Battling the World Bank

An interview with Nilufar Ahmad

Trained as a statistician and an economist, Nilufar Ahmad is a university professor in Bangladesh and works with grassroots organizations of rural women. "Born in a well-to- do family, I never faced hunger myself," she says. She first came face-to-face with hunger as a university student working with rural women during Bangladesh's 1974 famine. "At that time," she says, "I made up my mind to work with rural people, especially rural women, because they are at the bottom of the pit."

Multinational Monitor: Could you describe your work in Bangladesh?

 Nilufar Ahmad: My associates and I mobilize rural women, help them form their own organizations. The first step is awareness-raising. These people are illiterate. They have no information. They do not know their rights as citizens. They have basic human needs and they have the right to all the resources that are available in our country.

After a little while, if we see that the women are becoming more powerful, we make credit available to them, so they can set up small businesses to make - I would not call it a sustainable living - but a living at their own subsistence level.

MM: Do you work independently or with a group when you're working with the rural women?

Ahmad: We work in groups because, in Bangladesh, we found that networking is most important. In times of stress we need each other's help, so if there is a problem in some village, we can immediately call on our friends to come to our support or legal aid.

MM: How are the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank involved in Bangladesh?

Ahmad: It is a sad situation. We fought a nine-month war with Pakistan in 1971. The United States supplied arms to Pakistan, so after Bangladesh was liberated, the Americans had no great footing in Bangladesh. In fact, they were very much hated. And the World Bank did not have much footing in Bangladesh at that time either.

But, during 1974 there was a big flood and a great famine in Bangladesh. At that time, Bangladesh was politically more connected to the Soviet Union, which helped us during the war with Pakistan. We also sold the Soviets and the Cubans jute, a fiber mainly used to make grain sacks, that was our main export. Because of its trade embargo on Cuba, the United States stopped all the grain supply to Bangladesh. Thousands of people died during the few months when the grain supply was cut off. So though we tried to maintain an independent international policy, Bangladesh had to go begging on bended knees to the United States. The World Bank started to gain a footing in Bangladesh at the same time.

During that period, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of our country, was attempting to get rid of the military. He said that we only needed the police and militia, not a big military. In 1975, the military came out one night with tanks and killed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family. Under military rule, Bangladesh shifted its policies towards the United States and World Bank. At the time of the military takeover, Bangladesh was suffering; a lot of people were dying of famine. Everybody wanted to help out. The World Bank somehow convinced all donor countries that Bangladesh would not be able to manage all this money coming into the country; that it would not be able to fashion programs and strategies. So the World Bank took the coordination of relief and aid out of our hands.

The World Bank became the coordinator of a consortium of donor groups. Now the World Bank decides what our policy and our budget will be, and it allocates all the money to different sectors. We are totally beholden to the World Bank.

Whatever the World Bank says, we have to say yes. For example, the World Bank and Western states all say that population is Bangladesh's biggest problem. Bangladesh is a highly populated, very small country - we have about 2,000 people per square kilometer. So the first priority of foreign lenders is population control. Of all the money that goes into Bangladesh, 55 percent goes into population control. They give us Depo- Provera, Norplant, all kinds of IUDs. And they actually set targets for the number of each type of contraceptive that has to be distributed. If we do not satisfy the target, they can keep the money in the pipeline and not give it to other sectors. They [currently] give only 2 percent to education and only .4 percent to women's health. We have no control over our population policy; it is totally controlled by the World Bank.

In the last 20 years, however, Bangladesh's population has not decreased. This is because population is not the problem; the problem is poverty. We have a high infant mortality rate in Bangladesh. If a woman does not know if her child is going to survive or not, she's not going to use contraceptives. So our first priority is to put money into basic human needs: education, health, shelter, food. But the World Bank decides that population control is the first priority.

MM: How are World Bank-imposed structural adjustment policies affecting the country?

