Poverty in Bangladesh: The Story of Being Too Poor to Be Buried

For many people in Bangladesh, “poverty” is a bad word – it’s the “P” word if you will. You’re not supposed to bring up the “P” word. 

How bad is it to use the “P” word? Well, I was recently met a Bangladeshi (now living America) entrepreneur who is starting up a tourism business to experience Bangladesh in a new and unique way. I had originally met her to do a video and/or blog post about her work, but unfortunately that ultimately fell through. The reason? Because, if I was going to write or make a video about her or her work, I wouldn’t be permitted to use the “P” word. Instead, I was encouraged to use “alternative” words like “building wealth” or “producing sustainability”. Since when did newspeak come to Bangladesh?

In fact, when I told her about what I’m doing in Bangladesh and the nature of my work – she balked. “There’s nothing inspiring that” she said told me. Bangladesh, she explained, shouldn’t be portrayed as a “poor” country in need of aid and/or charity. In her defense, she was a very cheerful and positive-minded person who (like me) shares my hope for a Bangladesh free from poverty. This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the Bangladeshi community criticizing me for me work or for the fact I speak aloud about Bangladesh and poverty. In fact, some of the harshest criticism comes from my own family. Many Bangladeshis can’t seem to fathom why my desire to try and alleviate poverty brought me to Bangladesh.

There is one Bangladeshi who I know wouldn’t question my work…. but he’s dead now. In fact, my grandmother just helped bury him.

More after the jump. Readers beware – I make excessive use of the “P” word.

While, I was in that rural village of Jalchatra trying to document where the Bengal Bouts money gets spent, my grandmother was approached by a family in desperation. This family had recently lost a loved one – and they couldn’t afford to bury him. Why couldn’t they just dig a hole in the ground and bury him? Because every square inch of land (even in this rural village) is owned by someone – they had no legal right to bury him anywhere. Why not cremate him? This family couldn’t afford even the smallest of plots – forget about having the money necessary for the fuel in which to dispose of the corpse through cremation. What did they do instead? They let the body rot for several days – out in the open – until they could find someone to help. My grandmother stepped in, bought some land, and finally let the man R.I.P.

Oh, and what did this man die of? Starvation… and cold. The man literally was shivering and hungry when he died.

The first step to solving a problem – is to admit there is one. Refusing to acknowledge or publicly speak about P O V E R T Y in Bangladesh keeps us further away from solving it. It is extremely disheratening to see that those in positions of influence – be it a Supreme Court judge or a savvy businessperson – try and brush aside the image of Bangladesh as a poor country. I’ve talked about how the elite of Bangladesh perceive poverty before. In my previous article, I quoted Dr. Naomi Hossain (author of “Elite Perceptions of Poverty in Bangladesh”). As she points out, the business and political elite in Bangladesh “do not feel threatened by the extent of poverty, or by poor people”. Rather, they feel that poverty threatens “the wealth or international stature of the nation”.

The reason why I use the word “poverty” so much is because it is the only non-ambigious term. “Building wealth” might just make the rich even more rich and leave the poor further behind. “Producing sustainability” might just force the poor to consume less to allow the rich to maintain their level of consumption. “Ending poverty” is much less ambigious. When I say “end poverty” I mean no one should be dying of starvation only to then be too poor to be buried.

And if that means mentioning the “P” word over ten times in a single blog post – so be it.

  • Owen

    Shawn, you’re right not to be distracted from your focus on poverty. People at the comfy end of inequality often dislike being reminded of its existence. But they have no right to tell you/us to turn your/our gaze away from people who are starving, dying and even, as you describe so horrifically, rotting. Poverty doesn’t disappear just because we’re not looking.

    Your grandmother did the decent humane thing in helping the family. But poverty itself will only be eradicated by change at the level of government and global economic relations.

    I’m grateful to Rezwan for pointing me here, keep up the good work!

  • Owen

    Shawn, you’re right not to be distracted from your focus on poverty. People at the comfy end of inequality often dislike being reminded of its existence. But they have no right to tell you/us to turn your/our gaze away from people who are starving, dying and even, as you describe so horrifically, rotting. Poverty doesn’t disappear just because we’re not looking.

