Despite recent progress in Bangladesh in the areas of poverty and human development indicators such as literacy and life expectancy, inequalities in income and consumption rates have increased, with 31% of the population living below the poverty line.
Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries; the size of Illinois, Bangladesh has a population of 161 million people, half the population of the United States. Despite recent progress out of poverty and increasing human development indicators such as literacy and life expectancy, inequalities in income and consumption rates have increased (UNDP 2005). Thirty-one percent of the population lives below the national poverty line, most of whom are women and children. The prevalence of child (under 5) malnutrition is nearly 40%, one of the highest in the world.
The disproportionate poverty faced by women and girls comes as a result of discrimination and exclusion within Bangladeshi society, struggling to establish their rights and influence in decision-making processes. Traditional practices such as dowries, child marriages and the relegation of being last to eat have created a demeaning and dangerous sociopolitical context for girls and women. (World Vision, 2014)
Following many years of political turmoil after independence in 1971, Bangladesh emerged as a democracy in 1990. However today, Bangladesh suffers from political instability and agitation, weak and dysfunctional governance and ‘institutionalized political violence’ (UNDP 2005). This climate has led to one of the highest concentrations of NGO activity in the world, ranging from service delivery to community mobilization working with the poorest of the poor, often marginalized within Bangladeshi culture.
Bangladesh’s stability is further threatened by increasingly common environmental disasters, and is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Furthermore, many Bangladeshis above the poverty line do not have economic safety nets, and therefore could fall back into poverty if they are struck by natural disasters or lose their jobs.
The Hunger Project has been active in Bangladesh since 1990 and is currently the country’s largest volunteer-based organization. The Hunger Project’s strategies in Bangladesh occur on two scales: one focuses on the local landscape, the other on the national, with significant strategic overlap.
At the local level, The Hunger Project works with the Union, Bangladesh’s smallest unit of rural government, through the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Union Strategy. The MDG Union Strategy empowers both the local electorate and the elected Union Parishad (or Local Council), which represents a cluster of villages, putting THP’s three pillars within the reach of the Bangladeshi people.
At the national level, The Hunger Project addresses two pernicious cultural conditions that form major barriers to ending hunger in Bangladesh: corruption and gender discrimination. This is done through the National Girl Child Advocacy Forum (NGCAF) and Shujan (Citizens for Good Governance), a country-wide advocacy movement for preventing corruption.
The centerpiece of The Hunger Project’s strategy is the grassroots training and ongoing support of more than 145,000 volunteer animators, 40% of whom are women, who organize mass action campaigns in their areas. The animators focus their actions in their Unions and work closely with the Union Parishad (UP) members to encourage decentralization and increased access to resources. UP-based initiatives include ensuring 100% sanitary latrine coverage, 100% birth and death registration, and open budget meetings to provide transparency and accountability.
The Hunger Project also works in the following capacities in Bangladesh:
The Hunger Project catalyzed the creation of a national alliance committed to ending all forms of discrimination against girls. Each year on September 30, this alliance organizes National Girl Child Day events across the country. A formal alliance of 500 organizations, the National Girl Child Advocacy Forum, also works to address domestic violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Shujan (Citizens for Good Governance) is a platform of committed, active and socially conscious citizens, mobilized by The Hunger Project, to strengthen grassroots democracy, ensure transparency and accountability of local government, and carry out advocacy initiatives at the national level. Shujan is also working for political and election reform. In 2014, The Hunger Project and Shujan produced two reports on candidate demographics for the 10th National Parliament Election for 300 constituencies. The reports, whose objective was to allow access to information on high-powered candidates and candidate wealth growth rates since 2008, served as valuable resources for voters throughout Bangladesh, and resulted in a surge of first-time elected officials.
Youth Leaders bring the creativity and leadership of the youth population to the forefront while stimulating a sense of social responsibility in more than 15,000 students nationwide each year. Together, they meet monthly in chapters across the country, planning activities to improve their communities with an emphasis on literacy and education. These leaders organize campaigns in their communities throughout Bangladesh on issues such as nutrition, education, family planning, tree planting and environmental education. They also arrange debates, math Olympiads, writing competitions, roundtables and blood donation camps.
As the mindset of dependency and gender discrimination begins to be transformed, and women and men commit themselves to a new future, The Hunger Project empowers them to build the social capital they need to fulfill their vision. We do this through establishing social units of highly trained volunteers. Each unit is trained in how to organize themselves, facilitate group action and reporting, communicate and handle decision-making. The Hunger Project has discovered that volunteers are often most motivated and inspired by working alongside others who share similar interests and characteristics.