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Bangladesh: No longer the 'hungry' man of South Asia

Published Oct 23, 2013 01:46pm


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In less than a quarter century, Bangladesh has outperformed Pakistan in reducing hunger and malnourishment. From trailing Pakistan in hunger reduction in 1990, Bangladesh has sped ahead of Pakistan and even India by halving hunger statistics.

The recently released Global Hunger Index (GHI) by the International Food Policy Research Institute reveals that hunger has improved globally since 1990. However, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are home to worst forms of hunger. Estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organisation in the US suggest that no fewer than 870 million people go hungry across the globe.

The pejorative reference to the starving, naked Bangalis (Bhookay, Nungay Bengali) is still part of the Pakistani lexicon. The West Pakistan’s establishment thought not much of Bangladesh when it separated after a bloody war that left hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis and others dead. After the 1971 war, even Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto called Bangladeshis pigs. Fast forward to 2013 and a new picture emerges where Pakistan struggles to feed its people while Bangladesh gallops ahead in human development. One wonders why Pakistan, which was once thought to have so much promise, has become the sick (and hungry) man of South Asia.

Pakistan shows the least progress in reducing hunger amongst other South Asian countries. Source: Calculations and graph by Murtaza Haider, 2013. Data obtained from GHI, 2013.

The GHI tells the story of how countries have performed over the past two decades in fighting hunger and disease. The report reveals the early gains made by South Asia in the 1990s to fight hunger and malnutrition. It was the same time when sub-Saharan Africa trailed far behind South Asia in human development. However, since 2000 sub-Saharan Africa has picked up pace and in 2013 it has on average performed better on hunger than the countries in South Asia.

Despite the slow growth in South Asia, Bangladesh is one of the top 10 countries that have made the most progress in reducing hunger since 1990. The Bangladeshi success with reducing hunger deserves a closer look to determine if this has resulted from sound planning or is merely a result of happenstance. Given that Bangladesh has beaten not just Pakistan, but also India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka in the pace at which it reduced hunger, the success is likely a result of good planning and execution.

The GHI is computed as an average of three indicators, namely prevalence of undernourishment in the population, prevalence of underweight children under five years, and under-five mortality rate. The latest data reveals that compared to Pakistan, Bangladesh has lower prevalence of undernourishment in population and under-five mortality rate. However, Pakistan has slightly lower prevalence of underweight children under five years old.

Source: Graph by Murtaza Haider, 2013. Data obtained from GHI, 2013
Source: Graph by Murtaza Haider, 2013. Data obtained from GHI, 2013

Research in north-western Bangladesh suggests that hunger impacts are rather seasonal. During times of low crop yields, food prices rise and result in lower accessibility to sufficient nutrition. The researchers found that most food insecure are the perpetual poor. A combination of safety nets setup by the government and the use of micro-credit helps the poor to manage food supply during lean periods.

Apart from safety nets, the improvement in hunger reduction is a result of several commitments and policies. The budget document in Bangladesh contains a separate entry for nutrition. Article 15 of the Bangladeshi constitution expects the State to provide citizens with the basic necessities of life, including food. The Bangladeshi government in 2012 committed to food security “for all people of the country at all times.” The Bangladesh Integrated Nutrition Project (BINP) improved the nutritional outcomes as of 1995. Later in 2002, the National Nutrition Program was launched. Also included in the effort were Expanded Programme on Immunisation and vitamin A supplementation.

The above are some examples of how strategic planning resulted in faster reduction of hunger in Bangladesh. Despite the above-stated successes, 17 per cent of the population in Bangladesh (25 million) continue to suffer from hunger. In fact, 41 per cent of the under five children are likely to be stunted and another 16 per cent of under five children are likely to be ‘wasted.’ These numbers show that Bangladesh still has a long way to go in providing food security to its people.

Given that South Asian countries together now lag behind sub-Saharan Africa in hunger reduction, it may be prudent for South Asian heads of states to join hands in collaborative efforts to feed the hungry. They may want to learn from the best practices in Bangladesh and elsewhere to protect the food insecure amongst them.


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Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of

He tweets @regionomics

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (63) Closed

DiplomatOne Oct 23, 2013 02:04pm

Good question answer, and good statistics. Could you just please tell me one thing. Why do the housemaids from Bangladesh come to Karachi, sam\e way, as the Pakistani labour goes to the middle east ? Do they think, they can earn more money, working as housemaids in Karachi, than working for the households in Bangladesh with the much higher income, than the poor Pakistanis ? Someone needs to tell them the statistics, they can't read English. Mate, where do you get your statistics from ?

ss Oct 23, 2013 02:04pm

they made the right choice.

muhammad farooq Oct 23, 2013 02:25pm

I am not surprised when so many other economic and social indicators' graphs are going down in Pakistan. Roti Kapra aur Makan has been merely used as a political slogan. Focus of govts in Pakistan is to manage status quo. They have also failed to accomplish. . Politicians and bureacrats should see beyond their nose and plan for helping the poor and the needy. They will experience what it means to be hungry if they sleep with hungry stomach for few nights. Well done BD!

