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Connections Between Population and Poverty

Poverty and population density cannot be considered independently in Bangladesh.  An examination of demographic trends and the distribution of income and land show that population growth is the greatest single threat to Bangladesh's rise out of poverty.

Exhibit 6 - Population 1950-1995                                           Exhibit 7 - Population Density 1950-1995

Exhibit 8 - Population Distribution       Exhibit 9 - Population Density by Zone

Bangladesh has one of the highest population densities in the world.  Sustained population growth has pushed the population density from 290 to 836 people per square kilometer between 1950 and 1995.  Population tripled during this period from 42 million to 118 million. Bangladesh's high population density is prevalent across the nation except in the mountainous Hill Tracts in the Southeast, the Sundarbans mangrove forests in the Southwest, and to a lesser degree the Sylhet area in the Northeast corner.

Exhibit 10 - GDP                                           Exhibit 11 - GDP Per Capita                                                     Exhibit 12 - Per Capita Food Production

Bangladesh has made great progress in increasing its GDP throughout its history as an independent nation after colonial rule. Its early rapid gains after gaining independence in 1971 were lost in the aftermath of Rahman's assassination (see Exhibit 2). Subsequent gains were also threatened by the assassination of Zia in 1981. Ershad's regime made additional progress during the 1980s, but this growth has slowed in the last few years, however. With this slowdown, the growth of the economy has not been able to keep up with population growth, resulting in a shrinking GDP per capita in recent years.  The growth of food production has been able to keep up with population growth, but has led to the overuse of farmland and lack of crop rotation.  It is questionable whether these increases in production will continue to keep pace with population growth.  Already the percent of households meeting basic calorie requirements shrunk from 41% to 21% from 1975 to 1991.  (Ahmad, 1994)

The growing population density is an increasing threat to the livelihood of the people of Bangladesh.  Agriculture plays a critical role in the economic life of Bangladesh, employing 73% of the labor force and making up 34% of the nation's GDP in 1992. (Ahmad, 1994)  The rural poor are increasingly unable to sustain themselves through agriculture because there is not enough land to divide among an ever-growing population.  500 rural males were surveyed in 1974 and indicated that the decrease of per capita land was caused by an increase in the population and the increasing difficulty in distributing land among children. (Duza, 1977)  Landlessness has grown from about 20% around World War II to over 50% today. (Bornstein 1966)  In 1989, 64% of all rural households (10.4 million households) were landless. (Ahmad, 1994)  It should be noted that those with land holdings less than about one acre are often counted as landless because they lack enough land to make a productive living from its use.

The alleviation of poverty in Bangladesh depends on maintaining steady food supply, growing GDP per capita, and maintaining adequate land per capita for economic use.  Each of these factors depend upon stabilizing population, so an analysis of Bangladesh's demographic transitions is in order.  Many developing countries experience four stages of demographic transition, with the highest population growth occurring during the transition from the second to third stage.
(1) At low levels of industrialization, birth and death rates (fertility and mortality) are high, creating a balance of slow population growth.
(2) Death rates fall as basic human health improves while birth rates remain high, creating rapid population growth.
(3) Birth rates decline as income, education, and health improve, slowing the growth of the population boom.
(4) Birth and death rates stabilize at a new lower level, creating slow population growth.
(Drake, 1993)

Exhibit 13 - Population Growth Rate                                             Exhibit 14 - Crude Birth/Death Rates

Bangladesh shifted from the first demographic stage earlier this century.  Between 1950 and 1970, the crude death rate decreased due to improved sanitation and medical technologies without a corresponding decrease in the birth rate.  As a result, the population grew at a rate of 2.5%-3% during this period.  The independence of Bangladesh in 1971 brought with it new economic prosperity and the creation of family planning programs, both of which helped bring the population growth rate down to about 2%. The government's First Five Year Plan (1973-78) and the Second Five Year Plan (1980-85) built a network of Thana Health Complexes which provided family planning and other health services. (Khan, 1988) Bangladesh has remained in the transition from the second to third stages of demographic transition for the past three decades as death rates have continued to fall along with the fertility rate.  The difference between the birth and death rates is larger today than it was in 1950 (23.8 vs. 22.8).  Bangladesh's status straddling the second and third stages predicts that its rate of population growth is at its highest throughout the overall demographic transition.

Exhibit 15 - Population 1950-2050          Exhibit 16 - Crude Rates 1950-2050       Exhibit 17 - Population Density 1950-2050

The United Nations Population Division's forecast for Bangladesh’s population also predicts that the current rate of growth is at its peak for the overall demographic transition, which stretches from earlier this century to about 2050.  According to this prediction, Bangladesh will not be able to stabilize its population until the middle of the 21st century.  In the meantime, the population will grow at a rapid rate, double in density, outstrip the resources of Bangladesh, and create growing levels of poverty, malnutrition, and pollution.  The UNDP model reflects this possibility by predicting that the death rate will stop its decline around 2020 and begin to increase once again.

Exhibit 18 - Langsten's Demographic Models

Predictions for the future of Bangladesh's mortality depend upon assumptions of the carrying capacity of Bangladesh and the society's ability to adapt to the reality of rapidly shrinking resources.  In a review of the vital rates of Bangladesh, Langsten presented three models for Bangladesh's future.  The UNDP and the government of Bangladesh have assumed that the demographic transition will play itself out with only limited interruption from hitting a lack of resources (Figure I-1).  Other doomsday theorists predict food shortages and social chaos creating Malthusian high death rates and population collapse (Figure I-2).  Langsten predicts a "middle-level alternative" which is more pessimistic than the UNDP model yet refrains from predicting a total social collapse. (Langsten, 1980)  In any case, it remains clear that stabilizing population should be a priority for anyone attempting to alleviate poverty in Bangladesh.

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