Bangladesh faces high poverty and child undernutrition rates, which are exacerbated 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 31.5 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 (27 million below the lower poverty line) and high levels of inequality persisting.
Despite important economic progress, the country remains highly food-insecure. Bangladesh is ranked 146th out of 186 countries in the 2013 Human Development Index (HDI), and 68th out of 79 countries in the 2012 Global Hunger Index (GHI). According to the WFP Household Food Security and Nutrition Assessment (2008-2009) 37 million people – a quarter of the population – are food insecure. 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 prevalence rates of global acute and chronic undernutrition among children below 5 years of age in Bangladesh are alarming. Chronic undernutrition, or stunting, is widespread affecting an estimated 41 percent of children below 5 years of age (Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey BDHS 2011; HIES 2010): Approximately 7 million children are unable to develop to their full physical and mental potential, effects that last for a lifetime.
A staggering 16 percent of children under the age of 5 are acutely undernourished, and one in four women of reproductive age is too thin for her height. About one third of adolescent girls in Bangladesh suffer from anemia and micronutrient deficiency. With more than two in three girls married before the age of 18, the risk of early pregnancy and giving birth to a baby that weighs too little 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 children of mothers who have completed secondary and higher education (23 percent).
Although Bangladesh has made encouraging progress in terms of net enrolment rates and has achieved gender parity in primary and lower secondary education, major problems remain in terms of school completion, particularly for girls from extremely poor families. An estimated 3.3 million children remain out of school, and only 51 percent of those in school completes the full five-year cycle of primary education (UNICEF 2009).
Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. Increased frequency of natural disasters, such as cyclones, floods and drought, is likely to undermine poverty reduction efforts. 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 for escaping the poverty cycle.
Despite these numerous challenges, WFP is able to draw on 39 years of operations in the country to continue supporting the Government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. WFP works in close cooperation with the Government and local as well as international NGOs to improve the food security, nutritional well-being and livelihoods of the ultra-poor. WFP also supports communities vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with a focus on building community and household preparedness and resilience through innovative food and cash for work and training programmes.