful about this growing income inequality. There is no room for complacency on this issue.
Ensuring inclusive economic growth has increased people's purchasing power or the capability to buy food. As a result, even amid the coronavirus epidemic and the epidemic-related economic slowdown, our children's level of malnutrition has not increased. Just as government-backed 'Pushti Apas' ("Nutrition sisters" i.e., community nutrition promoters) have been encouraging pregnant and lactating mothers to eat more of the nutritious foods, they have also been providing necessary information to add local nutritional foods for their children. Numerous non-governmental organisations have also been contributing towards raising the nutritional status of mothers and children in a similar manner. Bangladesh Betar, Bangladesh Television and private TV channels are also playing a major role in raising awareness about food nutrition. Besides, necessary information about food and nutrition has been comprehensively compiled in the textbooks. The children are getting sensitised about the nutritional knowledge as well. All in all, various initiatives to reduce child malnutrition and prevent infant mortality are being successfully implemented in Bangladesh by the combined efforts of both government and nongovernment organisations. We are now beginning to reap the benefits of this concerted effort.
As a result of modernisation and diversification, on one hand, agricultural production is increasing sustainably. On the other hand, due to the significant increase in their incomes, now people can purchase these agricultural products. Millions of people have migrated abroad and to the cities from villages in search of work. About five million rural women and men are now working in garment and other export-oriented industries. This has led to two-way positive outcomes. Firstly, even after a reduction in demand for agricultural labour due to increased mechanisation in rural Bangladesh, the real wage level of agricultural labour has increased instead of falling as the labour market has become tighter. As a result, it is now possible for day labourers engaged in agriculture to save a portion of their incomes even after buying rice, fish, meat, pulses and vegetables. With those savings, spending opportunities are being created to improve the quality of their lives. Secondly, the money that migrated men and women send to the near ones in villages is helping them to enhance their consumption and savings. As a result of universal access to mobile-based transactions, both money flow and financial stability are rising in the villages as well. The same applies to agent banking services. The penetration of bank branches and sub-branches are also helping faster money transmission. Not only has it become easier to send money, but now the opportunities to save money digitally have also increased significantly. All these have helped bolster the rural economy that looks much more robust.
However, the recent rise in prices of oil and other commodities in the international market, as well as disruptions in the supply chains have led to higher food and non-food inflation in Bangladesh. The shipping cost has almost tripled this year compared to the last year, which has serious implication for prices of food and other imported commodities. This has put unwarranted pressure on the cost of living of the poor families. The Bangladesh Taka which has been the strongest in the region is also under pressure due to rise in the amount of import. Hopefully, this will be a transitory phase and inflation expectations will cool down in the context of improved supply chain and greater domestic production of agricultural products and other daily necessities. Bangladesh Bank has already started selling more dollars to stabilise the foreign exchange rate, which is a move in the right direction given its adequate reserve. The reduction in import of high-cost luxury items by imposing higher-level tariffs may also release the pressure on dollar. This will reduce the existing imbalance between supply and demand to stabilise the prices in the domestic market. At the same time, the central bank seems to be playing a key role in keeping inflation at a reasonable level without hurting growth. They have enough regulatory tools for this.
In the end, the government and the private sector need to be more focused on research and development to make agriculture more sustainable in the long run. We are aware of the climate change challenges arising out of coastal salinity, unusual floods and river erosion in chars disrupting agricultural production in these vulnerable areas. It is heartening to find that the government has been consistently funding enough research for agricultural scientists to produce salinity-tolerant seeds for the coastal areas. The same is true for winter-tolerant seeds in haors. The agricultural universities are also getting engaged in more R&D for promoting climate-friendly seeds. So are the private sector entrepreneurs. If more allocation is given to the Ministry of Agriculture from the climate budget which has earmarked 8 per cent of the total budget for about 30 ministries to address the challenges of climate change, I am sure the related scientists will be able to focus more on research and development of sustainable agriculture.
If everyone pays attention to these principles, surely the new era of agriculture will gain momentum. Agricultural production will continue to increase. However, it would not be right to say that if production increases, hunger will be eliminated for good. Professor Amartya Sen has shown in his research that there was no shortage of food supply in Bengal during the famine years. The deficit was in employment and income. The people had no purchasing power to buy food. Due to pro-poor and agriculture-friendly policies of the government and financial inclusion, the purchasing power of the rural people has certainly increased in recent years. The value of climate-friendly diversified agriculture has also been increasing. Government investment in modern agriculture has also picked up. If this policy attention and proper information campaign including expansion of public-private agriculture continues, Bangladesh will make further steady progress in the Global Hunger Index.
Let the food security of Bangladesh be strengthened by combining the gifts of nature and the knowledge of the people. So, there is no alternative to more environment friendly agriculture. Let hunger and poverty be eradicated at a faster pace. Apart from growing agriculture, Bangladesh's overall economic growth is soaring even during this pandemic due to the pace of exports and inflow of remittances. However, the rising inflationary pressure remains a big headache for the masses. We hope the government and the central bank will continue to adopt prudent policies to contain inflation. Let there be peace in the society and let us all live well in harmony with the nature defying all the challenges of climate change. Let’s turn climate risk into resilience and prosperity through appropriate climate actions, locally and globally.
The writer is the Bangabandhu Chair Professor of Dhaka University and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank