Author: Md. A. Halim Miah, Knowledge Service Coordinator (Operations), Practical Action Bangladesh, January 27 2015 - One of the major challenges of poverty reduction initiatives in Bangladesh is exploring the multifaceted nature of poverty. The [economically] poor and their poverty are not homogeneous but varied in nature, severity and magnitude. In the early 1990’s, policymakers, academicians and researchers could not identify these diversities of poverty and, particularly, the varied dimensions of poverty. Therefore, due to a lack of empirical and ethnographic research, it has not been possible to understand local problems, diverse peoples, and their occupations, in relation to their environment and culture diversity, ethnicity and marginalization, and geographical remoteness and the state’s structural injustice, in attempting development work. Especially challenging is the traditional development bias for rural settings, particularly the perception that [economically] poor people live only in rural areas.

Very recently, I carried out two studies which had the goal of ensuring basic primary education for the children of marginalized communities. One of these was for the BRAC Advocacy department - mainly secondary research with a view to development of an Advocacy and Behavioural Change Communication Program emphasizing the Education Extension Services (2013). Another one was an ethnographic study on child labour in the northern districts in Bangladesh. This study was conducted for a DFID [Department for International Development – United Kingdom]-funded extreme poverty reduction program called Shiree. Shiree has been implementing many innovative projects for extreme poverty reduction in Bangladesh, and it is one of the projects with Practical Action Bangladesh’s Pathways From Poverty, where households displaced due to riverbank erosion are being lifted out of extreme poverty through innovative sustainable livelihood options and technologies. 

Children of extreme poverty are more likely to drop out from schools, a consequence of engagement in the labour market for supporting their [economically] poor parents. The Bangladesh Government has around 95 types of social safety net programs, with some for child protection like: the Primary Education Stipend Program, a stipend for girls studying at secondary education schools, and free books for children at school levels. But, while those protection programs are having many positive impacts on most of the children of extreme poverty, for those who live in embankments, the geographically marginalized, and families who are forced to migrate into urban areas for survival due to poverty, their children are lacking in attaining those services under social protection. It has been found that instead of expensive building projects and highly skilled teachers, what works is a low-cost place, very accessible to those children or within their reach, entertaining lessons, and building of the lower skills - plus giving empathetic care for these children - are very effective for enriching the outreach to children to support attaining literacy and numeracy skills. The one room school model of BRAC is the best example.   

Bangladesh is on track of attaining a 100% target of Primary School Enrollment. This is a national average, but, still, there are many pockets of children in haor [a wetland ecosystem in the north eastern part of Bangladesh - Wikipedia], highland, and char land [newly accreted land, or land emerging from water], as well as children whose households have been displaced internally. These are some major areas where the enrollment rate is far reaching its target. This location marginalization results from multiple marginalizations - social, cultural and mostly educational. Children living in those areas are being deprived of the rights of education, participation in other cognitive development, and the opportunity of obtaining livelihood skills.  

A recent ethnographic study of such displaced households in the northern districts of Bangladesh, entitled, "Cause and consequences of child labour in building economic resilience among the extreme poor households in northern Bangladesh" revealed that there were some children of those households who could not complete primary education. Some of the youth were employed in technical-skills-based enterprises and receiving more wage than their neighbour children who worked in on-farm or other similar work for daily wages, as they did not have minimum numeracy and literacy skills. They dropped out of their childhood schools very earlier. Basic literacy and numeracy skills could make a very big difference among the children of displaced households. Having skills in literacy and numeracy are very helpful to understand and calculate different measurements like drawing and utilizing scales in different kinds of artisanry and machine work. 