Rahul Oct 23, 2013 03:25pm

I am surprised but again not surprised. I think Bangladesh has done quite good work. Agreed that its history was quite brutal but the court to hang its MP was the boldest decision which seems it was supported by majority of the population, i think even in India such a decision cant be implemented. If statistics are right than congratualtions.

Saifur Rahman Oct 23, 2013 03:24pm

Very good article but one important parameter is missing--Global Slavery Index 2013. This is a measure of social equity and human right situation of a country. Slavery Index of Pakistan is 3 (meaning 3rd worst in the world) India 4, Nepal 5 and Bangladesh 71 [which is even better than Thailand (24) and Russia (49)!!]. No matter how rich a country is in terms of GNP or per capita income, at the end of the day it is the equity (spread of wealth amongst the populace) that actually matters. Position of Bangladesh in this subcontinent is now best in this respect.

Lion share of the credit for the economic and social development of Bangladesh should actually go to a few very highly motivated and dedicated

hafeejul alam Oct 23, 2013 03:40pm

Thanks to Murtaza Haider for his revealing article. There is no doubt that strategic planning resulted in faster reduction of hunger in Bangladesh. State operated micro-credit carrying negligible interest rate among the poor plus massive subsidy in the agriculture sector helped Bangladesh become not only self-reliant in food production but also a food-exporting country. Meanwhile, the industrial production and power generation have also significantly increased and as a result, exports shoot up and Bangladesh's forex reserve has reached for the first time to over 16 billion US dollar, second in South Asia (2nd only to India).

zafar Iqbal Oct 23, 2013 04:12pm

Good news for Bangladesh, now we can say that Bangladesh is no more a bottomless basket. This country has developed too much in social sector more than pakistan.

Joel Oct 23, 2013 04:33pm


I am curious to know about exact source of the statistics you have quoted? It is normally good journalism to mention direct source of the statistic via their website or so and also the basis of the research. Did someone go and ask hundred million people if they were hungry? Thnx

VENKAT Oct 23, 2013 04:44pm

Potentially, perhaps Pakistan is the richest country in the region.It should have taken a leading position under all parameters of human development.But it is not so and the reasons for that should be understood by that nation sooner than later.

Sadia Zafar Oct 23, 2013 06:23pm

I am truly glad to see progress in Bangladesh and somehow see a connection between the impressive soci-economic leaps of Bangladesh and its commitment to secular democracy and outlawing of religious parties by Bangladesh high court.

Mustafa Oct 23, 2013 07:02pm

"Bangladesh has sped ahead of Pakistan and even India by halving hunger statistics."

They have halved hunger statistics but have they halved hunger".

Vishnuprasanth V Oct 23, 2013 07:36pm

Bangladesh is sending all their citizens to India. No wonder their scale goes up and India's coming down.

Musa lala Oct 23, 2013 07:48pm

In the nineties many of Pakistani made product are available in this part of the world but knower days nothing any more.

vikramanayaka Oct 23, 2013 07:50pm

lol writing a piece of analytical report these days based on data gathered by western dominated organizations is a bit funny. When one knows why bangladesh is regularly portrayed as something better than in human development parameters than india, pakistan and srilanka. The author seems to be ignorant about other factors involved, anyway i don't want to educate the leper


Rao Oct 23, 2013 07:56pm

The main reason for this is the amount of money that Pakistan spends on social & infrastructure needs of its people. It is the smallest percentage in the whole of South Asia. Largest percentage goes to defence and lining the pockets of administrators.

Shaizul islam Oct 23, 2013 08:07pm

Bangladesh is now a roll model in the world for his outstanding contribution to reduce poverty.At present bangladesh reserved $17 billion us dollar which is the second in the south asian's current GDP is 6.5% his GDP is the highest in the south asian country's.

Harish Oct 23, 2013 08:40pm

@Saifur Rahman: how about education sector, Bangladesh is far ahead of India and Pakistan. Good luck Bangladesh

RAJA Oct 23, 2013 08:41pm

I'm so proud of Bangladesh's achievement, and this proves if we all work together to wipe out poverty from the Indian subcontinent.

