About the Author: Ertharin Cousin serves as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies in Rome.
Hearing a classroom of the poorest of Bangladeshi schoolchildren sing “We Shall Overcome,” first in Bangla and then in English, provided an emotional yet joyful beginning to my final day in the field. We visited the Follatahat Bangladesh Government Primary School and met with student beneficiaries of the World Food Program's (WFP) school feeding program. Our traveling team received a briefing on the latest results of this USDA-funded program. I was delighted to learn that since 2002, when the program began, beneficiary schools such as Follatahat have seen enrollment increase by 16 percent, attendance increase by 14 percent, and dropout numbers decrease by 10 percent. These figures represent hard evidence of the positive results derived from providing these nutritious energy-packed biscuits to the Bangladeshi schoolchildren.
The government of Bangladesh recognizes the current success and future potential of the school feeding program. In fact, it recently announced plans for a 2011 launch of a complementary school feeding program with an initial goal of reaching an additional one million school children. Government officials informed us that their long-term strategy includes a nationwide, country-operated school feeding program. Having recently participated in the pride-filled Cape Verde school feeding handover program from WFP, I look forward to any future opportunity to celebrate such a moment with the Bangladesh government. During my journey through this beautiful country, I witnessed a strong will and determination by the people as well as the government to lift their nation up from food insecurity and poverty. The government's desire to eventually take over their country's school feeding program represents just one example.
I also witnessed a number of commonalities between Americans and Bangladeshis. Particularly, I noticed many Bangladeshis share our strong entrepreneurial spirit. This entrepreneurial spirit supports agricultural development across the entire value chain. It drives the poorest rural farmers to perform the work that enables them to feed their families today, while they acquire new skills, training and support that will create the value-added products or services to feed, clothe, educate and provide more opportunities for the entire family.
Programs such as USAID's Poverty Reduction by Increasing the Competitiveness of Enterprises (PRICE) support 18,400 Bangladeshi shrimp farmers by training and teaching them about improved shrimp/prawn farming technologies. We visited a PRICE shrimp/prawn farm to learn more about how Bangladeshis are increasing the productive capacity of their aquaculture farms while simultaneously enhancing the quality standards of product raised for delivery to local processors and destined for eventual sale on the export market. Surprisingly, despite limited land available for aquaculture programs, some farmers tripled their yields after participating in the PRICE program. The Bangladesh shrimp and frozen food export industry annually generates over USD 500 million. The increased quality and quantity of the shrimp for the industry is vital.
After leaving the shrimp farm, we toured a USAID PRICE shrimp processing plant. This plant purchases, processes, and markets shrimp from local farmers like the ones we met earlier in the day. PRICE provides the plant with consulting assistance and training on issues related to food safety. We experienced first-hand the company's commitment to meeting these global food safety requirements, as we were required to don our gear and wade through chlorinated water in knee-high boots before being permitted entry into the plant's processing area. The plant's staff of 155, most of whom are women, were diligently working to ensure the delivery of quality products for the export market, another link in the agricultural value chain. The Bangladeshi government and private sector are committed to investing in programs like PRICE across the entire industry. This will ensure not only the industry's positive reputation but also their continuing to meet the highest quality and product safety standards, from beginning to end, starting with quality shrimp larvae to safe and clean packaging of the final frozen products. After our processing plant tour, the owners cooked up some of this locally-grown shrimp for us. Delicious!
As I conclude my Bangladesh trip, I will always remember the rural schoolchildren who sang for me a song of hope. They personified this hope when, in response to my question "what do you want to be when you grow up?" each boy or girl answered with either "a doctor" or "a teacher". These children really do believe that in spite of their too-often hungry bellies that they "will overcome." I commend all the farmers, entrepreneurs, public servants in the Bangladeshi government, the UN organizations, donors, and civil society, as well as my U.S. government colleagues, all working together each and every day to ensure the reality of a better tomorrow for these children and so that Bangladesh "shall overcome."You can read about the start of Ambassador Cousin's trip here, and her visits to other food security programs in Bangladesh here. You can learn more about global hunger and food security here.