Bangladesh lies on the other side of the world, but it came a bit closer when a missionary working there stopped by America House for a visit during a recent trip to the United States. Bill Christensen, a Marianist priest who has been in Bangladesh since 1986, founded the Institute of Integrated Rural Development in 1987. Seven years’ prior experience in rural development in India and Nepal had already prepared him for his present work of poverty eradication through empowerment of local populations. His organization’s efforts extend to 800 villages in six geographic areas in Bangladesh.
During our conversation, Father Christensen noted that Bangladesh has one of the densest populations in the worldseven times the density of China, three times that of India. Given that level of density and the country’s poverty, food deficiency stands out as a major problem. Bangladesh is the only country in the world where the size of the people has actually been decreasing over the past few decades, he observed, adding that 93 percent of the children are below the international standard of height and weight for children their age. When his workers go into a new area, in fact, families are identified according to their level of food deficiencyone-meal-a-day families or two-meal-a-day families.
I.I.R.D. seeks to raise the level of nutrition through efforts like seed distribution and the sale of coconut and mango trees at low cost. Our workers, who are almost all local people, teach the villagers how to care for the trees, along with gardening, Father Christensen said. Fishery projects are another source of lifting nutritional levels, made possible through the construction of ponds for raising carp and catfish. Other undertakings include helping poor families gain access to housing and two years of primary education for their children.
Providing sanitary drinking water is another goal. Because the soil is soft, villagers themselves can install tube wells in villages at minimal costapproximately $60. Six to eight families contribute a small portion of this sum, but they must sign an agreement to let everyone use the well and to maintain it. It’s important to help the people assume a sense of responsibility, he said. I’ve seen wells put in by various United Nations and other groups, but no one takes care of them, so that when a simple part breaks, the well becomes useless. Foot-operated pumps for agricultural use cost only $18 to buy and install, so instead of buying irrigation water from wealthier families, poor families can invest in these and repay the loans to us later.
Women play a major role in a number of the organization’s projects. There are very few opportunities for them in rural society, he said, and because of their low status, women receive only half the pay male workers geteven if they find work. So we pay them the same salary as the men. A woman’s salary combined with her husband’s can amount to a liveable income sufficient to lift a family out of poverty. Seen as generally more disciplined and responsible than their male counterparts, women are afforded access to small loans with which they might buy a goat or a calf that they raise until they can earn money by selling the milk. Another project employing women involves the assembling of sanitary latrinessimple constructions of cement rings with slabs fitted over them. One hundred and twenty women are currently working on this project now, in six different areas. The cost is only $11, and when completed they are sold to poor village families for a fraction of that amount.
Father Christensen’s work has led to encouraging results. He said that since I.I.R.D. began in 1987, the poverty level in the first area of its operation in the northwestern part of the country has dropped from 37.4 percent to 24.1 percent. Backed by his congregation, his apostolic efforts have also received financial help from the European community, as well as from the Canadian and Belgian governments. Father Christensen can be reached at [email protected], or at [email protected]