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With friends like these… Fertility reduction fails to make Bangladesh rich


Ali pulls a rickshaw in Dhaka, the fast-growing main city in Bangladesh. He left his wife and four children in Haimchar village three years ago to pursue this economic opportunity. Sharing a 6-by-10 foot shanty with a street vendor, he is better off than the push cart drivers who sleep on the street. Although he doesn’t say, part of his income may also come from driving for one of the girls who crowd the Motijheel and Dilkusha districts at night. Growing trade, business travel, and tourism are fuelling the expansion of the service sectors of the economy.

The United States and other foreign aid donors have been doing good in the land of the Bengal tiger since the war of independence from Pakistan ended in 1971. From the beginning the theory has been that the chief obstacle to prosperity in Bangladesh is “overpopulation” and, more recently, that a bit of free market wouldn’t hurt either. In fairness, it should be admitted that population density in this remarkably fertile delta of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra is high, as it is in other great river deltas such as the Nile and the Mississippi and the Sacramento. But it is not as high as in the Asian tigers of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Low fertility does not bring wealth

Moreover, the population programs funded by the US Agency for International Development and its multitude of allies and clients have either been remarkably “successful” or they were unnecessary. Fertility has fallen to 3 children per woman in 1996. A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood attributes this to the “tenacious resolve” of the birth control campaign. No doubt energized by such success, USAID renewed its efforts in 1996. Somewhat embarrassingly, however, in view of all the benefits that were supposed to flow from fewer births, the economy remains stalled at a $200 per capita GNP (an estimate which may be on the low side since it does not include most of the services of Ali and his friends).

Ali and his friends came, and continue to come to Dhaka because the economic prospects are better there, meager as they may seem to middle-class observers of both east and west. Some of the immigrants send part of their city earnings back to their families. Farm productivity is rising in Bangladesh, as it is throughout the world. As in the United States, one farmer can now feed more, often many more, than merely his own family. In response to the increase in supply, real farm prices have fallen, depressing farm incomes. It makes sense for farmers to enlarge their holdings if they can, sell out if they can’t, and move to other occupations, full or part-time. These are the forces driving the farm-to-city movement in the United States and throughout the world, including Bangladesh.

The government dominates the buying and processing of jute, the major cash crop, grown in rotation with rice. Given the governments interest in maximizing its gains from processing, the prices paid to small farmers like Ali tend to be lower than would be the case in a free market. Food for Peace from the United States has added to the supply of food and reduced the prices received by Ali’s family. The law affirms property rights but the reality is another thing. Faced with the human hemorrhage from the countryside, agricultural “reformers” propose limits on individual holdings and redistribution, thus discouraging farmers from improving their holdings. Intermittent collapses of government add to the uncertainty.

The rural-to-urban movement will continue, as it has elsewhere, and will guarantee the free fall of the birth rate. Women who work in city textile mills or ride rickshaws at night cannot care for children at the same time, as farm women do.

Government limits on opportunity

Ali has limited opportunities in the city, not because he is not computer literate but because, as one Bengali has put it, the government dominates the country’s “poverty- stricken, disaster-prone, and aid-dependent economy.” High taxes soak up the funds that might be invested in job-creating industry. The government-owned telephone system doesn’t work. Neither does the power system. The government-owned textile and jute mills, and steel and chemical plants regularly lose money. A bloated bureaucracy earns its keep by deregulating then re-regulating private business and extracting bribes. Privatization has stalled.

Foreign aid?

Private domestic and foreign investment is fueling a boom throughout south Asia, but not in Bangladesh. Foreign aid finances SU percent of the development effort, if it can be called an effort. Most of this, about 70 percent, finds its way back to the donor countries, the so-called “partners in development “—Japan, the United States, and Europe—to pay for their exports of cellular phones, generators, airplanes, textile machinery, lots and lots of contraceptives, and other things.

Though the economy may be morbid, the population program forges right ahead. In the fall of 1996, with the help of the US Agency of International Development and Johns Hopkins University, the “Green Umbrella” campaign burst upon the Dhaka scene to re-emphasize the government’s drive toward zero population growth. US ambassador David Merrill gave a speech stressing the need to “create demand” for family planning. There does, indeed, appear to be such a need, since local news sources report that imports of unused contraceptives are filling warehouses and adding to the foreign debt.

Along with the floats and banners and songs, the Green Umbrella rally featured some “good news” in a speech by USAID officer David L. Piet: almost half of Bangladesh couples use contraceptives (up from less than 8 percent in the early 1980’s). But the number will have to more than double to meet the goal of replacement fertility, The government does well to take very seriously what Messrs. Merrill and Piet say; according to US law, countries which receive US foreign aid must take steps to reduce their rate of population growth.

And the evidence suggests that the country is making a good faith effort in this regard. Fifty-three thousand family planning workers provide doorstep delivery of birth control services. Although the law restricts abortion to the saving of the mother’s life, “menstrual regulation”—removal of the womb’s contents without a prior test for pregnancy—is widely available, often performed by person with only “informal” training. The press also reports that government doctors perform illegal abortions in clinics without anesthesia or sanitation.

The government pays women about $3 each, plus a new saree, to be sterilized. Men receive $4 plus a new lungi. The Sun reports that the numbers go up just before the rice harvest, probably because people are hungriest then. The Sun also reported that women’s sterilizations were being performed with quinacrine, which severely burns the fallopian tubes. The women are unaware of the risks until they suffer the consequences.

Not surprisingly, the World Bank reports that although the country has only one hospital bed for every 50,000 people, only half of the beds are occupied, because people don’t trust the hospitals.

An aid-dependent poor country whose people are mostly illiterate, Bangladesh is an ideal place to test birth control methods. Eager grant seekers in the United States can support their research and their professional advancement by doing experiments in Bangladesh. Local women’s rights groups, such as UBINIG and its intrepid leader Fairda Akhter, give evidence that Norplant providers refuse to remove the implants even when the women suffer debilitating side effects. Losing subjects from the sample spoils the results of the research, Removing implants also uses resources that could be used to insert them and meet the quotas.

The list of foreign agencies promoting birth control in Bangladesh reads like the VIP roster for a UN conference—the US Agency for International Development, the UN Fund for Population Activities, the World Bank, the Population Council, Johns Hopkins University, Save the Children, the Asia Foundation, the East-West Centre, Marie Stopes, and on and on, almost all of them supported by American taxpayers.

The NGO’s—non-governmental organizations—get their money for population control from their governments and enjoy remarkable freedom, not standing for election and not subject to taxes or the scrutiny given to public agencies. They are free to pursue the population control aspirations which they share with their friends in government. If they cultivate the right friendships, their officers can cycle from one good job to another in the international population control network. They can and do spend a generous share of their grants lobbying for more grants. And they offer to local people job opportunities that are unmatched in the languishing private economy.

The governments of countries like Bangladesh welcome the foreign NGO’s because, as one Planned Parenthood official put it, they can “take the heat” that the local people might otherwise direct against their rulers for abusive practices. (A massive demonstration prevented the former prime minister, Begum Khaledazia. from attending the UN Conference on Population and Development in 1994). The NGO’s enable the local bureaucracy to fulfill the conditions for the aid flows without getting personally involved. No wonder the United Nations sees them as the key to the growth of world government. And no wonder the Bangladesh press refers to them as the “NGO Mafia.”

There is no doubt that both natural factors and the “tenacious resolve” of the international population control network will end population growth in Bangladesh. Whether the economy will ever improve is more problematical.

Jacqueline Kasun is the author of The War Against Population and a frequent writer on demographic and population issues.

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