The People's Republic of Bangladesh
Current issues and what the World Food Programme is doing
Bangladesh is a small country in South Asia, surrounded by India on the west, north and east and the narrow Silguri Corridor separating it from Nepal and Bhutan. In the south-east it borders Myanmar; in the south, its coast forms the apex of the Bay of Bengal.
With a population of 160 million people and a GNI per capita of US$1,080, it is classified by the World Bank as a lower-middle-income country, ranking 142nd out of 188 countries in UNDP’s 2015 Human Development Index.
Bangladesh gained independence in 1971 when it split from Pakistan following the Bangladesh Liberation War. More recently, the country’s economy has grown enormously: between 1990 and 2014, GDP rose by 547 percent and life expectancy increased by almost 13 years. Inequality also increased, with the gap in income share between the richest 20 percent and the poorest widening by 3.26 percent. During the same period, the population grew by 53 million people, but development in terms of housing, sanitation, education and infrastructure has not kept pace. Poverty, at 31.5 percent, continues to affect both urban and rural communities, and malnutrition is widespread, especially among children and young mothers.
Literacy has improved greatly among 15- to 24-year-olds, and the literacy rate now stands at 83 percent. However, among the population as a whole, 38.5 percent remains illiterate. Formal employment opportunities in urban areas for those with little or no education are limited to low-paid sectors such as Bangladesh’s vast garment-manufacturing industry. Nationwide, vulnerable employment accounts for around 85 percent of the labour market. In rural areas, informal work predominates and involves very long hours and low or no pay.
The country’s vast watercourses represent a promise and a threat for Bangladesh, which is dominated by the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, through which rivers from India, China, Nepal and Bhutan, including meltwater from the Himalayas, drain into the Bay of Bengal. Water accounts for over 12 percent of the country’s area. River-borne sediments along the coastline include the Sundarbans swamp forests and mangroves in the south-west, as well as the rich alluvial soils that characterize Bangladesh’s fertile plains.
But watercourses also present a major threat because most of Bangladesh is flat and lies less than 10 meters above sea level; one-quarter lies less than 1 meter above sea level, making the country vulnerable to devastating floods. Bangladesh’s annual rainfall exceeds 2,000 mm in most regions, and in the north-east may exceed 4,000 mm with most falling during the monsoon season, from June to October. Risks are heightened by unpredictable drainage from remote sources and upstream human influences, such as dam-building and deforestation, as well as the effects of climate change on the Himalayas. Paradoxically, Bangladesh is also susceptible to very severe droughts when the monsoon shifts course.
Between April and May, and September and November, coastal areas are also at risk of tropical cyclones from the Bay of Bengal, along with tidal bores. Since 1990, 36 cyclones have affected over 35 million people, killing almost 146,000. Other types of storms have affected 20 million people, killing more than 6,000 since 1990. Floods and landslides have affected almost 113 million people, killing over 5,000. Including cyclones, these disasters have caused an estimated US$13 billion worth of damage. The risk of a major earthquake looms large.
WFP has been working in Bangladesh since 1974, and has helped more than 155 million people as the agency strives to improve food security and nutritional well-being for the nation’s poorest communities. More recently, WFP’s work has expanded to include climate-change mitigation, including resilience-building projects in disaster-prone areas.
What are the current issues in Bangladesh?
Poverty and undernutrition
Despite economic progress in Bangladesh, one-quarter to one-third of the population lives in poverty and roughly one-quarter cannot access sufficient safe and nutritious food.
Chronic undernutrition, or stunting, is widespread, affecting 36 percent of children below the age of five. 16 percent of children younger than five are acutely undernourished, and every fourth woman of reproductive age is too thin for her height. About one-third of adolescent girls suffer from anaemia and micronutrient deficiency.
Low educational attainment
While school enrolment has improved in recent years, an estimated 3.3 percent of 20 million primary school-aged children remain out of school. Only 80 percent of children who start primary school complete grade five.
Although the Government now subsidizes girls’ education, achieving gender equality remains a challenge. There are significant disparities between men and women in health, education and income. More than two-thirds of girls marry before the age of 18, and the likelihood of early pregnancy and giving birth to an underweight baby is very high. More than 20 percent of newborns have a low birth weight.
