The answer to economic famines affecting millions could be in Bangladesh

20 November 2019
Where work for the rural poor is seasonal, famines are regular

Not all famines are caused by droughts, floods or wars. In Bangladesh, famines are driven by unemployment. Shyamal Chowdhury grew up seeing the devastating consequences. Now he might have a solution.

For many of the poorest people in Bangladesh, the only work available is seasonal, agricultural labour. They have work planting crops and harvesting crops, but nothing in between.

Even in the best of times, such people live on very little: rice, vegetables, perhaps some fish. But when income from agricultural work slows, entire communities fall into famine. People may get just a small bowl of rice on a good day. The government and aid agencies typically respond with handouts, but this doesn’t break the vicious cycle. Nor does it always save lives: a newspaper image from 2008 showed a woman who died of starvation while waiting in a food queue.

Known as “mongas”, these famines affect some 5 million people in north-western Bangladesh and they happen twice a year: March to April is the mini monga. September to November is the major monga. There are many consequences, including the effects on the physical and cognitive development of children, particularly girls (their brothers will be fed first).

This intractable problem has become the subject of intense research by Associate Professor Shyamal Chowdhury, who was born in Bangladesh and is now a developmental economist at the University of Sydney. While he wasn’t directly affected by the mongas, people in the village where he grew up were. Their situation and their response to it, planted the seed of his solution.

Under a clear, blue sky, several members of a rural Bangladeshi family are gathered. Standing in the foreground is a white-bearded elder looking at the camera.

Members of a rural Bangladeshi community. The seasonal nature of their employment presents huge health and societal challenges.

“We were not far from India,” says Chowdhury, whose manner is calm and self-possessed. “At the border, people would go and collect stones which floods would bring in from India.”

There is huge demand for the stones from the construction sector in Bangladesh, “The stones provided employment when there was no work in the village,” Chowdhury says. “So that was an insight I had. I could see that if my neighbours were able to travel, they could make money for their families.”

This thought led to a remarkable intervention created by a collaboration between Chowdhury and colleagues from the London School of Economics and Yale University.

Through AusAID funding and working with an NGO called Evidence Action, the researchers offered cash or credit of $US8.50 per landless household, on the condition that recipients migrate temporarily to find work.

Migration involved travelling about 300 kilometres to another region or the nearest city for four-to-eight weeks to find work in agriculture, construction, or as rickshaw pullers. The cash or credit provided enough money for a return bus ticket and a few days’ food.

The program had some remarkable impacts, seen across a total of three trials: most migrants earned $US110 on average during the lean season and saved about half of that – a very high rate of return. As well, about 80 per cent of the money loaned out was paid back (it takes about two days’ work to repay $US8.50). No one was left worse off. Those who failed to find work during the monga were not required to repay.

Perhaps most significantly, family members of migrants averaged one extra meal per person per day. All up, calorie intake increased 30%.

Shaymal Chowdury wearing a cap and in a darkened space with his face and other touch points gently illuminated. He is sitting on sacks of rice.

Dedicated to bringing people out of poverty, Associate Professor, Shyamal Chowdhury.

“It was far more cost-effective than subsidising food,” Professor Chowdhury says. He noticed another surprising result: “Once people were successful in migrating and getting a high return, they would then go back on their own and be successful again. They just needed to learn it for themselves.”

There were also indirect spill over benefits for the people who didn’t travel. With fewer people in the village during the lean season, there was less competition for what few jobs there were.

Talking to Professor Chowdhury is an exercise in hope. His methods are intensely practical and his personal story is impressive. After attending university in Dhaka, he came to Sydney via postdoctoral work at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, then a stint at the World Bank.

“I studied developmental economics, so poverty was always a big issue – how to make life better, how to bring people out of poverty,” he says. He’s found that migration benefits both the hungry and those who need short term employees.

Following the program’s success in Bangladesh, the Jakarta office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, together with the Indonesian National Development Planning Agency, approached Chowdhury’s team about trying the program in eastern Indonesia. The main crops here are rice and maize, and seasonal famines are severe. 

The team implemented a pilot with two key changes aimed at making the program more inclusive, by offering it to those who are less poor but reluctant to risk what money they have on an uncertain outcome. The grant was doubled to about $US20 per household. “We wanted to see the minimum amount of money necessary to induce poor households to migrate,” Chowdhury says. “With varying amounts, we could find out the minimum needed.”

Shaymal Chowdhury sits in the back of a large, wooden boat. He is wearing jeans, a maroon jumper and a back pack, and on a river with light brown water under a pale sky. In the background are rundown buildings made of metal sheeting.

On field trips, Chowdhury works to understand the economic activities of local people. Here in north-eastern Bangladesh, he’s in a traditional boat, the area’s main transport option.

The second difference was the conditions applied to receiving the grant. “Some economists believe we shouldn’t apply any conditions because households know what is best for them,” Chowdhury says. “But we thought conditionality was important, because if people use the money for buying food, they don’t become aware of other opportunities.”

So, most recipients were required to migrate, while a control group received an unconditional grant.

“The result was similar to Bangladesh: people migrated, and they still earned quite a bit of money,” Professor Chowdhury says. “However, we found that giving a larger sum of money didn’t create much further benefit.”

Requiring people to migrate and pay back the money turned out to be crucial. “We found that unconditional cash is not very effective,” Professor Chowdhury says. “It wasn’t generating a lot of revenue.” As predicted, when people spent their grant on food, they didn’t learn anything new – the famine cycle would repeat.

While the team now has the vital ingredients of a viable government policy, funding for the essential scaled-up trials is uncertain. Indefatigable in his work, however, Professor Chowdhury has now run a trial in Tamil Nadu, India, encouraging rural workers to migrate to cities for factory work.

And now for something completely different: Professor Chowdhury also has an experiment underway in Bangladesh where 10,000 primary school children across 140 schools, are taught social and emotional skills. “There used to be a lot of emphasis on education to help people earn more,” he says. “But for a good society we also need people who are kind, who trust each other, who help each other.” 

Written by Monica Crouch (BA(Hons) '95)

Main photograph Louise M Cooper

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