Understanding poverty in BangladeshIn Bangladesh, around 56 million people still live in poverty and 35 million of these live in extreme poverty. Although there are no precise definitions of extreme poverty, we are talking about individuals and households who suffer from multiple deprivations and have scarce or no assets, employment opportunities, income, social and political capitals. They are also the least likely to withstand or recover from shocks and have weak access to public services. Despite a recent record of impressive and sustained economic growth, the number of people living in extreme poverty is increasing and this is likely to continue beyond 2010.

The Centre for Development Studies – a centre of expertise

Over three decades of action research, focused on reducing poverty and changing policy in and relating to Bangladesh, has led to the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) at the University of Bath being recognised as a UK centre for expertise on Bangladesh. Recent work by Dr Joe Devine and Prof Geof Wood of the University of Bath, in collaboration with Harewelle International, a leading UK-based international consultancy firm, builds on and extends the application of CDS’ expertise in poverty reduction strategies.

When colleagues from CDS started working in Bangladesh, 85% of the population was rural and 50% did not have enough land to live off. Researchers from the University of Bath were involved in designing strategies and interventions to reduce poverty and improve the life chances of the country’s poorest. Over the years, partnerships have been built up with Government, aid agencies and NGOs with the objective of developing effective poverty reduction mechanisms, such as asset transfers, access to Government services, participation in microfinance, and strengthening collective action.

Impact at three main levels

There is evidence of research impact at three main levels. First, there are ‘client’ level impacts, which usually mean marked improvements in the lives of individuals and households. An example of this is ‘The Water Sellers’ project where 6,000 companies were established by the landless to sell water to farmers through the provision of irrigation equipment. This innovation was developed and supported through action research carried out by Prof Wood, and resulted in greater economic security for landless households throughout Bangladesh.

For over a decade, Dr Devine worked closely with a national NGO which focused on the transfer of Government-owned land to the landless and providing inputs to help the organisation develop mechanisms to support the wider livelihood needs of those receiving the land. In 2007, an independent assessment found that almost all of the 432,000 members of the organisation reported improved income and food security. For the majority, this meant that they had some additional income to invest in productive activities, and for almost all, the quantity and quality of food consumption had increased.

Second, research has been used to promote organisational or institutional impacts. Typically, these take the form of product developments, improved organisational capacity or changes in strategic direction. Prof Wood worked with one of the largest NGOs in Bangladesh, and was instrumental in establishing an Institute for Development Policy Analysis and Advocacy unit within the organisation. For many years, he was centrally involved in building up the capacity of the core staff of the new unit. The Institute went on to become an important think-tank in Bangladesh, and had considerable success, for example, in influencing key policy debates such as budget spending on the poor, urban governance and its impact on the poor.

Third, research was used to contribute to wider systemic level impacts. In 2000, Dr Devine was involved in a major review of DFID’s support for NGOs in Bangladesh. The research highlighted a need to reinvest and re-prioritise work around issues of empowerment and human rights. This research fed directly into DFID strategic thinking, and resulted in a multi-million pound investment to support a new foundation called Mansher Jonno which was dedicated exclusively to improving good governance and protecting human rights. The foundation currently offers financial and programme support to over 100 organisations working in different ways to improve people’s access to justice and combat violence against women. This is an example of research helping to shape the aid agenda for Bangladesh.

Economic Empowerment of the Poorest - a new initiative

Building on their different research engagements with Bangladesh, Dr Devine and Prof Wood are now involved in a new DFID supported initiative called Economic Empowerment of the Poorest. The programme has a grant of £65 million and was designed to address the livelihood needs of the poorest 10% of the country’s population. The programme supports a variety of relatively-tested interventions, as well as experiments with innovative approaches and projects. Interventions are carried out by partner NGOs and the target is to reach one million people over the lifespan of the programme (2008-2015). The programme has an important lesson- learning and advocacy dimension, analysing the approaches which work best for different types of poverty, and communicating this research to policymakers. The overall programme was designed principally by Harewelle International in collaboration with Dr Devine from the University of Bath. In targeting the poorest 10% of the population, the programme has moved into new development frontiers. People living this level of extreme poverty have traditionally been overlooked by development agencies, and for most, subsistence and survival are the main priorities. The challenge for the programme is to work from experience, but also to innovate in order to really address the needs of the very poorest. If it makes sense to talk of extreme poverty rather than poverty, it is likely that new and innovative policy responses will be required.

Although still at an early stage of implementation, there have already been important developments which have been directly influenced by the programme. There is evidence of organisational level impact in that partner NGOs have had to reflect and devise new approaches to target the extreme poor. This has not been an easy exercise because it has tested the capacity of the NGOs to innovate and introduce new practices. Paradoxically, it is at the wider systemic level where immediate impact is most evident. As part of the programme, both Dr Devine and Prof Wood have been working closely with Government officials in Bangladesh. This has resulted in the creation of an All Party Parliamentary Group of MPs on Extreme Poverty which has been endorsed by Parliament and falls under the remit of the Speaker. This is a major political development in Bangladesh, and opens up important opportunities to engage directly with the country’s political and policy elite. To date, Dr Devine and Prof Wood have made five presentations in Parliament and a formative programme is currently being devised for the forthcoming year. In terms of ultimate impact, the objective of this type of engagement is to draw on research experience and knowledge to inform a wider debate about national policy priorities in respect of the country’s most disadvantaged citizens.

Permanent engagement – informed by research and knowledge

In social sciences, research impact is often unpredictable, indirect and contingent and may even be temporally distant from the source research. The poverty landscape in Bangladesh has changed over the years, and being able to engage with this changing scenario requires continuous innovation and adaptation informed by research and knowledge. This is a case where research seeks impact immediately as well as over time.