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BANGLADESH: To Be Small Is Beautiful and Helps Beat the Poverty Trap, Too


DHAKA, May 12 2005 (IPS) - Bangladesh is a paradox. While beset with poverty and institutional failures, it maintains an economic growth rate of five percent, well above the average for developing countries.

The answer to the puzzle could be the triumph of local initiatives, like the one in poverty- stricken northern Bangladesh – inspired by a field-level government agricultural officer.

Hamidur Rahman came to the Chuhor agricultural block, Rangpur district, in 1990 as the block supervisor. His job was to introduce new technologies in agriculture, promote new crops and advise farmers as needed.

Rahman’s field comprised some 23 villages, with more than 2,500 families. The majority had little or no land, and yet depended on agriculture as farmers and day labourers. Many were finding it difficult to have three square meals a day, let alone feed their families.

”I’ve seen people eating rice only with some chillies, at the end of a day’s work,” Rahman told IPS. ”I thought and thought how I could be of use to these people.”

By 1995, Rahman had already begun his work among the landless, starving families.

The door-to-door campaign Rahman launched against poverty has two simple mottos: maximum and diversified use of every square centimetre of land – homestead, roadside, or farmland; and self-reliance.

It’s a delight now to look at many of the houses.

Gourd vegetables hang from vines supported on bamboo nets over mounds of compost fertiliser; vines spread over rooftops; tomatoes, okras, green chillies, different types of greens, beans, and other vegetables grow in neatly kept beds. Water from tube-wells run into a tiny pond, where an African species of catfish is bred to meet the protein needs of the families.

Acting as borders to the yards are papaya, banana, guava and pomelo trees.

Women are Rahman’s target group.

”Women stay at home while their husbands go to far away districts and cities to sell their labour.” Besides, added Rahman, ”When I shared my idea with the men, they didn’t see much in it. But women instantly took to my advice.”

”Women have more patience,” acknowledged Ali Ahmed of Belbari village. ”They realise that small ventures could eventually grow big.”

Sona Mia supported Ahmed.

”Women suffer the brunt of poverty. Children turn to mothers when they are hungry. Mothers would try anything to get food for their kids,” she told IPS.

While demonstration effect is spreading steadily, Rahman closely supervises about 1,200 families. The changes he can see compensate for all the hard work.

”In 1994 when I started following ‘Bhai’s’ (brother – as Rahman is fondly called) advice, my husband was unemployed and we only had a tiny bit of homestead, three decimals (0.01 hectares),” said Mosammat Rashida Begum of Chuhor village. Today Rashida Begum has expanded her homestead to 15 decimals (0.06 acres).

The unit of account for land in Bangladesh is commonly expressed in decimal, where one acre of land is equivalent to 100 decimals;

”I grow vegetables and greens, raise goats, poultry, pigeons, and catfish, and make compost fertiliser,” said Rashida Begum as she proudly showed IPS around.

”Previously we could never afford to eat these vegetables. But now, we can even sell our surplus after fulfilling our basic needs. Compost, too, fetches good prices.”

For Marjina, it was a case of starting from scratch.

She did not even have a homestead. Squatting on a relative’s land, she used to work as a day labourer, earning about 30 U.S. cents a day.

Motivated by Rahman’s campaign she started growing vegetables and raising cows and goats on a small patch of land. Whatever she produced, she agreed to share it with the landowner in order for her to work the land without rent.

Today, Marjina has her own cow and a few goats and can afford to pay rent for two-thirds of an acre (0.27 hectares) of farmland to grow vegetables and spices.

The villages are close to the highway and so marketing is not a problem.

Every year northern Bangladesh experiences a ‘monga’ (want) period, requiring extensive relief aid for people to survive. ‘Monga’ is usually from October and November where food is scarce, as are jobs, until the rice harvest begins in December.

But here, homestead farming, along with other infra-structural developments, seemingly have brought about a breakthrough.

”Five or six years ago, we survived on relief during monga,” recalled Jahanara Begum of Chuhor village. “But now we get to eat at least two meals a day, even during the period when there’s little.”

”This area is one of the poorest in our sub-district,” said Surya Begum of Nayapara village. ”When one succeeds, others soon follow.”

She proudly showed her bottles of seeds, mentioning that ‘Bhai’ also give them tips on how to preserve them.

Surya Begum recently got a national gold medal in agriculture, given by the government, for homestead fruit and vegetable cultivation.

Rahman himself has won accolades from the government for his various contributions. And the fame of the project that he fondly calls the ‘Poverty-Alleviation Model Programme’, regularly brings many visitors from the government and NGO sectors.

Mahboob-ul-Islam, a local journalist has been following the development in Chuhor closely.

”The greatest achievement of this venture is creating awareness about one’s own abilities,” he said. ”Mr. Rahman has made the change happen only by motivating people.”

But Rahman remains modest about his achievements.

”I have only motivated and advised them, and have tried to give them technical assistance. But the people brought about the changes by their own hard work,” he was quick to point out.

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