M A Hussain Oct 23, 2013 08:46pm

@DiplomatOne: Good one :-)

Anoop Oct 23, 2013 09:14pm

Smaller countries, smaller problems.

Smaller countries have always had an advantage over larger ones. China, India, US, Germany, all are very large countries moving forward.

Lets not demotivate Bangladeshi's, they are doing a stand up job. But, bringing perspective to this.

Its always easy to manage a small corner grocery shop, than a large corporation; which is exactly the difference between India and all other nations listed here.

In pure numbers, India has reduced more hunger than the entire list combined.

Well, done Bangladesh. Hope you may set further examples.

TaruntkTk Oct 23, 2013 09:45pm

@DiplomatOne: Dude those are rohingyas. They are not bangladeshis but Muslims of bengali origin from Myanmar. They are everywhere including in Mumbai.

Mohfizur Rahman Oct 23, 2013 09:46pm

The article is, in some ways, misleading. The author fails to mention that Pakistan had a lower rate of hunger than Bangladesh or India to start off with. Yes bangladesh had a higher percentage in hunder reduction, but the author should also mention what percentage or number of people were hungry to begin with. Also, the author cites no sources for his statistics, all he had to do was to say "According to..." before mentioning a statistic.


Fazil Kann Oct 23, 2013 10:57pm

I think the main reason for Bangladesh's progress compared to Pakistan (as they used to be one and the same country) is their relative tolerance and non-fanaticism.

karamba Oct 23, 2013 11:51pm

Is there any need for statistics and evidence to know where Pakistan stands in the last 2 decades. Every nation has promoted education, health and economic growth except ours. The only thing we are better at in is in corruption, incompetence, poor leadership, low moral values, extremism, hypocrisy, delusion and depression. This is not a country for the poor but a country for the rich and well off with power and status. There will be a very slow change with time as compared to the entire world steaming ahead by leaps and bounds. The only enemy Pakistan has is itself with its own people giving it a slow death. Go Figure.

Jupiter59 Oct 24, 2013 03:14am

The reason Bangladesh seems to be surging ahead of other nations in South Asia is because there is less nonsense about religion in that country, the main drawback for Pakistan.

nasr Oct 24, 2013 05:09am

Allah shower his blessing and bounty & Barkah only on those nation who are steadfast in their approach towards their lives. And what we are doing as a nation is spilling our own blood with our own hand. May we forge towards the right path.

Nathan Paul Oct 24, 2013 05:25am

Believe Bangladesh is relatively less corrupt in South Asia compared to other countries. The competition is between India and Pakistan for that also.

Nathan Paul Oct 24, 2013 05:21am


Don worry it's not measuring affluence . It is measuring rate of improvement. Still Pakistan is rich compared to Bangladesh . Pakistan has definitely got more cash flow.

Kanjar Oct 24, 2013 06:20am

The fact is that Bangladesh after separating from pakistan has gone miles ahead of pakistan. The same will happen for Balochistan, Sind etc. after they gain independence and become sovereign.

Gunjan Oct 24, 2013 07:33am

A point missed by the author is the fact that almost all welfare schemes in bangladesh are targeted through the women. Bengali women, both on the Indian side and the bangladeshi side are socially more empowered than many other parts of south asia. Channeling welfare schemes through women has meant nutrition, education for the kids and increased savings. Micro and collective businesses have also taken off. This is the catalyst that has worked in making welfare schemes in bangladesh immensely successful. Lesson for the less gender equal parts of south asia?

Sanam Oct 24, 2013 07:48am

I think either the Canadian winter has clouded Mr. Haiders judgement, or he's lived in Canada for so long that he's out of sync with ground realities, or belonging to a crappy second tier university like Ryerson has made him disgruntled.. I can't figure out which one it is.. But for the record I've lived all my life in Lahore and I've never heard "Bhookay Nungay Bengali" from my friends, elders or grandparents for that matter. Never in 31 years of my existence have I heard this nonsense. So to say its part of our lexicon is just an unacademic mirch masala type comment unworthy of Dawn.

It's great to hear Bangladesh is doing well. Good on them. We the ordinary people of Pakistan work hard for our country in our country everyday and when we do succeed you can watch us from Canada wishing you were here. There is still time to join us. Otherwise you will always be writing low value articles from a far away country.

