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FEATURE STORY

Emergency Employment for Bangladesh's Poorest

July 27, 2012

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • About 35 million Bangladeshis still live in extreme poverty. Even a small natural or economic shock can push them over the edge.
  • During the agricultural off-seasons, it is particularly hard for rural day laborers to find work.
  • The Bangladeshi government's Employment Generation Program for the Poorest provides short-term jobs.

ATIMAITHI, Bangladesh – Harimoti Mandal lost her husband earlier this year after a prolonged illness.

“It’s only myself and my two daughters,” she explains. “My husband was sick for a long time and needed treatment. I need to repay those loans.”

Harimoti was able to get back on her feet and keep her family from the brink of disaster through money earned through the Bangladeshi government’s Employment Generation Program for the Poorest (EGPP) supported by the World Bank.

“I’m working now, and I will do my level best so that my daughters can continue their studies so they can get decent jobs,” says Harimoti, a slight woman in a bright green sari dotted with the clay used to repair the roadway she is working on.

She was among 28 laborers – 25 of whom are women – earning 175 Bangladeshi Taka, or $2.14, per day to repair roads running through her community.

Two dollars a day wouldn’t buy the average American’s mocha latte at the neighborhood Starbucks. But this wage allows participants to put food on the table and send their children to school. Harimoti’s daily EGPP earnings are more than her husband used to earn running a tiny shop in their local village.

Harimoti and her fellow workers use picks to chip away at the clay they use for the repairs. They pile the mud into straw baskets which they perch on their hips or balance on their sari-covered heads against the scorching sun as half a dozen bicycle rickshaw drivers doze nearby in the sultry heat and cows chew on discarded corn husks littering the side of the road.

Over and over again they slog barefoot up and down the sides of the steep hill to the road above, tossing the clay onto the two kilometers of roads they are repairing.

Open Quotes

It’s not the season to get work. It would be hard to find a job. This work helps me to survive – that’s why I’m here. Close Quotes

Jalal Mia
worker

Despite substantial progress in the country, about 35 million Bangladeshis still live in extreme poverty. Even a small natural or economic shock can push these vulnerable families over the edge.

EGPP provides short-term employment to vulnerable households in extreme poverty. About 30 percent of the participants in the program are women like Harimoti.

The project runs for a total of 100 days, spanning the two lean seasons in the country – one from October to December and the other from March to May when rural day laborers are often out of work. Only households where the head is a manual laborer, and which have less than a half-acre of land, are eligible for the program.

Harimoti’s co-worker Jalal Mia is from the neighboring village of Sanile. She says the work helps keep her family fed during the fallow farming period.

“It’s not the season to get work. It would be hard to find a job,” she says. “This work helps me to survive – that’s why I’m here.”

Bangladesh Country Director Ellen A. Goldstein says EGPP has been extremely effective at “targeting the poorest households during the hungriest times of the year.” The World Bank started supporting the program in November 2010 with a $150 million credit from the International Development Association (IDA). The program is creating 200 million days of employment over a three-year period.

Wages are paid through formal financial channels to enhance transparency. The program has successfully used new technology to make payments directly from the government into people’s bank accounts to ensure benefits flow to the right households.

“This is a model of efficiency and effectiveness to achieve results,” Goldstein says. “This smart safety net program increases the incomes of the poorest households while guarding against catastrophic hunger and loss.”

Arati Sannashi, the chairperson of the implementation committee that oversees the program, says the money the women earn helps keep them and their families afloat during the season where little work can be found otherwise.

“It’s making a lot of difference, because these women are solely responsible for running their families,” says Arati. “Now they can afford food and to send their children to school.”