Aid cuts threaten Bangladesh’s poor

Millions face starvation as global recession slashes UN food relief budget.

Shuili and her one-year-old daughter are among the 3.5 million people who every year fall victim to Monga, a seasonal famine that affects the north-western flood plains of Bangladesh.

Without the weekly ration provided by the World Food Programme (WPF), Shuili and many others who are poverty-stricken would face starvation.

The UN agency has been providing food aid to the area since 1975, but this is about to change. In a matter of months, 60 per cent of the UN’s relief operations to the region will be dropped, and Bangladesh’s WFP budget will also be decreased by about 50 per cent due to a lack of funding from Western donors.

Bangladesh is one of many countries which have relied on international aid but are soon to face a shortfall in assistance programmes caused by the global economic crisis.

The global economic downturn has taken its toll on the UN agency, which relies on voluntary donations from wealthy nations and is now facing a shortfall totalling $3bn.

The deficit could not have come at a worse time as food relief programmes face financial and logistical challenges in providing assistance to one billion people around the world who will go hungry this year.

The number, international aid organisations say, is only likely to rise.

In Bangladesh alone, the ranks of the hungry are growing; last year an additional 7.5 million of the population fell below the UN’s poverty line of $1 a day.

Starvation neglected

Shuili and her daughter depend on food rations from the UN not to face starvation.

John Aylief,  the WFP’s Bangladesh country director, says it is starving people in “the quite corners of Africa” that are most at risk of dying due to the economic shortfalls.

“Relief programmes in high profile events, such as natural disasters or conflict zones like the ones in Iraq or Afghanistan tend to be well funded. The problem is most children do not die in these crises. Most children die of more chronic causes in the quite corners of Africa, on the hillside of Rwanda and Burundi or unfortunately closer to home in the northwestern flood plains of Bangladesh,” he says.

According to the UN, two million Bangladeshi children under the age of five are suffering from acute malnutrition. Many of these are from the northwestern region of the country.

They are the children of agricultural workers who face famine during the last four months of the year. For their families, the waiting period between the planting and harvesting of rice is a dangerous time.

Between the months of September, when rice fields are newly planted, and December, when the rice is harvested, both food and work are scarce for those who do not own land. 

Lean season

Most of the farmers in the region are landless. The paddy fields belong to a handful of landlords that control vast areas.

As work is scarce during this so-called “lean season”, landless workers are forced to sell their labour in advance of harvest at very low wages, thus indebting themselves to landowners. 

This advance payment is used to buy food on the market to feed their families, but since the global economic crisis hit last year, prices of food and basic commodities have shot up dramatically, making the situation much worse.

“The lucky ones eat one meal a day, but many simply fast. They can’t buy food because they have no money”

Quazia Shumon, WFP

“During that [lean season] period, they skip meals. The lucky ones eat one meal a day, but many simply fast,” says Quazia Shumon of the WFP. 

“They can’t buy food because they have no money. They are entirely dependent on the food from WFP.”

But the food relief programme that Shuili and her daughter are dependent on for sustenance will be slashed by the end of this year, leaving them and millions of people in the area to their own devices.

Before relief operations are halted, however, the WFP says it is doing its best to educate villagers on the importance of nutrition.

Since one in three Bangladeshi women is malnourished, they must learn to maximise their intake of nutrients and vitamins. But without the ability to buy or grow their own food the future looks bleak for many. 

Dr. Asirul Hoque from the Bangladesh Institute of Health Sciences says that “although over the last 30 years Bangladesh has made tremendous progress in terms of combating Vitamin A deficiency and raising vaccination rates, the scenario still remains alarming with 46 per cent of pregnant women suffering from anaemia.” 

Hoque says that the quality and quantity of food is simply not sufficient.

Lacking infrastructure

WFP is educating villagers on the importance of nutrition

In a country where 65 million people live under the poverty line, the government does not have the necessary infrastructure or the means to redistribute food to the most needy.

“Now that there are signs of economic recovery in the developed nations” says John Aylieff from WFP, “we are asking them not to forget developing countries like Bangladesh, where the situation is only getting worse and as they roll out their economic stimulus packages [to] recognise that this is one world and we need to help those who are in the longer term victims down the chain of this economic downturn.”

The WPF’s $3bn funding gap, and its effects on the world’s neediest, is one of the issues that will be discussed at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. It remains to be seen whether aid to developing countries will continue to be a priority.

Aylieff says that the funding shortfall represents only 0.01 per cent of the economic stimulus packages rolled out across the developed world.

“This is a message that needs to go to Pittsburgh,” he says. 

For Shuili and the one billion people who now are now facing hunger, it is a message they hope the world’s most powerful economies will hear.

Source : Al Jazeera

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