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Reconnecting: Bangladesh in 1976 and 2011

Seeking changes for the better

May 2011

Thirty-five years is a considerable period in the life of a person or of a community. In February 2011, Bread for the World President David Beckmann visited Thakurgaon in northwest Bangladesh, where he and his wife, Janet, lived in 1976. Beckmann worked on anti-poverty initiatives for the Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service (RDRS), an organization founded by the Lutheran World Foundation.

During the trip this winter, Beckmann visited old friends from Thakurgaon and nearby Goreya, a tiny market town where he lived part-time for several months while learning more about the problems of rural poor people. “I am still glowing from the joy of these unlikely and abiding relationships,” he says. “And what I learned in Bangladesh has informed my work against poverty ever since.”

In 1976, he said, Goreya was almost completely isolated during monsoon season, when the road to Thakurgaon was impassable. Today, the battery-powered shortwave radio that he and his host, Mr. Bari, relied on for news and music has been replaced by electricity, and there’s an all-weather road.

“The trip reinforced my gratitude for the progress the world has made against poverty in recent decades,” Beckmann says. “Bangladesh is still very poor, but changes for the better were evident everywhere—better roads, better homes, healthy-looking children, lots of cell phones.”

The biggest change he noticed during his visit, though, is a rise in women’s status. Although he learned Bengali while living in Bangladesh, he almost never spoke with a woman because nearly all stayed in their homes. This year, he saw women in elective office as well as many participating in meetings alongside men. “Women are speaking up about all kinds of issues that concern them,” he says. 

One of the most urgent concerns, for both women and men, is climate change. Bangladesh is a low-lying country. If the oceans rise slightly, millions of poor people who live near the sea will be forced to leave their homes. For the past five years, the rains have not come at their expected times, leading to crop failures and hunger.

RDRS now works to help people deal with environmental risks. Staff members have helped identify a local variety of rice that matures more quickly and new crops that require less irrigation than rice. Communities are installing solar panels to help ease pressures on the environment, such as the need to use trees for fuel. 

RDRS has also organized thousands of low-income people into federations for advocacy. The federations represent their members’ interests in local government and also teach members their legal rights—for example, that it is illegal for husbands to beat their wives.

Bread’s 2011 Offering of Letters urges Congress to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective in reducing hunger and poverty. One key to doing this is ensuring that aid programs respond to local communities’ own priorities. The people of northwest Bangladesh have achieved a great deal since 1976, and they understand clearly what their biggest current problems are. Our Offering of Letters will help to ensure that local people around the world are full partners—starting when development assistance programs are designed.

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