Bangladesh’s susceptibility to floods, cyclones and droughts presents significant threats to food security and health. The impacts of natural disasters on food availability, household possessions, income and debt force the poorest to adopt negative coping strategies, such as eating less, withdrawing children from school and selling productive assets. Waterborne parasitic and bacterial diseases also contribute, through malabsorption, to malnutrition.
What is the World Food Programme doing in Bangladesh?
WFP aims to improve the nutritional status and food security of the poorest, most high-risk communities.
Improving maternal and child nutrition
With community health workers, WFP provides supplementary feeding to mothers and children in the poorest areas along with advice improving nutrition behaviour. Moderately undernourished children aged 6-59 months, pregnant women and nursing mothers receive specialist help and specialized nutritious foods fortified with vitamins and minerals. (https://www.wfp.org/nutrition/special-nutritional-products )
By taking action during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life – from conception to two years of age - WFP helps to prevent nutrient deficits from hampering a child’s development. Supporting cognitive and physical development at this early age has benefits throughout life: it improves learning ability and future productivity, and thus the child’s chances of escaping poverty.
Feeding school children
To help the Government of Bangladesh achieve universal primary education, WFP works with the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education to provide nutritious food to pre-primary and primary school children in disadvantaged areas. The National School Feeding Programme, launched in 2011 and based on the WFP model, helps children in areas with high poverty and low primary-school completion rates to attend class and learn without feeling hungry. In 2015 this programme, with WFP’s support, helped 2.5 million children. Concurrently, WFP provided food assistance to another 500,000 children in 4,300 schools.
As well WFP, in partnership with the Government, launched a joint school meals initiative in 2013 which provides students with a fresh meal made from fortified rice and oil, protein-rich pulses, and locally procured vegetables. This differs from the National School Feeding Programme, which offers micronutrient-fortified biscuits. The joint-project meals are reaching 20,000 students and help local women as well: some work as cooks, while others sell their garden produce to WFP.
Preparing for disasters and the effects of climate change
Participants in community infrastructure projects in disaster-prone areas along the southern coastal belt and major rivers are paid in cash by the Government and WFP. About 50,000 ultra-poor people participate – 70 percent of these women. The projects help mitigate the risk of floods and cyclones, and include local-level planning with other community members to identify needs. The work involves building or repairing embankments, roads, homesteads, and flood and cyclone shelters, as well as irrigation and drainage canals.
Supporting the Government to reduce poverty
To support Government enhancements of social safety nets, WFP provides training and other support to the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs. The goal is to help ultra-poor women and their families move out of extreme poverty and improve their food security and nutritional status. WFP also helps the Government provide cash grants to women so they can start businesses. A 2014 study by WFP with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) suggested that providing a cash and nutrition education to ultra-poor women with small children can have a great impact on reducing child stunting.
Assisting refugees and the ultra-poor in Cox's Bazar
WFP works with the Government, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and NGOs to provide food assistance to 34,000 registered refugees from Myanmar living in two official camps in Cox’s Bazar district on Bangladesh’s south-east coast. Due to restrictions on movement and employment, many refugees are highly dependent on assistance.
WFP provides an e-card that is refilled regularly and allows registered refugees to buy food in the camps. Pregnant and nursing women, young children and school children also receive special food assistance.
In Bangladesh, rice is the major constituent of people’s daily diet. WFP has been working with the Government and private agencies to fortify rice with essential vitamins and minerals to reduce micronutrient deficiencies in high-risk groups, such as women and children. 500,000 people will receive the rice in 2016 through a Government food-based social safety net, through WFP programmes, and by working with the private sector.
World Food Programme partners in Bangladesh
WFP cannot fight global hunger and poverty alone. These are our partners in Bangladesh:
- The Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh
- Ministry of Primary and Mass Education
- The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs
- Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief
- Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives
- International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
- The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Want to know more about WFP partners? Visit WFP's Partnerships section.
Featured Bangladesh publications
A Country Brief provides the latest snapshot of the country strategy, operations, operational highlights (achievements and issues/challenges), partnerships and country background.
Looking for more publications on Bangladesh? Visit the Bangladesh publications archive.