Struggling for sustenance MEHEDI HASAN

A win-win situation for both humanity and the economy

A woman was staring down blatantly towards a garbage can with the hopes of finding something edible for herself and her child. She was covering her face with the drape of her saree. It seemed that she didn’t want people nearby to recognize her. 

Perhaps she didn’t belong to that neighbourhood. She was holding a baby, hardly a couple of years old, whose face was hanging over her left shoulder. While she was busy gathering morsels of food, groups of stray dogs gathered around her. 

Although my father had narrated multiple stories of the “great famine of 1974” to me whilst growing up, this sight of nature’s different species all fighting to survive in the same world had sparked an uncanny sense of optimism within me as I witnessed the woman pull out a box containing almost an entire pizza. 

Perhaps some rich family down the street had ordered it for take away a few hours ago but refrained from consuming it after they read about a “pizza delivery boy” testing positive for the newfound novel coronavirus.

No one should feel optimistic after observing a sight similar to Zainul Abedin’s paintings. But witnessing someone come across what their heart desires in desperate times is nothing short of a miracle.

As I continued observing, the traffic lights turned green and my chauffeur pressed the accelerator hard to avoid being stuck at the same signal twice. 

The time stuck in traffic was still very considerable given that the government had imposed a lockdown. 

However, as the journey progressed, I witnessed all the vehicles head in the same direction as me. We were all going to the supermarket. Why? Because a group of people had spread the news all over Facebook that groceries and toilet paper were running out of supply, globally. 

“Herd mentality” is a phenomenon that works even within the most literate members of society. But poverty is a phenomenon caused neither by the declining supply of food nor by its shortage. 

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen provided ample evidence in his book Poverty and Famines, that the hypothesis regarding declining availability of food wasn’t sufficient to explain the Great Bengal Famines of 1943 and 1974. 

Instead, Sen suggested the use of the “entitlement approach” as an alternative metric to interpret the rising numbers of deaths due to starvation. In Sen’s framework, “people destituted by famine are not entitled to food; instead, they are entitled to starve.” 

He explained that individuals who starve during famine are the ones that do not have the ability to exchange their endowments (assets, resources, and labour-power) for sufficient quantities of food. 

This notion of “resource endowment bundles” have not fared well in recent times due to the unfavourable shift in entitlement to individuals who were already better off. 

Officials from different districts were distributing essentials like rice, wheat, cooking oil, lentils, and soap to families, but within a few days, it was all over the news that many were not doing their job well, and instead ended up hoarding the same essential supplies for themselves.

The chain of command always trickles down from the hands of crony capitalists to other members of society. 

In 1976, Susan George, who is now the president of the Transnational Institute, stated that starvation was largely a man-made phenomenon. Contrary to popular belief, starvation and malnutrition aren’t by-products of over-population, poor climates, or lack of cultivable land. 

The business of controlling the “global food supply” is worth trillions of dollars, supervised by the most influential members of society. 

Even the “relief aid” programs that provide food to the undeveloped countries are also partially controlled by the elite. Hence, incentives to end hunger are few, and appetite to exploit the issue are many.

According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, each individual needs at least 387 grams of food daily, inclusive of wheat and rice. The government claims to have distributed rice among 2.77 crore people so far. 

Under the food-friendly program, half a million families have received 30kg of rice at Tk10 per kg alongside the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh.

Even with such initiatives, a large portion of the population is in misery.

The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) estimates at least 6.84 crore people need emergency assistance. On the other hand, research by the Power and Participation Research Centre and the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development claim 27% of the people are not getting food three times a day. 

They have even recommended food and financial assistance to people who are temporarily in distress due to the pandemic. Experts are claiming that this pandemic will cause the divide between the rich, poor, and middle class of large proportions.  

With farmers being forced to sell rice and other produce at low prices, lack of storage spaces, and unethical middlemen and wholesalers taking undue advantage, a universal system of “giving” can actually aid not only the needy but also the farmers and the government. 

If the food distributers allocated the essentials in an organized manner in each electoral district, farmers would keep on constantly producing and be able to reap a better price and the government would not need to spend millions on storage facilities. 

The natural cycle of consumption will roll forward if policymakers can ensure an uninterrupted supply of the necessities.

The government has a list of citizens who are provided with various kinds of aid from time to time under its social safety net. The “vulnerable group feeding” (VGF), “food for works” (FFWs), and “relief” groups can all be incorporated under the “ration card” system the government has already proposed. 

Although the government plans to bring 50 lakh more families under its safety net this year, combining information from the national ID database with the ration cards will ensure that the bulk of the population will have access to the aid. 

In addition to that, it can help ensure the correct individual is delivered his/her “relief package”. The wards of each union parishad can take responsibility for their inhabitants, while a central committee monitors the actions of the distributors. 

If not food, a universal basic income program would enable the bottom 50% of the population to achieve sustenance, during this critical time. 

Although the government has taken an initiative to distribute Tk2,500 to 50 lakh families, Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics estimates shows that only around one percent of the income from the richest 20% can be redistributed to alleviate extreme poverty in any given year. 

While I had the privilege to access a fancy supermarket, the woman across the street didn’t. There’s no guarantee that she’ll miraculously find a box full of pizza the day after. People like her were all in anticipation of receiving free food from responsible members of their community. 

If done appropriately this would not only maintain stability within our society but save lives. The GDP can be brought back on track, but it would require output from people. The same people who are now struggling for sustenance. 

Even during 1974, Bangladesh was on the receiving end of diplomacy surrounding hunger, when it was obliged to stop its exports of jute to Cuba in order to attain food as aid from the US. By the time the aid arrived, the worst phase of the famine was already over.  

Will this pandemic bring about a similar scenario? I hope not. But the pandenomics of “giving” ie, redistributing either food or cash will prove to be a win-win situation both for humanity and the economy in the long run.  

Sayeed Ibrahim Ahmed is a graduate from Imperial College London. He is a Business Development Manager at UCB Capital Management and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Finance at American International University Bangladesh (AIUB) pursuing research along the lines of capital markets and economic policy.

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