Bangladesh: No longer the ‘hungry’ man of South Asia

The recently released Global Hunger Index (GHI) by the International Food Policy Research Institute reveals that hunger has improved globally since 1990. However, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are home to worst forms of hunger. Estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organisation in the US suggest that no fewer than 870 million people go hungry across the globe.

The pejorative reference to the starving, naked Bangalis (Bhookay, Nungay Bengali) is still part of the Pakistani lexicon. The West Pakistan’s establishment thought not much of Bangladesh when it separated after a bloody war that left hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis and others dead. After the 1971 war, even Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto called Bangladeshis pigs. Fast forward to 2013 and a new picture emerges where Pakistan struggles to feed its people while Bangladesh gallops ahead in human development. One wonders why Pakistan, which was once thought to have so much promise, has become the sick (and hungry) man of South Asia.

Pakistan shows the least progress in reducing hunger amongst other South Asian countries. Source: Calculations and graph by Murtaza Haider, 2013. Data obtained from GHI, 2013.

The GHI tells the story of how countries have performed over the past two decades in fighting hunger and disease. The report reveals the early gains made by South Asia in the 1990s to fight hunger and malnutrition. It was the same time when sub-Saharan Africa trailed far behind South Asia in human development. However, since 2000 sub-Saharan Africa has picked up pace and in 2013 it has on average performed better on hunger than the countries in South Asia.

Despite the slow growth in South Asia, Bangladesh is one of the top 10 countries that have made the most progress in reducing hunger since 1990. The Bangladeshi success with reducing hunger deserves a closer look to determine if this has resulted from sound planning or is merely a result of happenstance. Given that Bangladesh has beaten not just Pakistan, but also India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka in the pace at which it reduced hunger, the success is likely a result of good planning and execution.

The GHI is computed as an average of three indicators, namely prevalence of undernourishment in the population, prevalence of underweight children under five years, and under-five mortality rate. The latest data reveals that compared to Pakistan, Bangladesh has lower prevalence of undernourishment in population and under-five mortality

Research in north-western Bangladesh suggests that hunger impacts are rather seasonal. During times of low crop yields, food prices rise and result in lower accessibility to sufficient nutrition. The researchers found that most food insecure are the perpetual poor. A combination of safety nets setup by the government and the use of micro-credit helps the poor to manage food supply during lean periods.

Apart from safety nets, the improvement in hunger reduction is a result of several commitments and policies. The budget document in Bangladesh contains a separate entry for nutrition. Article 15 of the Bangladeshi constitution expects the State to provide citizens with the basic necessities of life, including food. The Bangladeshi government in 2012 committed to food security “for all people of the country at all times.” The Bangladesh Integrated Nutrition Project (BINP) improved the nutritional outcomes as of 1995. Later in 2002, the National Nutrition Program was launched. Also included in the effort were Expanded Programme on Immunisation and vitamin A supplementation.

The above are some examples of how strategic planning resulted in faster reduction of hunger in Bangladesh. Despite the above-stated successes, 17 per cent of the population in Bangladesh (25 million) continue to suffer from hunger. In fact, 41 per cent of the under five children are likely to be stunted and another 16 per cent of under five children are likely to be ‘wasted.’ These numbers show that Bangladesh still has a long way to go in providing food security to its people.

Given that South Asian countries together now lag behind sub-Saharan Africa in hunger reduction, it may be prudent for South Asian heads of states to join hands in collaborative efforts to feed the hungry. They may want to learn from the best practices in Bangladesh and elsewhere to protect the food insecure amongst them.