About the Author: Ertharin Cousin serves as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies in Rome.
How do you feed a country with half the population of the United States squeezed into an area the size of the state of Iowa? I went to Bangladesh to find out. I brought along two local reporters and a group of journalists from India, Zambia, Uganda, Guatemala, Malawi and Rwanda, places where feeding people is also a challenge. Yesterday ,we traveled from Dhaka to Khulna which will serve as our base from where we will visit projects led by the U.S. government and UN agencies, including the World Food Program (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
When I think of cookies, I usually think of an Oreo -- one of my favorites -- but for over a million children in Bangladesh, "cookie" takes on a whole new meaning. For these kids, special cookies jam-packed with vitamins and minerals provide over a third of their daily caloric intake. With support from WFP and USDA, the Central Marketing Company (CMC) in the southern district of Khulna and 11 other factories similar to it bake these cookies. We visited CMC to witness first-hand the making of these nutritious gems. Our traveling party donned hygienic lab coats, caps and booties and toured the simple but squeaky-clean factory with the local Bangladeshi owner. As only one of many CMC clients, WFP provides the factory with a vitamin and mineral pack that is blended together with fortified flour, contributed by USDA, to produce a simple yet tasty cookie. This nutritious cookie gives over 1 million Bangladeshi school children not just the energy they need to focus on their studies, but also, in far too many cases, their only nutritious meal of the day.
At the cookie factory, we spoke with female employees -- who comprise the majority of the factory's 400 employee workforce. The women told us that before coming to work at CMC they had no jobs and little means of earning money to feed their children. Now with their CMC income they have enough money to put food on the table. This family-friendly factory also offers free day care to those working moms -- giving the mothers the assurance that their children are safe and properly cared for while they are busy at work.
After the factory visit, we drove through the amazingly lush rice fields to see first-hand what a difference $100 can make in rural Bangladesh. We found out when we visited the next stop on our tour: a village participating in IFAD's Microfinance and Technical Support project. Seven years ago, Mrs. Golapi Biswas eeked out a meager subsistence living by selling vegetables from her home garden. When IFAD, through a local NGO, began a micro-credit program aimed at poverty-stricken women, Mrs. Biswas took out a $100 loan and started a fish farm. The fish not only provided protein to her family, and with money from fish sales she was able to expand into the poultry business. A regular borrower from the micro-credit facility -- Mrs. Biswas today has profits of $4,000 per year. This may seem like a small sum, but in a country where 40% of the people live on less than $2 a day, this is a veritable fortune. She has also been able to send one child to the city for higher education, has purchased land, and now has plans to expand her business even further.
Before heading off to the Khulna live bird market, I met with women from the "Marsh of Ghosts," which refers to an area of land lost from a tidal surge during Cyclone Aila. Bangladesh is plagued by natural disasters -- flooding often puts 30% of the country's landmass under water in what has become a "normal year." These women had just participated in training provided by FAO, funded by USAID in collaboration with the European Union. The training and asset distribution program helps these women recover and maintain their livelihoods after the devastating cyclone. Through the FAO program, each woman received 20 chickens, learned how to raise them in a clean environment, keep them healthy and protect them from the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus. After speaking with some of the women, I learned that their new chicken-raising businesses now allow them to feed their families, send their children to school, and plan for the future.
Back in Chicago, my chickens come wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic, de-feathered and ready to fry. At our next stop, I witnessed live chickens displayed in cages, selected by customers, and slaughtered on the spot. In the past, this live bird market in Khulna, with so many chickens in one place, faced the dangerous possibility of the spread of avian influenza. Now, through results from an FAO-USAID program, including improvements in marketplace cleanliness, disinfection and training of bird handlers, the threat of bird flu has been significantly reduced.
Needless to say, yesterday was filled with numerous examples of the positive impact the Rome-based UN agencies provide to the work of creating a food-secure Bangladesh. With the government, civil society, private sector, USAID and the other bilateral donor partners working together, partnerships are coming together to make a difference in Bangladesh.
Later today, I am looking forward to seeing the Sundarbans mangrove -- the largest in the world and home to the Royal Bengal tiger -- where we will experience how communities who depend on the mangrove for their income are learning new ways to earn a living, while simultaneously protecting this precious resource.
Stay tuned for more reports from Bangladesh tomorrow.
Read Ambassador Cousin's next entry from Bangladesh and learn more about global hunger, food security and the "1,000 Days: Change a Life, Change the Future" initiative.