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Reconstructing the Broken Moral Economy: The Origins of Non-State Social Action

The famine violated any lingering notions that benevolent patronage would protect the poor and vulnerable in times of crisis. The old moral economy was no longer functional, if it ever had been, because for the majority of the rural poor, the relations of production on which it rested and which it helped reproduce were gone.[1] The famine hit rural landless folk who usually depended on seasonal labour markets. The landless were rural proletarians: at the best of times they had employers, not the kind of patrons on whom they might depend for loans or grain in crisis times.[2] As had happened in 1943, the famine reinforced trends towards landlessness (Alamgir 1980) (BRAC 1992, 6). When the land goes, so do all possibilities of independence from the patron (although see Indra and Buchignani 1997). All of this is a far cry from the relatively flat social structure assumed by the Comilla model of rural development that had previously dominated thinking about the organization of peasant life (Abdullah 1974; Wood 1994). Into the breach left by this broken moral economy, at a time of authoritarian rule and political bankruptcy, came a new set of energies and organizations, initially financed substantially by non-state or charitable funds in aid donor countries and by domestic sources, including from the government, and only somewhat later by official aid.

The best-known activities of these organizations are rural credit or microfinance groups. In recent years, the Bangladesh microfinance industry has come under fire for promoting rural indebtedness and charging high interest rates (among other practices),27 but microfinance was once regarded as an alternative to exploitation by traditional moneylenders, in a context where control over rural credit is associated with patronage, land, and social and political power (see Bose 1986).

After the famine, rural social relations started to be recast as a site of exploitation and oppression, far from the idyllic Sonar Bangla of the Bengali cultural imagination. This meant a rewriting of the moral economy, or the rules of crisis protection, and was a matter of great significance even if rural harmony was more imaginary and symbolic than lived (Hossain 2005).28 growth rates and periodic natural disasters, and with relatively slow urban growth until the 1980s, rural landlessness had very likely been on the rise for generations by the time of the famine. Already by 1960, an estimated fifth of the rural population had no cultivable land of their own (Van Schendel 2009). Alienation from the land in East Bengal, or, more accurately, reliance on agricultural wage labour by rural people, was noted on a significant scale from at least the 1920s, and possibly earlier, increasingly dramatically in the 1940s;credit relations and the famine played an important part in dispossession and land control (Bose 1986). A 1978 land survey found that 29 per cent of rural people owned no arable land, and half of those no land at all (cited in Cain 1983). On the impacts of demographic and ecological change, and the 1943 famine, on moral economic institutions, see Greenough (1983);Greenough (1982).

  • 27 There is such an extensive body of critical literature on microcredit now that it is difficult to know where to start. A close-grained recent account that pulls no punches and benefits from many years of ethnographic field research is Karim (2011).
  • 28 Bengali literature had motifs of dispossession and destitution throughout the twentieth century, narrating the decline in Bengali peasant living standards from the late nineteenth century on. By the 1970s, Bengali literary fiction is exploring themes of peasant political autonomy, most famously in the writing of Mahasweta Devi (see Beck and Bose 1995). In cinema, Bengali auteurs Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen both made films about the 1943 famine in the 1970s, while Ritwik Ghatak dramatized rural poverty and displacement, often against a backdrop of the powerful rivers that are more actor than context in the lives of the rural poor. The wave of closely observed village or peasant studies of the 1970s and 1980s owes to a similar impulse. These studies contradicted the myth of harmonious peasant communities, stressing divisions and documenting mechanisms of exploitation, sometimes detecting in this rural proletariat signs of class-consciousness, in keeping with the Marxist tendencies in social science at the time and the realities of militant peasant struggles across Asia. See also Jahangir

By the late 1970s, the diagnosis was that current institutional arrangements fail to protect against the crises endemic to the environment. This is the biographical context in which the two major development initiatives on which some of Bangladesh's positive external reputation depends got their start. In his Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, Professor Yunus of the Grameen Bank relates the following:

Bangladesh has a massive poverty. When it became an independent country it was devastated by war. And bloodshed. And on top of it there was... massive poverty. And then came the famine in Bangladesh, in 1974. As a young teacher, teaching economics, telling the students that how wonderful that subject is, how elegant the theories are. And outside the classroom, the famine is raging. Then the frustrations come. What good these theories are, if its not working for people.

