In north-western Bangladesh, more than 5 million people who already live below the poverty line must cope with seasonal famines. Known as the “monga”, these famines arrive twice a year after planting and before harvest: from March to April (the mini-monga), then again from September to November (major monga).
During these periods, demand for agricultural labour falls and food prices rise, resulting in extreme poverty: incomes drop by up to 60 per cent and expenditure on food falls by 25 per cent. As a result, people starve. The famines affect landless households in particular, and poor nutrition for even a short period can limit cognitive and physical development of children.
A program developed by the University of Sydney’s Associate Professor Shyamal Chowdhury, in collaboration with Dr Gharad Bryan (London School of Economics) and Professor A Mushfiq Mobarak (Yale University), has contributed to a remarkable remedy for this devastating phenomenon.
“The standard government and NGO response to seasonal hunger is either to give handouts or try to create jobs in the area, but this just keeps people where the problem is,” says Associate Professor Chowdhury.
"Our idea was to move people seasonally to places where there are jobs for them," he says.
"Typically, this means men moving to cities and other rural areas where they can find work in agriculture, construction, or as rickshaw pullers.”
Through AusAID funding, the team offered low-cost travel incentives, starting from about $US8.50 per household as a grant or loan. This was offered on the condition that recipients migrate temporarily during the monga to find work – generally travelling about 300 kilometres to the nearest city for four-to-eight weeks.
The team trialled the program in 2008 with 1900 households in 100 villages in north-western Bangladesh.
“But a single trial is not enough,” Associate Professor Chowdhury says. “We repeated the program a couple of times to be sure it worked before scaling up. We’ve now done three trials [2008, 2011, 2014] – two in major mongas, one in the mini monga.”
Of the initial 1900 households, 1300 were provided with the incentive while others formed a control group. Recipients were offered the incentive as either interest-free credit or cash – it was enough to provide a return bus ticket and enough food for a couple of days. The program had some remarkable impacts, repeated across all three trials:
All three trials led to successful outcomes. “With the average rate of return at $US110, it was far more cost-effective than subsidising food,” Associate Professor Chowdhury says.
The team noticed another surprising result. “Once people are successful in migrating and getting a high return, then they go on their own and are successful again,” Associate Professor Chowdhury says. “They just needed to learn it for themselves.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Jakarta office, in collaboration with the Indonesian National Development Planning Agency, approached Associate Professor Chowdhury and his team to replicate the intervention in Eastern Indonesia. A successful pilot program of 400 households was conducted in 2017, and the team is now looking for funding to run further trials.
GiveWell, an American non-profit that assesses charities, rated the Seasonal Migration Program as highly effective. Evidence Action, an international NGO, is partnering with Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service, an NGO in Bangladesh, to scale up the travel subsidy program.
“It will benefit 400,000 households,” Associate Professor Chowdhury says. That’s right: 400,000 households. “Not bad at all,” he says quietly.