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What are the current issues in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. The increased frequency of natural disasters, such as cyclones and floods, lean season crises and droughtis likely to undermine poverty reduction efforts. Coping strategies adopted by the poor like reducing food intake, withdrawing children from school and selling productive assets increases the vulnerability of low-income households and worsens people’s prospects for escaping the poverty cycle.

Bangladesh faces high poverty and undernutrition rates, aggravated by frequent natural disasters and high population density. The proportion of the population living under the poverty line came down from 49 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2010 as a result of consistent economic and remittance growth (Household Income and Expenditure Survey HIES 2010). However, due to high overall population, the absolute number of people living in poverty remains high, with 48 million people living below the poverty line (of whom 27 million are below the lower poverty line) and high levels of inequality persisting. Updated poverty figures will be available when the 2015 HIES has been completed and published.

Despite important economic progress and reaching lower middle-income status in 2015, the country remains highly food insecure with roughly a quarter of the population not having regular access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. Bangladesh is ranked 142 of 187 countries on the 2014 Human Development Index and 57 among 120 developing and transitioning countries on the 2014 Global Hunger Index. Low dietary diversity is a persistent problem in Bangladesh and showed no significant change across all income groups even as the country experienced a significant decline in poverty (World Bank: Assessing a Decade of Progress in Reducing Poverty, 2000-2010). Achieving gender equality also remains a challenge as significant disparities persist in health, education and income.

The high prevalence of child marriage and undernutrition in mothers and adolescent girls contributes to the intergenerational cycle of undernutrition. Chronic undernutrition, or stunting, is widespread, affecting an estimated 6-7 million children (41 percent) below 5 years of age (Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey BDHS 2011; HIES 2010). These girls and boys are unable to develop to their full physical and mental potential, effects that last a lifetime.

A staggering 16 percent of children under the age of 5 are acutely undernourished, and every fourth woman of reproductive age is too thin for her height. About one third of adolescent girls in Bangladesh suffer from anemia and micronutrient deficiency (BDHS 2011). Moreover, with more than two in three girls married before the age of 18, the risk of early pregnancy and giving birth to an underweight baby is very high. Currently, more than one in five newborns have a low birth weight.

Poverty and undernutrition hinder children’s access to education and ability to learn, and the lack of education has a significant impact on the nutrition status of the next generation. Children of mothers with no education are more than twice as likely to be stunted (51 percent) as are children of mothers who have completed secondary and higher education (23 percent).

While Bangladesh has made encouraging progress in terms of school enrolment and achieved gender parity in primary and secondary education, major problems remain. An estimated 3.3 of 20 million children of primary school age remain out of school, and only eight in ten children that start grade 1 complete grade 5. Children from ultra-poor households are overrepresented in statistics on primary education dropout.

Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world with cyclones, floods, saltwater intrusion, river erosion and drought expected to increase in severity due to the effects of climate change. Coping strategies adopted by the poor such as reducing food intake, withdrawing children from school and selling productive assets increase the vulnerability of low-income households and worsen people’s prospects to escape the poverty cycle.

Despite these numerous challenges, WFP is able to draw on 41 years of operations in the country to continue supporting the Government’s plans and ambitions. WFP works closely with the Government and local as well as international NGOs to improve the food security, nutritional well-being and livelihoods of the poorest of the poor. WFP also supports communities vulnerable to the impacts of disasters and climate change, with a focus on building community and household preparedness as well as resilience through innovative programmes.

What the World Food Programme is doing in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, WFP aims to improve the long-term food security and nutritional well-being of people living in the poorest and most food insecure communities, both in rural and urban areas. WFP has been assisting these high-risk groups in Bangladesh since 1974 and helped more than 155 million people through development programmes over these past 41 years.

In close cooperation with the Government, local and international NGOs as well as UN partners, WFP fights undernutrition throughout the life cycle. By providing specialized nutritious food or cash and behaviour change communication (BCC); strengthening communities’ resilience; supporting social safety net programmes; and assisting refugees from Myanmar, WFP reaches pregnant women and nursing mothers, young children, pre- and primary school students as well as ultra-poor and food insecure adults.

  • Improving Maternal and Child Nutrition

WFP supports the Government to improve the nutritional status of children and women and to break the intergenerational cycle of undernutrition. The Improving Maternal and Child Nutrition (IMCN) programme combines targeted supplementary feeding and nutrition behaviour change communication (BCC). It takes a community-based approach to ensure wide coverage and activities are carried out through Government health structures to safeguard ownership and sustainability.

There is a strong focus on the first 1,000 days, from conception to 2 years of age, to prevent that a lack of nutrients impacts the development of the brain and body for a lifetime. Nutrition interventions during this time can have an immediate and long-term effect on a child’s growth, health, learning ability, future productivity and income-earning potential.

