Extreme poverty is common in Bangladesh, but the experiences of the different groups of people who live with it are not all the same. We must not forget that while there are common characteristics of life in extreme poverty, some groups of people face very specific challenges to their ability to live with security and dignity.
Policy-makers and the public alike need to be sensitive to these differences when considering how to help "the extreme poor," and must avoid lumping these divergent experiences together.
The extremely poor non-Bengali (other terms include "ethnic minority" or adivasi) population of Bangladesh are a case in point. Their experiences of life at the very bottom differ a good deal from their Bengali counterparts, and they face particular challenges in escaping the vicious cycle of extreme poverty and marginalisation. As such, empowering adivasi people to lift themselves out of poverty will require a tailored set of policies designed to address their specific constraints.
Exactly this kind of nuanced approach to development policy-making should be at the heart of the government's Millennium Development commitment to the eradication of extreme poverty by 2015.
Trouble with jobs
Most extremely poor households face job worries, due to things like seasonal changes in demand for agricultural day labour. For adivasi people, this insecurity is made worse by the fact that they are often paid less than Bengali labourers for the same work -- while adivasi women are paid at a lower rate again. As a result, adivasi households and particularly those that are headed by women are vulnerable to the effects of fluctuations in labour demand and health shocks. This desperate situation forces many adivasi to sell their labour in advance -- for an even lower rate -- during the lean seasons, and work for longer hours just to feed their families.
For many extremely poor people, a lack of jobs forces migration to find work in neighbouring areas, with some even taking temporary residence in other districts and sending money back to the household.
Adivasi workers tend to migrate less than their Bengali counterparts because of worries -- based on past experiences of discrimination -- that if they leave their living place to find work, their land or homestead might be occupied by others illegally and they might end up homeless.
Certain cultural beliefs also play a part; namely that their ancestors lie with them in their homestead so that if they leave their home the ancestors will be displeased and migrants will suffer dire consequences. This means extremely poor adivasis are less able to move to find better wages, making their situation even more perilous.
Challenges at school
In general, educational facilities for the extreme poor are limited and of poor quality. This has prompted recent efforts from the government, NGOs and missionaries to make primarily education comparatively more accessible. However, children from extremely poor adivasi families face different barriers in school.
Government primary schools use Bangla as the language of instruction, English is also taught, but there are rarely primary school provisions for instruction in any adivasi language, making it difficult for adivasi children to compete at school in Bangla with their Bengali classmates.
Coupled with existing social and cultural differences between adivasi and Bengali, a disproportionately high number of adivasi children are illiterate, leading to high drop-out rates among adivasi children, thereby increasing the likelihood of low wages in adulthood.
Finally, extremely poor adivasi communities face distinct political barriers to their development. While the extreme poor across Bangladesh rarely attain significant positions in local-level politics and power structures, the adivasi are particularly affected by political marginalisation. Even in areas where they make up a reasonable proportion of the population, they generally struggle to compete for political representation, lacking the necessary money, education, experience and political networks.
While in recent years, some adivasi leaders (for example in the Barind Tract region) are coming forward to run in Union Parishad elections -- with the support of some NGOs and Christian Missions -- this is not enough to ensure the needs of the most vulnerable adivasi are mainstreamed in the local political agenda.
The "extreme poor" are not all alike
Thinking of the extreme poor as a homogenous group of needy citizens for whom there is simple set of possible development interventions does a disservice to the variation in experiences of groups in extreme poverty.
The specific challenges facing adivasi people in extreme poverty remind us of the importance of policy-making that is nuanced and sensitive to the particular social and economic constraints of different groups. At least for those extremely poor adivasi people, policies designed to link them to the mainstream of Bangladesh's development initiatives will be fundamental for them to lift themselves out of extreme poverty.