[Reader-list] "Hidden Hunger"

Naeem Mohaiemen naeem.mohaiemen at gmail.com
Fri Apr 18 13:01:10 IST 2008

Following on Rana's post about "Empty Bellies & Rising Anger" here is
the Economist on the debate in Bangladesh about whether it's a "food
crisis", "famine" or "hidden hunger" (The Food Advisor's infamous "h
h" gaffe at a press conference has become staple of underground

A different sort of emergency
Apr 17th 2008 | DHAKA
>From The Economist print edition
A food crisis further complicates the army's exit strategy

AFP Bags to fill before they eat

"OUR politicians were corrupt, but we had enough money to buy food,"
says Shah Alam, a day labourer in Rangpur, one of Bangladesh's poorest
districts, nostalgic for the days before the state of emergency
imposed in January last year. He has been queuing all day for
government-subsidised rice. Two floods and a devastating cyclone last
year, combined with a sharp rise in global rice prices, have left some
60m of Bangladesh's poor, who spend about 40% of their skimpy income
on rice, struggling to feed themselves.

In the capital, Dhaka, a debate is raging about whether this is a
famine or "hidden hunger". The crisis is not of the army-backed
interim government's own making. But it is struggling to convince
people that the politicians it locked up as part of an anti-corruption
drive would have been equally helpless. They include the feuding
leaders of the two big political parties, the former prime ministers
Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Sheikh Hasina
Wajed of the Awami League.

The state of emergency, imposed to silence riotous politicians and
repair corrupted institutions, can barely contain the growing
discontent. This week thousands of garment workers went on strike for
higher pay to cope with soaring food prices. The crisis has emboldened
the political parties, which have been calling more loudly for the
release of their leaders.

The army's main headache is Sheikh Hasina, whose party is widely
expected to win the election. Her detention on corruption charges has
made her more popular than ever. Senior leaders of the League say it
will boycott the election if the courts convict her. The threat might
be empty. But it is a risk the army cannot afford to take. The
patience of Western governments, which backed the state of emergency,
is wearing thin. Human-rights abuses continue unabated. And they fear
the political vacuum might be filled by an Islamist fringe, whose
members this week went on a rampage to protest against a draft law
giving equal inheritance rights to men and women.

The election will almost certainly take place. And, unlike in the
past, rigging it will be hard. Bangladesh has its first proper voters'
list. Criminals will be banned from running. But to hold truly free
and fair elections, the army will need to reach an accommodation with
the parties. There is talk of a face-saving deal allowing Sheikh
Hasina to go abroad for medical treatment, in return for a promise
that the League will not boycott the election. Hardliners in the army
will not like it. But they have largely been sidelined. With food
prices likely to remain high and rice yields half those of India,
Bangladesh desperately needs to secure food aid, investment and trade.

It also badly needs to sustain the rising flow of billions of dollars
in remittances, which have lifted millions of Bangladeshis out of
poverty. This complicates the government's stated plan of considering
prosecution of those who assisted the Pakistani army in a campaign
that left 3m Bengalis dead in the country's liberation war in 1971.
Saudi Arabia, which accounts for 40% of total remittances, objects to
an international war-crimes tribunal. If the two big political parties
had their way, a large number of leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami,
Bangladesh's largest Islamist party, would stand trial.

It appears unlikely that the army will walk off the pitch and let the
politicians run the country without altering the rules of the game.
The interim government has already approved, in principle, the
creation of a National Security Council, which would institutionalise
the army's role in politics. Last month the army chief, General Moeen
U Ahmed, extended his term by one year in the "public interest". His
term now runs out in June 2009. But many Bangladeshis still doubt that
he will go down in history as that rare general who gave up power

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