On the eve of his visit to Bangladesh on Oct. 16, Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, tweeted: “This is my favorite chart in the world.”
During the two-day visit to Bangladesh, Kim joined a public event to mark End Poverty Day (Oct. 17) to recognize a milestone in the World Bank Group’s mission to end extreme poverty by 2030: In fewer than two decades, Bangladesh lifted close to 20 million people out of poverty and cut the poverty rate from 44.2 percent in 1991 to 18.5 percent in 2010. Recent World Bank estimates indicate a further fall in these rates, with projections at 13.8 percent as of 2015.
“Bangladesh has had remarkable success in cutting the number of people living in poverty by almost half and its innovations are well known — many countries have learned from them,” Kim said in a press release shortly before his visit.
Such stories of progress almost always come with a backdrop of struggle, but Bangladesh’s particularly stands out: Hopes of such advancements could easily have been dismissed as pipe dreams half a century ago, when the country was struggling for independence, sparked by movements for self-determination and the 1971 genocide. To add to its list of challenges, Bangladesh is one of the world’s most populous countries, and was prone to annual flooding and cyclones which washed away agricultural infrastructure and livelihoods.
The low-lying country is still vulnerable to flooding. But people have managed to find work-arounds like cluster housing (raised dwellings built at least seven feet above water level to escape the immediate effects of flooding); floating schools, shelters, and healthcare aboard solar-powered boats; and early warning systems to keep concerns about landslides at bay.
And the country has become more connected. Bangladesh has feeder roads that connect villages to nearby towns. Hosain Zillur Rahman, founder of the Dhaka-based think-tank Power and Participation Research Centre, has described these roads as transformational catalyst.
“Remoteness is as painful as poverty,” Rahman said in a report to the World Bank. “Girls going to school, microcredit, women selling goods in the market…these would not have been possible if remoteness continued to be a problem.”
Another crucial step in the path to ending poverty is education. The government has managed to cover about 90 percent of the children at the primary school level, although there’s room for improvement in the secondary school statistics which stand at about 60 percent.
Of course concerns over general standards of living still exist, as they do in most developing economies. And Bangladesh workers face especially high risks — particularly in the garment industry. Bangladeshi factories provide large-scale employment, but are also known for notoriously poor working conditions and lax regulations. When the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed on April 24, 2013, it brought to light reckless oversights and low wages in the apparel industry. April 24 then came to be known as Fashion Revolution Day, with people promoting awareness of their clothing’s origins and endorsing ethical sourcing norms. But improving working standards will require more than just raising awareness. International fashion brands depend largely on low-cost production. As consumers, we have a responsibility to know what goes on behind the scenes, but without direction as to how we can effect change, our awareness campaigns alone are likely to be just a drop in the ocean.
Another major concern is climate change. Bangladesh would be particularly vulnerable given its geography — climate scientists have predicted that most of the country’s land would be inundated when sea levels rise, and cyclones and flooding in the Bay of Bengal would become more frequent.
For Bangladesh, these aren’t ordinary times. And ordinary measures won’t do. Innovative solutions are needed, and they should come in the scale required to meet these heavy challenges.
In the wake of Jim Yong Kim’s visit to the country, the World Bank’s future efforts should provide for coordinated global efforts to cope with climate change, especially to help those who live in areas most vulnerable to extreme weather. Future efforts should also provide research in agriculture, funding in education and health facilities, and directions to establish clear labour laws to regulate the booming industrial sector.
Concentrated efforts are required from the international community, as well as strong foundational support from the local government, to lift Bangladesh above its “developing economy” status.