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Bangladesh: Days Three thru Six
We were warned not to try to schedule more than two meetings in a day while in Dhaka, the capital. Getting around the city is no simple task. It's large, traffic is terrible, as I described earlier, and we didn't know the half of what to expect. When people tell you that traffic jams are common, that's not the same as telling you it could take two hours to cover a mile.
We figured it made sense to conduct meetings in Dhaka before we headed out to the field. The time we spent with Grameen on Day Two was the exception. We began with an ideal schedule. As the schedule changed, and then changed some more, we adapted our plans as necessary. Mostly we managed to come pretty close to our ideal of getting the office meetings out of the way the first week. We spoke with several organizations, including national and international NGOs, UN agencies, research organizations, USAID, and the UK government's development agency, DFID. I won't give a blow-by-blow account of every meeting. The more important thing is why we sought these meeting.
If you travel half way around the world, it would seem to make sense to see as much of the project side as possible. That's the fun part, the exotic - going to rural areas. But our purpose in coming to Bangladesh was to find out about how the Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative (GHFSI) was being rolled out. Key to the success of the initiative is the coordination of activities among donors, national governments, civil society groups, and multilaterals like the World Bank and UN. The GHFSI is a US initiative, but its success will depend on how well the US works with all of these development partners, and most have their headquarters in Dhaka.
We know what to do to reduce hunger, and it starts in the agricultural sector of developing countries. It's not because countries should produce all the food they need to feed themselves. The main reason to support agriculture is because this is the sector where most poor people earn their living. Agricultural sector growth translates into economic growth and poverty reduction. When farmers have more money, they can purchase more inputs, improve household living conditions, and send their kids to school. All this spurs the creation of new jobs and services, leading to more growth in incomes and more development.
Collectively, what we heard in the offices we visited is that Bangladesh has to grow more food on diminishing amounts of land. Population growth is outpacing agricultural productivity, and there isn't a whole lot of new land available to farm, as it's the most densely populated country in the world. An interesting thing about Bangladesh, as opposed to other developing countries I've visited, is you never really get off the beaten path. It's a beautiful country, don't get me wrong, but people are always close by. You rarely see a vista of uninhabited beauty. The landscape is populated with people doing something, working in a field, riding a bicycle rickshaw, herding livestock or carrying a jug of water.
Bangladeshis are aware they have to produce more food in the coming decades, and they're also aware their country could shrink dramatically as climate change becomes more destructive. As sea levels are expected to rise, areas of the country will sink permanently under water. A third of the country already floods during the year. Climate change is a challenge few countries are bracing for more than Bangladesh.
All of this raises the question of how to grow more food on less land. The people we talked with answered it in three words: research, research, research. Somehow productivity has to increase, and it will probably start in a lab. Whether that comes from new genetically modified seeds, or other methods, nobody we talked to seemed to care. The job has to get done one way or another, or else large numbers of people in the country will starve.
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