(7th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture Prof Muhammad Yunus 2012)

His biography gives a more graphic account:

The year 1974 was the year which shook me to the core of my being. Bangladesh fell into the grips of a famine ... They were everywhere. You couldn't be sure who was alive and who was dead. They all looked alike: men, women, children. You couldn't guess their age. Old people looked like children, and children looked like old people. The government opened gruel kitchens to bring people to specified places in town. But every new gruel kitchen turned out to have much less capacity than was needed...

One could not miss these starving people even if one wanted to. They were everywhere, lying very quiet.

They did not chant any slogans. They did not demand anything from us. They did not condemn us for having delicious food in our homes while they lay down quietly on our doorsteps.

There are many ways for people to die, but somehow dying of starvation is the most unacceptable of all. What a terrible way to die. It happens in slow motion. Second by second, the distance between life and death becomes smaller and smaller... I started to feel useless in the face of so many starving people pouring into Dhaka. Social organizations set up feeding centres in various parts of the city. Neighbourhoods made special efforts to find food for the hungry. But how many can one feed every day? Famine was spreading before our eyes in all its ugliness. (Yunus and Jolis 1999, 3-5)

These events caused him to question the value of economic theory, and to consider what practical action he could take. Yunus' accounts of how the thinking behind the Grameen Bank evolved emphasize the iterative process of his learning: he took his lessons directly from the people he sought to (1978);Thorp (1978); Arens and van Beurden (1977);Hartmann and Boyce (1983);Wood (1994). Adnan (1990) summarizes the key themes and debates of this body of literature.

serve ('I decided I would become a student all over again, and Jobra [the village in which he learned about rural usury] would be my university' (ibid., 5)) and saw the urgency of personal action of some kind and the need to make it last, not to create dependencies that would leave these people more vulnerable.

Biographical sketches of F. H. Abed, founder of BRAC, similarly cite the 1974 famine as a key event, but in his case it was the 1970 cyclone that put him on the path to founding BRAC. Like Yunus, Abed notes the need to learn, to diagnose a problem before he can act on it. He goes on to emphasize that BRAC early on set up a research unit to study the problems it sought to address; famine was one of the topics it studied:

In 1975 we set up this research department... And we did a series of monographs on who gets what and why, how resource flows through Bangladeshi villages, and how it is captured by groups who are powerful, and never gets into the hands of the poor... What happens during famine? Relationships break down. And there was a very interesting monograph written on what people feel and think about famine... All the men go away. When the men leave, women have to look after the malnourished children. The men leave because there's nothing to do in that area to earn money. They leave for the towns. (Harvard Business School 2014, 16)

The famine is a turning point for Abed, because he learned that they needed to work directly with women. Social norms or cultural tradition could not be allowed to get in the way, because unless they reached the women, they would not reach the people who needed their help the most. In a conversation I had with Abed in 2006, he recounted his surprise at the numbers of women who turned up for a food-for-work pilot project BRAC was developing with UNICEF. This was in late 1974, after the official end of the famine. Marty Chen, one of BRAC's earliest employees, has documented the episode. She noted that instead of the 100 women expected to come, 840 showed up, defying all norms about purdah and manual labour for women. This counter-cultural pattern recurred in 1975 and 1976 and into the late 1970s, until, Chen notes, researchers and practitioners were able to convince public policymakers (including then-President Zia Rahman) that women should be able to work on the schemes alongside men as a matter of public policy (Chen 1995). That poor rural women could and would come out to work made it clear that the famine had induced institutional innovation in gender relations—more practically, that poor rural women really, desperately needed the opportunity to work, in a context where the old forms of protection failed.[3]

  • [1] See Alamgir (1980) on the extent of gifts to famine victims. The BIDS survey found that peoplein famine areas were more likely to get charitable assistance from local sources, but the amountswere reported to be very small. Razzaque notes that during the famine, mortality rates increasedby 28 per cent even among the richer classes, based on analysis using the Matlab DHSS data(Razzaque 1989).
  • [2] By the 1970s, land frontiers had probably been reached across much of East Bengal, barringthe hill regions. In the absence of agricultural intensification, in the presence of high population
  • [3] See Kynch (1998) on how famine induces change in gender relations.
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