 Ahmad: The World Bank is trying to liberalize Bangladesh's trade laws and promote export-oriented policies. It has cut off all of the money for the social sector, so there is more and more poverty in Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, the industries were nationalized. But the World Bank has forced us - and all the weak countries in the world - to privatize state-owned enterprises. In selling off the enterprises, government officials took many bribes. The public industries that earned millions of dollars each year were sold to the private sector for just a couple of million dollars. Those were public goods. And the people got nothing for them.

 Because we are a land-poor country, our economic policy should promote industrialization. Sixty percent of our population is landless and there is simply not enough land for everybody. But the people who bought the privatized factories just sold the machinery, took the money and sent it abroad. They just ran away. Now there is almost 50 percent unemployment in Bangladesh and a lot of additional shadow underemployment.

MM: One of the export products the World Bank is urging for Bangladesh is shrimp. Could you talk about the origin of the shrimp industry and its impact on life in the coastal areas of Bangladesh?

 Ahmad: The shrimp industry right now is a very touchy subject. The World Bank has planned a big project for the shrimp industry, designed to bring in a lot of foreign exchange for Bangladesh. The shrimp we grow is not for our own consumption; it is for rich countries to buy.

In the 1960s, the government built embankments around the coastal area to stop the tail-line waters from coming in, to gain more land from the ocean. The coastal areas were the surplus food areas where a lot of grains grew. One-fourth of the population of Bangladesh lives in the coastal areas.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, the World Bank said, "Go for shrimp." And some rich people who lived in the area - with the compliance of the government - cut through the embankments and let the tail-line water come in. They leased a lot of land from the local people and said they were going to cultivate shrimp. The local people didn't know what was going to happen: their fields were flooded with salt water and used by the shrimp cultivators to grow the shrimp. They catch the shrimp right from the ocean and put it in these flooded areas, inside the land. When the shrimp reach a certain size, the cultivators sell them to outside markets.

People are living on bamboo huts on top of the salt water because they have no place to go. They are sort of like hostages to the shrimp cultivators; the shrimp cultivators hire goons to intimidate the local people.

The women working those shrimp areas must go in the ocean to catch shrimp, and they are in the cold water from eight to 10 hours each day - many of them die of heart attacks or catch fever. When the shrimp are bigger, the women catch them from the cultivating areas where salt water is mixed with lime, which does a lot of internal damage to the shrimp workers' bodies. They wear no gloves, and their hands and feet are totally decayed, totally rotten.

The foreign exchange that shrimp exports earn is just going to the pockets of a few rich people. The poor people are not able to eat the shrimp, they're not getting agricultural production, they're not gaining anything in any way. The World Bank says development is growth, but the point is development for whom? Not for a few rich people, when 25 million people are dying of hunger.

So we do a lot of mobilization in the coastal areas. The women form groups and they guard embankments so that shrimp cultivations do not invade land and cut new embankments. There was a big demonstration in November 1990 involving thousands of people. The goons working for one of the very rich cultivators attacked the women. One woman was killed, another was abducted - she was never found. But the women there are not afraid. They are still in groups, they make protests. They say that they are going to win this battle, that they are not going to go away, that they are going to stay on their land and continue whatever agricultural production they have. They just will not give up.

MM: What are some of the other impacts of the shrimp industry?

 Ahmad: The shrimp cultivation causes serious environmental problems. The land that has been flooded by salt water is already damaged and agricultural cultivation there has decreased by 30 percent. There is simply no vegetation - no trees, no plants. Scientists say that it will take three decades to relieve the land of this salinity. It also contributes to deforestation. In the coastal areas we have the great mangrove forest. They cut the mangrove forest to make room for more shrimp cultivation, and this has depleted the forest by about 40 percent.

We are going to have an ecological disaster in Bangladesh. Only 4 percent of the land is forested and we need at least 25 percent. We have big cyclones in the bay - last year there was a big cyclone and about one million people were killed. The bay is tunnel- shaped, and when the cyclone comes it creates a big tidal wave about 20 or 30 feet high. Because the people live in huts, they're all washed away into the ocean. They just cannot survive. But where the coastal area is forested, the water cannot come in and people are protected.