Under IMCN, community health workers identify undernourished children aged 6-59 months, pregnant women and nursing mothers. Severely undernourished children are referred to subdistrict (upazila) health complexes whereas those moderately undernourished receive Super Cereal Plus, a specialised nutritious food fortified with essential vitamins and minerals. Similarly, undernourished pregnant and nursing women receive a premix of oil and Super Cereal, another fortified product, for the duration of their pregnancy and until their children reach 6 months of age, i.e. during the period of exclusive breastfeeding.

These distributions are complemented by BCC trainings aimed at improving nutrition and hygiene practices. The sessions are attended by young women, mothers and other caretakers of undernourished children as well as a wider audience of community members.

WFP also increasingly pursues nutrition objectives in other development programmes such as school feeding and social safety nets, and builds both institutional and human capacity in government entities delivering nutrition services. Further areas of work include collaboration on nutrition during emergencies; nutrition education in schools; developing and promoting local, nutritionally-enhanced food products such as fortified rice; and the coordination of nutrition activities across different sectors.

  • School Feeding and Home Grown School Meals

To reach the common goal of universal primary education, WFP works with the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education to provide biscuits fortified with vitamins and minerals to pre-primary and primary school children in particularly disadvantaged areas. In an accompanying learning package, children, their parents and other community members learn about social challenges, vegetable gardening, health and nutrition as well as hygiene practices.

The Government’s national school feeding programme, which started in 2011 and then supported 55,000 students, will cover 3 million children through 2015. Concurrently, WFP plans to assist 500,000 schoolchildren in 4,300 schools, after which further transitions to the Government-led programme are set to take place.

The programme has been successful in improving primary school enrolment and attendance, reducing dropout, and alleviating micronutrient deficiencies as well as short-term hunger among school students in rural and urban areas with high poverty and low primary education completion rates.

In 2013, WFP and the Government launched a school meals initiative, providing children with a freshly prepared meal made from fortified rice and oil, protein rich pulses, locally procured vegetables, and spices. Local women are recruited as paid cooks or earn income by selling vegetables from their own cultivation for the school meals in their village. These meals are now reaching 25,000 students in two subdistricts (upazilas) of Barguna and Jamalpur districts.

WFP also helps build capacity through a support unit within the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education by providing technical assistance on project design and management.

  • Enhancing Resilience to Natural Disasters and the Effects of Climate Change

To improve communities’ resilience to natural disasters and the effects of climate change as well as to strengthen their agricultural production, WFP works with the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) and local stakeholders to strengthen joint preparedness and response capabilities.

In disaster-prone areas along the southern coastal belt and major rivers and their ramifications, 80,000 ultra-poor people, of whom more than 70 percent are women, complete a two-year programme during which they work on community infrastructure including embankments, roads, homesteads, flood and cyclone shelters as well as irrigation and drainage canals.

The schemes are identified in a local-level planning (LLP) process, which WFP initiates and involves government officials, male and female community members as well as NGO staff. Together they review community needs with a focus on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaption.

Over the past 41 years, more than 27,000 km of roads and 17,000 km of embankments have been reconstructed (including raising roads above flood levels); over 4,100 km of drainage/irrigation canals and 3,000 acres of water bodies have been re-excavated and brought back into productive use; 38 million trees have been planted; 25,200 homesteads were raised; and 1,000 emergency flood and cyclone shelters were repaired.

During the rainy season when earth work is difficult, participants attend training sessions where they learn about disaster preparedness, disaster-risk-reduction planning, climate-change adaptation and survival during crises.

The majority of participants are ultra-poor women. Usually confined to their homes and villages, they face additional barriers to gaining an income and are more vulnerable than men to the consequences of natural disasters. Self-employment and empowerment of women will need to play an important role in sustaining economic gains at the household level. Therefore, in a third programme year, women from participating households are trained in developing a small business and receive a one-off cash grant for investment as well as a monthly cash transfer for six months. The monthly payments allow them to focus on growing their investment and increasing their families’ economic resilience, food security and nutritional status.

  • Strengthening Social Safety Nets

From 2011, WFP is placing greater emphasis on helping the Government to improve the quality and results of its safety net programmes, with emphasis on evidence creation and facilitating dialogue on the effectiveness of promotional safety nets.

For the Government, social safety nets is a core area to invest in to reach the declared goal of reducing the number of people living in poverty from 32 percent in 2010 to 15 percent by 2021. USD 3.2 billion, or about 2.3 percent of GDP, has been allocated to social safety net programmes for the fiscal year 2014-15. The major programmes cover over 30 million people.

In 2012, WFP established a capacity-support unit in the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MoWCA) to support the Vulnerable Group Development (VGD) programme, one of the largest safety net programmes in the country exclusively targeting ultra-poor women. To help the women and their families move out of extreme poverty and improve their food security and nutritional status, WFP assists the Government to strengthen policies and programme design for effective implementation as well as to enhance systems, tools and staff capacities. WFP also supports MoWCA with implementing the Investment Component of VGD (ICVGD), which adds business development and a cash grant for productive investments, improved quality of training and implementation as well as a focus on nutrition.

