The 1970 Bhola cyclone, nationalist politics and the subsistence crisis contract in Bangladesh

The Bhola cyclone, one of the deadliest tropical cyclones the world has ever recorded, struck the Bay of Bengal in what was then the eastern wing of Pakistan in November 1970. At least a quarter and possibly up to half a million East Pakistanis perished, and livelihoods and landscape were decimated. The response by the Pakistan military government was widely deemed inadequate. The cyclone struck three weeks before the first democratic elections in the country, and campaigning on the back of the callousness of the ruling Pakistani elite, the Awami League won a landslide victory in its home province of East Pakistan, which should have placed their leader Sheikh Mujib in power. But the Pakistani elite had no intention of allowing this, forcing the Awami League into a declaration of independence. Pakistan responded with a vicious attack of genocidal intensity and intent, and within nine months, after a guerrilla war and an Indian intervention, Bangladesh was born.

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Elite Perceptions of Poverty: Bangladesh

The Bangladeshi national elite are distanced from and unthreatened by poverty and the poor. Medium-term solutions to poverty, resting on a belief in the importance of ‘increasing awareness’ through education, rather than in direct public action, are favoured. The poor are viewed as homogeneous, and generally deserving. These benign perceptions may not accord direct anti-poverty action a high priority on the national agenda, but they also suggest little of the fear which can lead to repressive measures against the poor. The authors conclude with a discussion of means through which national elite support for more direct anti-poverty programmes may be built.

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Engaging Elite Support for the Poorest

This paper describes and draws lessons from the experience of engaging village elites in support of the ultrapoor through the Gram Shahayak Committees (GSC), as part of BRAC’s CFPR/TUP programme. The paper addresses the following questions: under what conditions can elites become engaged in support of interventions for the ultrapoor? What are the risks and benefits of engaging elite in antipoverty programmes? After describing the origins and motivations behind BRAC’s Specially Targeted Ultrapoor (TUP) programme, the paper goes on to explain how an important lesson from the programme as it evolved included the need for on-site, village-based protection and support for TUP participants and their newly-acquired assets. The paper goes on to explore some of the early impacts of the Gram Shahayak Committees which were formed to fill this need, and to assess the motivations and factors underlying their effectiveness and success. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the lessons from the experience, including their implications for assumptions that dominate scholarship and programmes relating to the rural politics of poverty in Bangladesh.

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