‘Needless Hunger’ is a must-read book for every citizen of the developed world for the ample reason that it shows how hard and despairing the life in many places on Earth is. Even more mid-boggling is the fact that the horrible situation prevailing in Bangladesh could have been easily avoided by means of better governance and more equitable distribution of natural resources. Unfortunately, Bangladesh is not a unique case: similar conditions exist in many countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Therefore, it’s very important to understand the reasons for poverty and huger existing in places like that before taking any appropriate action. The main thesis the author puts forward concerns the fact that hunger in Bangladesh cannot be attributed to natural shortage of food. The country is situated in favorable climatic zone on the delta of Ganges and Brahmaputra, which provides for probably the most fertile land in the world. The book talks about huge rice fields, squash vines, plenty of water, rich soil; Bangladesh is compared to a natural greenhouse.
One cannot help but wonder why some regions in the world, e. g. Scandinavia, prosper without having virtually any natural or climatic resources to build upon, whilst whole continents are unable to make use of all the natural wealth they posses. The investigation of the reasons for extreme poverty and hunger starts with an excursus into the history of Bangladesh and British colonial legacy. It’s told through the story of Bengali weavers, who suffered the most during the colonial rule.
When British came to Bangladesh, the country could boast one of the best cotton industries in the world. It was a thriving country with its own system of production and social organization. However, the colony posed serious danger to British cotton industry, which was at the stage of infancy at those times. Slowing down the pace of Bengali development was in the best interest of the colonialists. When trying to do so, they were not quite fastidious about the means, resorting to blackmail, expropriation and even unlawful imprisonment.
Since that, Bangladeshis have been trapped into the vicious circle of deprivation, despair, and exploitation. British rule established the colonial pattern of oppression in the country. When the land got its independence, new elites emerged to take advantage of situation poor and powerless peasants faced. Although many farmers obtained the right to land ownership, the portion of land they actually owned and worked wasn’t sufficient to feed their families. In these circumstances, they had to go to a richer landlord to borrow some money to keep going till the next harvest.
When harvest time comes, the landlord takes away the ‘interest rate’, which sometimes exceeds the sum of the arrearage. Eventually, peasants find themselves in the position when their land is entirely taken away by the landlord. One can wonder how such anarchy and illegality can exist in a country with a legitimate and seemingly functional government. It turns out that local village elites have strong ties with political elite through bribes or joint business interests. In plain English, the representatives of local and regional elites simply bribe the officials and have their hands untied.
International development aid doesn’t help much. Larger portion of the money goes to the pockets of the aforementioned governmental officials and representatives of the ruling elites. Most Bangladeshis are barely aware that massive foreign aid is channeled into their country. The concepts of statesmanship and public policy are unknown in Bangladesh: all the officials and local lords care only about their profit and feeble position under the regime with doubtful longevity prospects.
Perhaps the most important thing about ‘Needless Hunger’ is that the book changes our perceptions about the developing world. Here in the West we are used to blaming poor regions for their own misery, and in addition to that, our insecurity. The book implicitly calls for reinventing our approach to helping poor countries. While the conventional forms of development aid aren’t truly helpful, there are some brand new initiatives to help the needy, which are worth following – beyond the reasonable doubt.
For instance, the UN-affiliated Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, chaired by Madeleine Albright and Hernando de Soto, was created specifically to address the problem poor peasants face in Bangladesh, namely not having or being unable to exercise the majority of their legal rights, property rights in particular. Noting with regret that the book came out of print almost three decades ago, it’s only recently that the appropriate actions are being initiated in order to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. References Hartmann, B. & Boyce, J. (1979). Needless Hunger. San Francisco: Food First.