Together with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), WFP in 2014 concluded research to determine the benefits of five different types and combinations of social safety net transfers including cash, food, and nutrition behaviour change communication (BCC). The findings of this Transfer Modality Research Initiative (TMRI) demonstrate that a combination of cash transfers and BCC sessions for ultra-poor women with small children can make a significant difference in the prevention of child stunting; a stunting reduction by 7.3 percentage points was achieved over a two-year intervention period. WFP is currently testing the effectiveness of combining BCC activities with BRAC’s established extreme poverty graduation programme, Challenging the Frontiers of Poverty Reduction – Targeting the Ultra Poor.

From 2009 to 2012, WFP implemented the Food Security for the Ultra Poor (FSUP) project, which supported 30,000 ultra-poor women and their families through trainings on entrepreneurial skills, income generation, disaster preparedness and nutrition. To put this knowledge to use, the women received a 14,000 taka (equivalent of USD 180) cash grant for investment and a monthly cash allowance over two years. At the end of the project, the average income of participants had increased five-fold, savings more than quadrupled and household assets tripled.

  • Assisting Refugees and Ultra-Poor in Cox's Bazar

Under a Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO), WFP works in strong partnership with the Government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and NGOs to provide food assistance to more than 32,000 registered refugees from Myanmar living in two government-managed refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district. Due to restrictions on movement and employment, many refugees have no regular income and are highly dependent on assistance.

In 2014, WFP introduced an electronic FoodCard that works like a debit card and gives registered refugees the opportunity to purchase nutritious and diverse food according to their families’ needs and preferences. Registered traders inside the refugee camps offer a selection of rice, pulses, oil, eggs, vegetables, fruit, salt, sugar, spices and dried fish. Each card can only be used in combination with a fingerprint, making this one of the most secure and traceable systems for food assistance.

In addition, WFP continues its special food assistance to the most vulnerable in the refugee camps: pregnant and nursing women, young children and schoolchildren. To help ensure children receive the nutrition they need during the critical first 1,000 days of life, WFP gives take-home rations of specialised nutritious food to pregnant women and nursing mothers as well as to children aged 6-23 months and to moderately undernourished children up to the age of 5.

WFP also provides micronutrient-fortified biscuits to children in primary and pre-schools as well as to older children in non-formal primary education in the camps. These snacks encourage children to attend class, give them the energy to focus, and cover a large part of their micronutrient needs.

Next to food insecurity, inadequate practices in the areas of child care, water, sanitation and hygiene are key causes for persistent undernutrition. To improve knowledge, attitudes and practices, WFP works with partners to ensure nutrition education for women and other caregivers for small children in the camps.

Aside from assistance to registered refugees inside the camps, WFP supports the most vulnerable households and individuals in the highly disadvantaged district of Cox’s Bazar through the programme Enhancing Food Security and Nutrition (EFSN). The programme is fully aligned with the policies and development priorities of the Government and deploys an integrated and converging package of five core interventions with a focus on women, adolescent girls and children. This includes subsistence support and training, strengthening social networks, nutrition behaviour change communication (BCC) for women of reproductive age, treatment of children suffering from acute undernutrition and school feeding.

  • Rice Fortification

Micronutrient deficiencies, especially among adolescent girls and women, are a key factor in the persistence of undernutrition as a woman’s health significantly affects the health and development of her children. Undernutrition slows economic growth and perpetuates poverty. Productivity losses to individuals through underdeveloped physique and cognitive functions as well as deficits in schooling and increased health costs are estimated at roughly 10 percent of lifetime earnings.

Rice makes up the largest part of most people’s daily diet and, if fortified, can deliver essential vitamins and minerals to help people lead an active and healthy life.

Through rice fortified with essential vitamins and minerals, the initiative Scaling up rice fortification aims to reduce micronutrient deficiencies in high-risk groups with a strong focus on women and children. With support from the Kingdom of the Netherlands and global science company Royal DSM, the joint initiative between WFP and the Government runs from 2013 to 2017 and is on track to reach its target of 500,000 beneficiaries by 2016.

By providing fortified rice, WFP supports the Government to overcome the country’s intergenerational cycle of undernutrition. From 2015, activities have been scaled up in four ways: by distributing fortified rice to ultra-poor women and their families under the Vulnerable Group Development (VGD) programme in twelve subdistricts and to disaster-affected families through a relief programme in one district; by supporting programmes that enhance resilience to natural disasters and the effects of climate change; through cooked school meals to schoolchildren; and in cooperation with garment factory owners to encourage them to provide fortified rice to their employees, most of whom are women.

Up to December 2014, the Government and WFP distributed roughly 4,600 metric tons of fortified rice to more than 140,000 beneficiaries in safety net programmes, and the Government has agreed to finance the scale up of fortification in the VGD programme. WFP together with partners is also making good progress towards locally producing rice premix kernels, creating market demand and increasing national capacity to reach the poor.

Featured Bangladesh publications

  • Bangladesh: WFP Country Brief (PDF, 402 KB)

    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.