The government simply has no policy on forest protection. Forestation in the coastal areas should protect the people, protect their land, protect their livestock, protect their resources. But the government is going to deforest the whole coastal area. That is the sad truth.

MM: So it is almost guaranteed that there will be future disasters on the scale of the recent flood?

 Ahmad: Yes. Let me tell you a story: In 1988, we had a big flood in Bangladesh. Fifty percent of the land was flooded. Even Dhaka, the capital city, was totally under water. I have never seen such water in my whole life. And the whole world was really concerned when the flood was shown on international television. The donor countries really wanted to help Bangladesh; they wanted to find policies and strategies to help the people.

The World Bank again got into the act and became the coordinator of the relief effort. It came up with a strategy called the flood action plan. The proposal was to build embankments beside the main rivers. We have the three biggest rivers in the world in Bangladesh - the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna. Can you imagine building embankments on those rivers? Those are totally unstable rivers. We already have 7,000 kilometers of embankments, and still every year we are flooded. But the World Bank is going ahead with the plan.

At the time, we had a corrupt, autocratic ruler and he was very happy to implement this plan. Ten billion dollars will be spent just to make the embankments, and $600 million will be needed every year to maintain them. We are going to borrow $10 billion from the whole world. How is it going to be repaid? It's all loans, not aid.

When we heard about this, we started to protest, but the government went ahead anyway. In 1989, the government built an embankment around Dhaka without conducting any feasibility studies. Now in Dhaka we are drowning in our own drain water because the government didn't put in any sewage - the water inside Dhaka cannot go out.

Meanwhile, the World Bank has already spent $150 million just on the 26 studies it has done for the flood action plan. The Bank has put in all sorts of wasteful conditions we have to follow. For example, for each study we have to include something like six foreign consulting firms. Each consultant that comes to Bangladesh gets paid something like $800 per day - while the average per capita income in Bangladesh is $160 per year. Do you think these people are really helping Bangladesh? We have calculated that for each dollar that comes into Bangladesh, we have to repay $1.50 back. Where is this money going to come from?

 What I am saying is that the donor countries are not actually helping the developing countries, the poor countries. They're just doing good business for themselves. It is their own self-interest they are satisfying.

But I also want to say another thing: that it actually takes two parties to do it. Our government is complicit. The World Bank could not force all these policies on us if our government didn't agree to them. The government consents because government officials do not have enough political will and because they want to line their own pockets. Only the people can stop this process. Our main work should be to help the people understand that the government is selling them to the donors. Then we can make the government accountable and devise our own policies without being beholden to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, U.S. Agency for International Development or anybody else.

MM: How optimistic are you that the people of Bangladesh will be able to successfully resist World Bank and government policies?

 Ahmad: A great story of hope just happened two months ago. This is delta country. In Ramgati, on the coast, 50 landless families went to a piece of land that rose up in the ocean. They just stayed there and cultivated a bit of that land. After the harvest, the landlord who lived nearby came with the police, claiming that it was his land and that he was going to collect all the grain that had been harvested.

The women asked their men to go. They knew there was going to be violence because the police always protect the interests of the landlords. The women gathered the grain in a field and stood around that grain with their babies in their arms. They told the police, "You have to kill all of us to get this grain." And the police backed away.

I was in a nearby area when I heard this story, so I went to meet these women who were so brave. I asked one of them where they got the courage. And this woman, who is only in her twenties, told me that she is an orphan, that she does not have any parents or brothers or sisters, that she has lived in the streets all her life, that she has been raped many times because she sleeps on the streets and that she does not know the names of the fathers of her children. She told me that she has no money, that she has no shame, that she has nothing left. She has only her life to lose. And if she loses it to help other women who are in the same condition, she said, then it is no loss at all.

I think it's a great sign of hope that these people will really fight and that they are going to get what they want.