Healthy diet: Development must benefit all

The second point of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for ending hunger by ensuring that everyone in the world can afford nutritious food by 2030. The SDGs were announced in 2016 after the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were met in 2015. Bangladesh is one of its signatories.

Bangladesh’s progress in achieving the Millennium Development Goals in alleviating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, empowering women, reducing infant mortality and improving maternal health has been remarkable. The progress is better than many developing countries. Naturally, Bangladesh will do well in achieving the SDG targets—at least that is expected. Our progress in many sectors including agriculture is commendable.

In this context, the picture regarding healthy diet revealed by the World Bank is not only unwarranted but also a matter of concern. The report titled 'Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals 2023' says, “Nearly 121 million people in Bangladesh cannot afford healthy diet.”

Recently, the World Bank published a report assessing the progress of various countries in achieving the 17 sustainable development goals. With the latest census indicating a population of 170 million in Bangladesh, the report reveals that two-thirds of the population cannot access healthy food. Among the countries listed, Bangladesh follows India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, and China, which have larger populations. SDG's second goal of achieving zero hunger cannot be met without access to healthy foods.

The fact that two-thirds of the population in Bangladesh cannot afford healthy or nutritious food is highly alarming, as it contradicts the narrative of development often touted by government policymakers. The government asserts that approximately 20 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, which implies that they are unable to afford nutritious food.

As part of a government initiative, around 10 million impoverished and underprivileged families receive ration cards for the provision of essential food items at a reduced cost. This distribution program acknowledges the inability of this significant segment of the population.

According to a separate report, 11.3 per cent of the population in Bangladesh faces extreme poverty and is unable to afford the nutritious food they require. The list of essential nutritious foods includes rice, bread, vegetables, fish, meat, milk, eggs, and oily foods, with an estimated cost of Tk 174 per day for a family. However, many individuals cannot afford to allocate that amount of money towards their food expenses.

The issue of unaffordable healthy food has existed even before the recent circumstances. With the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict causing a surge in the prices of daily essentials, the poor, individuals with low incomes, and those belonging to the lower middle class are finding it increasingly difficult to purchase the necessary nutritious food. Their incomes are not keeping pace with the rate of inflation.

Despite Bangladesh’s remarkable economic progress, only a handful of people are reaping the benefits due to extreme disparity while the majority continue to struggle. To achieve a hunger-free Bangladesh by 2030, priority must be given to increasing the purchasing power of the majority of the people, with government policies and planning focused on their welfare.