    Your grandmother did the decent humane thing in helping the family. But poverty itself will only be eradicated by change at the level of government and global economic relations.

    I’m grateful to Rezwan for pointing me here, keep up the good work!

  • http://www.cnn.com owen2

    Owen, you’re an idiot. And by the way, shawn, have you done your GMAT and when are you planning on applying to HBS and Wharton ??

  • http://www.cnn.com owen2

    Owen, you’re an idiot. And by the way, shawn, have you done your GMAT and when are you planning on applying to HBS and Wharton ??

  • adam

    Shawn, the way you described the last moments of that man was as incredible as it was expected. In a country as poor as Bangladesh it is expected that many people will die from the effects of poverty. Knowing this does not help and giving help also does not help. Although you have done everything with the best intentions you have not brought sustainable relief to any of the people in your videos. All the nets you gave away will one day wear thin, those bottles of water will be drunk dry minutes after you leave. And how does it help a dead man, or his family, to buy him land (and support the very system that kept him graveless) only to be used once as a burial ground? Short answer, it does not help.

    The only thing that can help the poor to move out of poverty is to raise the level of domestic capital, and therefore increase the marginal product of labour thus increasing the real wage. For example, say you had brought net making kits, complete with tech manuals and instructors, designed to weave nets using local material (say recycled cothing). Perhaps the solution would have been sustainable and therefore useful in the long run. After all, poverty is a long-run reality that is unaffected by short-term actions. If it were possible to end poverty by helping the poor in the short term, extreme poverty would already be a memory.

  • adam

    Shawn, the way you described the last moments of that man was as incredible as it was expected. In a country as poor as Bangladesh it is expected that many people will die from the effects of poverty. Knowing this does not help and giving help also does not help. Although you have done everything with the best intentions you have not brought sustainable relief to any of the people in your videos. All the nets you gave away will one day wear thin, those bottles of water will be drunk dry minutes after you leave. And how does it help a dead man, or his family, to buy him land (and support the very system that kept him graveless) only to be used once as a burial ground? Short answer, it does not help.

    The only thing that can help the poor to move out of poverty is to raise the level of domestic capital, and therefore increase the marginal product of labour thus increasing the real wage. For example, say you had brought net making kits, complete with tech manuals and instructors, designed to weave nets using local material (say recycled cothing). Perhaps the solution would have been sustainable and therefore useful in the long run. After all, poverty is a long-run reality that is unaffected by short-term actions. If it were possible to end poverty by helping the poor in the short term, extreme poverty would already be a memory.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn

    Hi Adam, a lot of my work here is inspired by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs. Dr. Sachs advocates support for the Millennium Development Goals.

    Those nets I gave help to address the issue of mosquito transmitted viruses. The water I gave help to tide them over until the flood waters recede. Because, though they had access to clean tube well water – they were temporarily contaminated due to flooding.

    Some of those nets were also locally purchased – and thus added new capital to the economy. Some were imported as they were specially manufactured and will actually be very unlikely to wear out.

    I guess we have different standards by which we define what difference I am doing here. You are more than welcome to say I have done nothing. Others (both on the ground and elsewhere) think differently.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn

    Hi Adam, a lot of my work here is inspired by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs. Dr. Sachs advocates support for the Millennium Development Goals.

    Those nets I gave help to address the issue of mosquito transmitted viruses. The water I gave help to tide them over until the flood waters recede. Because, though they had access to clean tube well water – they were temporarily contaminated due to flooding.

    Some of those nets were also locally purchased – and thus added new capital to the economy. Some were imported as they were specially manufactured and will actually be very unlikely to wear out.

    I guess we have different standards by which we define what difference I am doing here. You are more than welcome to say I have done nothing. Others (both on the ground and elsewhere) think differently.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn

    Hi Owen2, I’m not currently looking into doing an MBA. So no HBS or Wharton – though they are both amazing schools.

