Since gaining independence in 1971, Bangladesh has increased its real per capita income by more than 130 per cent and cut poverty by more than half. It is now well positioned to achieve most of its Millennium Development Goals, but it remains a low-income country with substantial poverty, inequality and deprivation.
At least 45 million people in Bangladesh, almost one third of the population, live below the poverty line, and a significant proportion of them live in extreme poverty. The poverty rate is highest in rural areas, at 36 per cent, compared with 28 per cent in urban centres. Many people have an inadequate diet and suffer from periods of food shortage. Half of all rural children are chronically malnourished and 14 per cent suffer from acute malnutrition.
Most of Bangladesh’s labourers are engaged in informal, low-income jobs with limited productivity. Although agriculture now accounts for less than 20 per cent of GDP, the farm sector still employs about 44 per cent of the labour force. However, with urbanization, the amount of farmland is shrinking, and most rural households have very little, if any, cultivable land. Rice is the dominant crop, but production increases are limited by farmers’ lack of access to critical production tools such as high-yielding rice seeds. In addition, coastal areas are prone to saline intrusion.
Fisheries are also an important part of the Bangladeshi economy, providing a source of high-value protein. Yet the fishing industry remains underutilized. Poor fishers need more advanced technologies and better access to open bodies of water in order to expand production, which will improve incomes and nutrition. Another root cause of rural poverty has been population growth, although this has dropped sharply, from 3 per cent to 1.4 per cent, in recent years. Population density remains extremely high, placing enormous pressure on the country’s natural resources – especially on arable land. Meanwhile, rural and urban industries are unable to meet the demand for jobs, forcing many Bangladeshis to seek work abroad.
Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Two thirds of its territory is less than 5 metres above sea level, making it one of the most flood-prone countries in the world. Severe flooding during monsoons can cause significant damage to crops and property, and an adverse impact on rural livelihoods. Climate change seems likely to add to the destruction by monsoon floods, and the frequency of cyclones may increase. Poor people are hit hardest because they are more densely concentrated in badly constructed housing on land that is prone to hazards.