All the grief coming out of Bangladesh in the wake of April’s Rana Plaza collapse has obscured one piece of good news. The World Bank quietly announced back in June that the country reduced the number of people living in poverty from 63 million in 2000 to 47 million in 2010. This sharp decline means Bangladesh will reach its first U.N.-established Millennium Development Goal, that of poverty reduction, two years ahead of the 2015 deadline. The country is also on course to lower its poverty rate — the proportion of the population living below the poverty threshold — to about 26%, an improvement on the original target of 29.5%.
The number of Bangladeshis living in poverty — defined as an income of less than $2 a day, or a diet of less than 2,100 calories daily — declined by 26% from 2000 to 2010, despite a growing population, which now totals some 150 million. “Bangladesh has successfully upgraded its economic growth rate every decade by 1%,” Debapriya Bhattacharya, a macroeconomist and policy analyst with the Dhaka-based Centre for Policy Dialogue, told TIME. “The major lesson that other developing nations should learn from Bangladesh is that the government cannot do this alone. The extent of poverty in developing nations is huge and the resources and capacity of the government minuscule. So social innovation and collaboration with the nonprofit sector is a must.”
With the loss of over 1,100 lives in the Rana Plaza disaster still a vivid horror for many Bangladeshis, the news of the country’s economic growth will be bittersweet, for it is the relentless desire to lift themselves from poverty that drives many to risk their lives in substandard and dangerous working conditions. But while the spotlight must firmly remain on an appalling work-safety record, some encouragement can be taken from the country’s performance in other areas. As well as achieving better “health outcomes” for its people, the World Bank report found that Bangladesh had also demonstrated “lower childhood mortality, increased under-five vaccination rates for all children, increased literacy rates, and improved safety net coverage.” General living conditions have also improved. In 2000, only 10% of those living in poverty had access to electricity. Ten years later, the percentage was 28.5. In 2000, poor Bangladeshis did not use mobile phones, but by 2010, 36.3% were in possession of one.
Rapid economic growth — GDP increased by an average of over 5.5% from 1994 to 2012 — has driven these improvements. Incomes in sectors from agriculture to casual transport like rickshaw-pulling have been rising by around 10% annually. And because fertility rates have been consistently falling for years, there is less pressure on resources and incomes, and there are more jobs to go around. “Earlier a family used to depend on one earning member,” the report said. “Now many have multiple earning members.”
But this being flood-prone Bangladesh, all gains are fragile; a single disastrous typhoon could consign thousands back to poverty. According to the 2010 household survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 17.6% were found to be “extremely poor” — keeping themselves just above the poverty threshold. “There are a lot of people hovering around the poverty line. If there is any kind of shock on the economy like a natural disaster it might bring these people sliding down,” Bhattacharya says. And therein lies an even bigger challenge for Bangladesh: the Rana Plazas can at least be foreseen and prevented, but no one knows when the next cataclysmic cyclone might strike.