Humza Oct 24, 2013 08:06am

I'll believe that Bangladesh has improved significantly when its average monthly wage for a garment worker is more than 35 dollars a month. Western newspapers are currently awash with stories of poor working conditions and poverty in Bangladesh. Millions of illegal Bengali migrants are smuggling themselves into neighbouring South Asian nations including India and Pakistan so how can one possibly take any of this article seriously? I am glad to hear that Bangladesh is improving its hunger situation but you have not mentioned yearly income and overall poverty in Bangladesh which is much worse than Pakistan if not worse than when they achieved independence in 1971.

Syed Ishtiaque Reza Oct 24, 2013 09:50am

A good article. A major contribution is the government's full concentration on agriculture production. Micro credit surely played a major role. But what I think largely worked is the contribution of women. In addition to their activities in rural areas, Bangladesh women are now playing major role in manufacturing sector, service sector and even in corporate world. When women earn for the family, it works much better than the earnings by men.

DA Oct 24, 2013 10:27am

Great work by Bangladesh, and kudos to the people and the government. Perhaps shows that relative peace, and a reasonably small defense spend can do wonders.

Also, credit must be given to innovations like micro-finance, and resulting empowerment of women.

Dare I say, had India not lost the previous decade to dogma, policy revisionism, and corruptions, we might have been able to keep pace as well. But any good news from the sub-continent is good news overall. We all live in a better neighbourhood, thanks to the Bangladeshis.

RHS Oct 24, 2013 11:11am

Great news for Bangladesh. Good article except for the unnecessary shot at Z.A. Bhutto who was testing the waters and trying his best to recognize Bangladesh at the time.

Jamil Oct 24, 2013 12:05pm

Perhaps Bangladesh does not have landlords who would own thousands of acres of lands, employ forced labor, avoid taxes, create channels of corruption within the agriculture system that would time and again create food shortages for poor or increase the essential food prices that would make food inaccessible to the masses.

Sivaraj Oct 24, 2013 12:55pm

They have shifted half the population to India. Naturally they should be well off.

Roshan Ali Shah Oct 24, 2013 01:44pm

Real picture of food insecurity in South Asia have been presented by Murtaza Haider. But 41 % and 16 % out of how much totall figures that is missing

sharif Oct 24, 2013 02:05pm

Every Pakistani now a days a fearful now days also about future. Every system is collapsed and this is now a country of huge debt. Corruption and injustice made this country a volatile. The writer said very true picture of our country and we should accept this. Corrupt leaders made this country more corrupt and there is not a justice for a honest person. Money speaks in Pakistan. If you are a honest person then there is much trouble to survive. Without bribe you will be arrest and will be harassed.

Feroz Oct 24, 2013 03:54pm

As long as Bangladesh can keep the fundamentalists, bigots and misogynists at bay, it has a very promising future.

Khurram Zia Khan Oct 24, 2013 04:15pm

This is an eye opener for Pakistan. Our country need honest dedicated leadership otherwise we may fall behind further & hunger & poverty will rise to unbearable proportion.

aashik Oct 24, 2013 07:15pm

@Sivaraj: Thanks to Bangladesh for accepting millions of muslim refugees from India every year.

sterry Oct 24, 2013 08:26pm

@Sanam :Ryerson may not be considered a top tier university in Canada - in fact it was a polytechnical institute for a long time before it was upgraded to the status of a university but it still has a decent reputation. I don't think we should link Ryerson with the questionable content of this article. The author is telling us that Bangladesh is doing a great job of hunger reduction but we all know you can't compare apples and oranges. The article is not about overall poverty, corruption and joblessness in Bangladesh which is far worse and explains why its citizens will run to other developing countries which we are told are poorer in hunger reduction. Any superficial look at Bangladesh will show a nation and society which is far poorer than Pakistan which is why foreign companies have shifted to where slave labour conditions allow employers to pay workers almost nothing for their efforts. Due to its location, Pakistan is dealing with the violent spill over from Afghanistan and regional tensions which does not apply to Bangladesh. Lastly, has there been any standardization for food intake?Think about what a Bengali eats to what would be considered a decent meal in Pakistan.

Moinul Oct 24, 2013 08:35pm

@Nathan Paul: FYI, Bangladesh has now more foreign reserve than Pakistan.

Nasr Oct 24, 2013 09:03pm

@Jupiter59: MashaAllah Bangladesh is as religious as any other Muslim country can be. Who do you bow to thank for the bounties you reap in this world? For sure God. If there is no religion and no God how you can you reap and harvest all that bounties around you. Religion does play a very important role yes of course without nonsense.

spark Oct 24, 2013 09:03pm

Pakistan have to faced very tough time in afghan war, Now as this war is going to end. Politician are now thinking about the progress of the country. I hope within a year the circumstances will be improve. These up down the part of life, if western country and america help the pakistan like in social works like bangladesh or india, i also hope very soon we will bright star of the sub-continent.

