Food Costs Push Bangladesh to Brink of Unrest

Frustrations over inflation are increasing in Bangladesh, and many fear that it could ultimately undermine the stability of one of the world's poorest countries.
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 24, 2008

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- As a seamstress, Abida Dulalmia makes $1.25 a day embroidering cartoon characters on Disney T-shirts and stitching pockets on jeans for Target. In this jumbled, hazy metropolis, her salary was once coveted. Now it hardly seems enough.

With inflation starting to climb into the double digits in Bangladesh and food prices soaring around the world, Dulalmia spends as much as 80 percent of what she makes solely to put food on the dinner table.

"We work really hard," the 25-year-old mother of two said on a recent day, wiping perspiration from her daughter's forehead in the muggy heat of their airless, one-room home. "Why can't we afford to eat?"

Frustrations over inflation have become increasingly common here, particularly among garment workers such as Dulalmia who, while never well off, had at least managed to feed themselves. Many now fear, however, that those frustrations could ultimately undermine the stability of the entire country, one of the world's poorest.

Last month, about 20,000 garment workers defied a government ban on demonstrations to demand higher wages and protest skyrocketing food prices, especially on such staples as rice, which have doubled in price since last year. Some of the workers, mostly women, hurled rocks and bricks at police and vandalized factories in what the local media dubbed the start of the "Rice Revolution."

Troops from the Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force that normally patrols the country's borders, now operate and guard the crowded government-subsidized rice shops. Dressed in fatigues, they send the stern message that the government wants to ensure stability.

Bangladesh is among at least 33 countries, many with shaky governments and destitute populations, that are at risk of serious political unrest if food prices keep rising, according to a recent World Bank study. In some countries, the consequences of the food crisis are already playing out. Haiti's prime minister, for example, was forced to step down last month after riots in Port-au-Prince.

In this country, the crisis is compounded by natural disasters that have destroyed wide swaths of farmland. Many Bangladeshis have migrated from rural areas to the capital as "climate refugees," driven out by floods and cyclones that some scientists believe have intensified because of rising global temperatures. Now, in the relative safety of Dhaka, illiterate, often unskilled laborers are being hit by economic calamity as high inflation and surging food prices make their lives more difficult.

Although poverty had started to slowly recede over the past decade in this nation of 150 million, there are renewed fears that inflation could undo its decades of progress and once again make it the "basket case" of the world, as it was once dubbed by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

"It was hopeful in Bangladesh. Positive changes were actually happening," said Ayesha Khanam, president of the Bangladesh Women's Council, a civil society group. "But if the price hikes keep going on, I am honestly scared. When you combine both problems -- climate change and the food prices -- well, it's very serious. There could be grave political and human costs."

Along the smog-filled streets of Dhaka, the impoverished can be seen tapping on car windows for spare change and waiting in long lines outside garment factories for day jobs as toilet cleaners, buttonmakers or sweepers.

Bib Norjaham, 40, and her three children said they thought they had already been through the worst of it when their rice and lentil farm was washed away during floods four years ago. The family moved to Dhaka, tried to adjust to urban life. Her husband got a job pedaling a bicycle rickshaw. But he was killed in a car accident while he was driving in the city's brutal traffic.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company