THE Global Hunger Index 2019, published in October but launched in Dhaka on Monday, has ranked Bangladesh in the 88th position among 117 countries. Bangladesh shares the ‘serious’ category, the middle of the five categories, with 42 other countries, mostly in Africa. Only four countries — war-torn Chad, Madagascar, Yemen and Zambia — have been ranked in the lower category called ‘alarming’ and only one, the Central African Republic, has been in the lowest category called ‘extremely alarming’, based on people’s access to food against the need. This paints a bleak picture of the hunger situation although the agriculture minister who attended the Dhaka launch of the report appears to be complacent seeking to say that Bangladesh is doing better compared with ‘African and many Asian countries’. The index says that the proportion of undernourishment in the population stands at 14.7 per cent, which given Bangladesh’s population of 163.6 million, as estimated by the General Economic Division of the Planning Commission, accounts for about 24 million people, or one in about every seven people. While the proportion of undernourishment, the prevalence of stunting in children under five years and the mortality rate of under-five children have decreased since 2000 or so, the index finds the prevalence of wasting to have increased to 14.4 per cent in 2014–2018 from 12.5 per cent in 1998–2002.
The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019 report, launched in July 2019, shows that the number of undernourished people in Bangladesh has increased to 24.2 million in 2016–2018. A World Food Programme study of October estimates that 40 million people, which accounts for a fourth of the 160 million population, remain food-insecure, with 11 million suffering from acute hunger. The agriculture minister — who said that the government was trying to increase employment opportunities through agricultural industrialisation and by running specialised programmes to improve people’s access to food, with plans to increase the number of beneficiaries of subsidised rice sales to seven million from five million — has, however, rightly said that hunger is ‘a poverty issue’ and there is ‘no way around the hunger problem’ unless people’s capacity to buy food improves. People’s capacity to buy food is what the government seems to be needing to work on because special programmes of subsidised food could be short-run solution and the number of undernourished people is far greater than what such programmes deal with. Yet such programmes hardly help to improve people’s consumption of the required daily energy consumption and nutrition.
The government, for a sustainable solution to the problems of poverty, income inequality and undernourishment, must shore up issues of governance, stem corruption and irregularities, stop illicit capital flow, increase employment rate, reach economic benefits to the poor and effectively reduce poverty, with a balanced focus on all regions. What the government must further do is to carry on with the economic growth and ensure that the economic benefits reach the poor, and put more attention to ‘nutrition-sensitive’ sectors such as education, sanitation and health. Bangladesh has been in the ‘serious’ category of the index since 2017 and it is time the country graduated out of the trap.
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