  • http://uncultured.com Shawn

    Hi Owen2, I’m not currently looking into doing an MBA. So no HBS or Wharton – though they are both amazing schools.

  • tami andrson

    I have just watched a couple of your videos on youtube. I had my 12 and 15 year old watch them. I must say that I am reminded how ungrateful I have become. My heart is sad and I want to see a change. I like you believe that we cannot change what we do not acknowledge. Your “work” has touched me and reminded me that this is my “time” in history and I want to help make a difference. All I can do this moment is donate (and I will), but I wish I could do more. I will make sure my children are not sheltered from this truth and encourage a hopefull spirit in them to help in poverty in our world. You are lucky that you can walk out your vision.My prayers are with you.

  • tami andrson

    I have just watched a couple of your videos on youtube. I had my 12 and 15 year old watch them. I must say that I am reminded how ungrateful I have become. My heart is sad and I want to see a change. I like you believe that we cannot change what we do not acknowledge. Your “work” has touched me and reminded me that this is my “time” in history and I want to help make a difference. All I can do this moment is donate (and I will), but I wish I could do more. I will make sure my children are not sheltered from this truth and encourage a hopefull spirit in them to help in poverty in our world. You are lucky that you can walk out your vision.My prayers are with you.

  • http://none Michele Spencer

    Just stumbled onto your video, and wanted to read the first blog I have seen. I greatly admire you as you are trying to make a difference,[and few people are] but, fundamentally I think the problem lies with the developed countries of the world, especially the U.S. consuming far more resources than they should. I’ve read statistics I can’t exactly quote but, the jist of it is we represent a certain percentage of the world population and consume a HUGE percentage of the world’s resources. That fact kinda sickens me. Its true I live ina manner representative of the U.S. economy, like most people, But I make an effort to reduce my economic footprint. There are many ways to do this. The obvious being recycling, volunteering, donating to charity and using my personal resources to benefit less fortunate individuals ina proactive manner. Also one should consider buying in bulk,reusing containers, buying recycled items, boycotting stuff advertised on TV, stuff harmful to the environment, voting, using alternative transit and various other sundry items people smarter than me can name. Please don’t get discouraged when your relatives scold you. You are one person TRYING and thats rare. You are making a difference but in Bangledesh it may be akin to charging Hell with a bucket of water. At least you are doing Something and that is more than most people do. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://none Michele Spencer

    Shawn, I’m privileged and honored you posted my response to your blog. After some thought, I’ve decided I want to send you some money for those school kids.Please write me if you have time, telling me how much to buy every kid a good lunch for the day or some special treat[nutritious,please] for them as they come to school. Would you send me # of kids in class and some common foods and their prices,[including treats]. If no time to do this, then I will send what I can. I would like to support your work in whatever way I can. I don’t have alot of money myself as I rely on social Security [what an oxymoron] but, have access to additional funds sometimes. I would like to buy YOU a good lunch too. Please don’t tell the kids my name or where the food came from. True charity, I have read, is when the giver doesn’t know who it goes to and the receiver doesn’t know where it came from. In the future, I may even make a project for myself in the form of quitting cigarettes for a month, and giving the resulting small fortune to those kids for some clothes. I have heard that clothing is always a good choice as a present in 3rd world countries, as it is expensive and hard to get. You tell me:mispastra@gmail.com Write when, If you can. Regards, Michele S.

  • http://google ashia crumpton

    how is it going bangladesh

  • Hanikasworld

    Adam, much as i agree with you short term strategies and interventions cannot help end poverty, i disagree with your position that the only thing that can help move the poor out of poverty is to raise the level of domestic capital, and therefore increase the marginal product of labour thus increasing the real wage.

    poverty eradication is not about increased income or wages.

  • Hanikasworld

    Adam, much as i agree with you short term strategies and interventions cannot help end poverty, i disagree with your position that the only thing that can help move the poor out of poverty is to raise the level of domestic capital, and therefore increase the marginal product of labour thus increasing the real wage.

    poverty eradication is not about increased income or wages.