Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made a strong plea in favour of greater international investment in rural economy under the aegis of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). She made this plea at the time of presenting her key-note address at the council meeting of the IFAD. Now that the non-government organisations (NGOs) are folding their programmes from the poor and developing countries, the flow of micro-credit has become lean if not dried altogether. Mismanagement of funds and other irregularities together with fund crunch facing aid agencies in the West have put a question mark on the future of charity and micro-credit in countries still in need of help.
Once Bangladesh experienced an explosive growth of NGOs. There were so many of those committed to socio-economic well-being of the rural people that it was difficult to differentiate between the genuine and the dubious. Yet it has to be admitted that some of those could convince people to step into uncharted income-generating activities until then. For example, tree plantation by extension social forestry, shrimp cultivation, fish farming along with paddy cultivation in the same plot, poultry raising, commercial farming of vegetables and fruits, setting up of small dairies and many such farm activities were the results of their supports. Of course, the government agencies helped them with required expertise and advice.
Some of the NGOs even came forward to participate in infrastructure development. Construction of school buildings, connecting roads within a village, sinking of tube-wells etcetera deserve mention. But where they left their most outstanding mark is on providing village people with sealed latrines at a nominal cost. This has revolutionised the status of sanitation in this country.
In most cases, though, micro-credit fails to bring out the hardcore poor out of the poverty trap. The disbursement procedure and the amount decide the fate of the persons receiving the credit. Usually they take the loan when they are in deep economic trouble in order to tide over the crisis. Later on, their only concentration is on payment of the weekly interest. A group member is a liability of the entire group and her/his part of the interest is paid by the rest. In the meantime, if there is further income erosion due to illness or other casualties, some of them including their family members even flee homes all on a sudden under cover of darkness without informing anyone of their whereabouts.
Clearly, micro-credit is yet to be an effective tool for fighting extreme poverty. No organisation -- government or non-government -- has come up with an economic theory good enough to deal with the situation the extreme poor with no collateral are in. It is a grey area of economies everywhere. The prime minister's proposal for investment in rural areas should focus on these people's wretched economic status. Their integration with the mainstream rural economy ought to be the challenge before governments across the globe.
Instead, there is a tendency of the disparity within rural society becoming even wider. Some people have opted for an array of income-generation enterprises using their land property and/or other sources of income. Definitely, income of villagers has gone up and many of the urban facilities are available there. But not all can afford those. There is also a kind of digital divide in villages.
Following this, a new trend has become overpowering. Now youths from moderately well-to-do families want cash money. So they try to venture into countries in the Middle East or South-east Asia for employment. A few of them try their luck in some European countries, including Cyprus, Italy and Sweden. Many of them lose their ways in wilderness to meet a hapless end. But the lucky few ones send remittance to their families. Now they try to enhance their property and extend their money power so much so the space for the poor get further shrunk. Why youths take so much risk in order to cross seas for employment abroad can be explained by this fact.
The days are not far away when villagers will drive cars to district or divisional towns for work or other important business and return home. In Western countries, including Britain, people prefer to live in picturesque villages instead of living in crowded cities. They drive to cities either for work or on important errand and retire to villages. But the condition of Bangladesh is unlikely to be similar to that situation because of population density and also the exclusion of the poor. In villages here stark contrast of wealth as between slums and skyscrapers side by side in cities will announce the anomaly unless, of course, remedial measures are taken.
Against the class discrimination and disparities, the poor stand no chance of retaining the meagre property they call their own. No person living from hand to mouth can also expect of improving his/her living standard. So, there is need for investment not in massive proportion but in a reasonable quantity so that people belonging to the bottom segment can find themselves in some sustainable income-generating activities. In this connection the Palli Karma Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) can take the lead. If the poor find works and their purchasing power improves, they too will come out of the poverty trap. By this time, though, their children have to be educated free of cost under a well crafted system of financial arrangement.