Therefore, development actors and policy makers should think beyond the MDGs to how to ensure basic primary education for all children. Respective policies are oriented there but need better implementation. Education Extension Services must be improved for the children of those geographical locations who are being marginalized educationally. Some mentionable initiatives for those marginalized children are: education extension activities, both from GoB [Government of Bangladesh] and NGOs, for example, Para school of UNICEF Bangladesh at hill tracts areas, boat schools of BRAC and some other NGOs at Haor and riverine areas, Reaching Out of School Children (ROSC) program of GoB through NGOs. A major challenge is the lack of community participation, but this is a must for success of those programs. Community awareness is required since parents of those communities are lacking in understanding the necessity of basic primary education. They are not able to understand how basic education can help even in their daily lives and livelihoods. They perceive that sending children to school is costly because, if they do not spend time in the classroom, then they could earn money for their households! Currently in pick season, a ten- twelve-year-old boy can earn eighty taka daily, where if he does not work, then this is a direct loss for his parents. In addition, there are some other direct costs involved with education which have to be borne by the children's family, like pens, pencils, exercise books, transport costs for schools at distance places, and, moreover, higher costs of private tutors, as teachers do not support completely the daily routine work for his or her class. These costs parallel increases as children’s educational level increases. However, Government has been providing free books for school children and a stipend, both of which are influencing an increase in enrollment and reduced dropout at schools, but these work mostly for the children of those households falling in the upper levels of [economic] poverty.

An education extension worker, like those in other extension services like health and family planning, agriculture and public health, is equally important, where education is the first and foremost technological means for achieving positive change for a person and his or her household and entire community. It does not need to be explained in what ways and how, quantitatively, an educated community can move towards development. We have an education policy and Compulsory Primary Education Law. Under this law, there are some important articles, like providing education extension services. This law reveals that: Under article one, in each primary school, a community has to form a committee led by an elected union parishad (local government) member and a school teacher who will play the role of member secretary. This committee will conduct a survey of children each year and identify children six years of age (declared minimum age for entrance into compulsory universal primary education) and provide a token punishment if any household will not enroll his/her child. Proper implementation of this existing Compulsory Primary Education Law can improve the lower Net Enrollment Scenario in those marginalized hot spots and bring success of achieving MDGs Goal two. 

As with any laws, if it is not implemented, they are worthless. Development activists, as well as concerned citizens, are aware about what massive efforts and resources and years have to be spent for enacting any law and policy, but, if it is not implemented at all, there is great frustration for the nation. So, the need is for planned social mobilization initiatives with specific roles and responsibilities of elected Union Parishad members to: implement the Compulsory Universal Primary Education Law, develop community awareness programs for sending children when they are six years old, and reinforce the notion to parents and their children at susceptible dropout times before the completion of primary education that children must continue schooling at any cost. For this social mobilization, education extension workers are needed.

Bangladesh spends less of its GDP [gross domestic product] in education compared to other SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] countries and even some East African countries like Kenya, and Tanzania. We are very close to the doorway of 2015, the target attainment year, but the reality is that we are not be able to reach those geographically and culturally marginalized communities within this time period for attaining indicator one of 100% net enrollment rate. Besides, the indicator two of this goal - children everywhere should "be able to complete the last grade of primary" - will be far from being reached in this short time period, as around forty percent of children drop out of school. Shall we do nothing? As concerned citizens, we can take part in this fight against illiteracy. We can work as Education Extension Workers. Fortunately, our children, who have already completed SSC [secondary education certificate], HSC [higher secondary education certificate] and await admission it the next grade, can take action for at least one household having a child of primary school age to support them with educational assistance. Schools and guardians of affluent areas can provide an education extension project for their children of upper grades, like junior secondary, and give them the assignment for the summer and other vacations of offering co-curriculum activities.

We are dreaming of becoming a middle income country, but there are 41% of people of 15-45 years of age who cannot read and write. With having millions people who cannot read and write, how can we improve our income? Due to ignorance, we lose our production in many ways; we suffer from illnesses due to improper health seeking behaviour and lose thousands of working days; and industries cannot produce quality products due to lack of a skilled labour force. The sixth five-year plan targets the manufacturing sector's GDP share to increase to 25% from the present 17.8% by the year 2015. In Korea, well-known for its knowledge economy, the increase in tertiary enrollment rates was from 39% to 80%. So, education is the only sector, like milk, which contains most of the ingredients which are required for balanced development, and government must increase budgetary allocations to this sector as the highest priority area to realize its constitutional obligation as well as chalk dream of becoming a middle income country by the year 2021.