Saifur Rahman Oct 25, 2013 02:04am

Some readers have commented that Pakistan and India are richer than Bangladesh in terms of total cash flow or per capita income. This is true. But whatever small wealth Bangladesh might have is more equitably distributed. In terms of real development of a country equitable distribution of money is the parameter that matters most. Economic development in Bangladesh has mostly occurred in the

khan Oct 25, 2013 07:06am

Great Bangladesh!! Go Ahead...!! we are behind you..

Hasan Oct 25, 2013 02:42pm

@Nathan Paul:

Reserves of

India 28 Billion USD Bangladesh 17 Billion USD Pakistan 12 Billion USD

Anonymous Oct 25, 2013 03:55pm

Nice article! But these progresses have some negative effects too, Bangladesh is receiving millions of Indian, Pakistani and Burmese illegal immigrants who come here in search for better lives, not to mention there are already millions of them living in slums especially in Dhaka and Chittagong. As far as I know, the illegal Indians living in Bangladesh remitted some $4 billion last year back to India. Government needs to take necessary steps to counter these problems.

Prateek Oct 25, 2013 04:32pm

@spark: Why you are always dependent on America...Do something yourself...

Tajammal Oct 25, 2013 06:35pm

@Moinul: ...but more poor people also!

nur Oct 25, 2013 09:31pm

@sterry: interesting!!! if your decent meal in pakistan still keeps you hungry and go starving (according to GHI) then its not decent enough i think :)

nur Oct 25, 2013 09:37pm

@Vishnuprasanth V: well keep living on rhetoric

Asish Oct 25, 2013 11:31pm

@Sivaraj: So, may I request you for the reference please ???? If you do not have any then please stop dreaming.......

Asish Oct 25, 2013 11:43pm

@Anoop: Well, in that case , India should have been at better situation compared to China or Canada or the USA !!!!! Isn't it? My friend, India is a confederation with more than 30 states, each with its own Government that depends on the central Government only when security is concerned. Otherwise, they are very self sufficient (with a lot of internal business). A state in India is similar to the entire Bangladesh by size. But, look in terms of population, Bangladesh is much more over populated......... So, we are doing a good job and we shall be doing good as well in the future as long we can control the up rise of Fundamentalism in the country.....

Asish Oct 25, 2013 11:47pm

@DiplomatOne: Hello, I am Asish from bangladesh and I am proud to be a Bangladeshi. Yes, This is a fact that people from Bangladesh are moving to different neighboring countries (legally and illegally) ....... don't you think it is called development as well and they are brave enough to jump into the unknown with the aim to develop themselves, learn new and better things from other countries.? Isn't it better than criticizing others and spending the whole day in the house doing nothing. My dear friend this is after all an International World (One)......

Anis Oct 26, 2013 01:27am

@spark: Wake up! It is people who built their country not foreigners. Who helped Singapore, Malaysia, China, and many more rich countries. Stop dreaming that that with western generosity West Pakistan will become "bright Star" of Asia.

zafar Oct 26, 2013 04:01am

Pakistanis and their so called leaders are munafiq andctgatscthe reason for decay. Thieves, cheaters and greedy gto the poor of poorest. Just wait I will see bilawal and hussain nawaz begging on the streets of london, dovthey think bank balance is a guaranty. Where are mughals and their children now?

khalid Oct 26, 2013 04:55pm

@Nasr: I am tired of being told things that have no logic. Bangladesh is progressing not because they are Muslims or because they are good Muslims. They are progressing because they have kept religion "a matter between a person and his God" and are getting on with running businesses as they should be run. As a business person, when hiring someone, the ONLY things I look for are qualifications, skill set and ability to express themselves. What they do at prayer times, is their business. By the way, is China progressing because they are good Muslims too?.

Bong Oct 26, 2013 07:39pm

@Hasan - Indian reserves at US$281Bn.(october 2013) not US$28Bn,; Bangladesh 16.252Bn. (october 2013) Pakistan Reserves US$9.99Bn.(august 2013).

Get your conversion from Millions to Billions right man...

Jamal Khan Oct 26, 2013 09:29pm

Bangladesh has no feudals. Its Islamists are under control. Bangladeshis are superior in education and intellect. They are cultured and have a single ethnicity. It is a matter of shame that Pakistan, in spite of its atom bombs and huge armed forces establishment, or perhaps because of it, continues to stagnate or march backwads.

Anonymouse Oct 26, 2013 11:07pm

@Anonymous: Not to mention all those Americans, Europeans, and Japanese who are storming its borders.