Beyond Mitigation: The Paradox of Freedom

By the time we arrived at the guesthouse it was already getting dark. We had spent most of the day in the truck and I was now tired. But the power was out, so we walked to the nearest tea stand and enjoyed a fresh cup of tea as we patiently waited for the lights to come back on. Waiting became a familiar activity during this particular visit, but I was happy to finally visit this remote project.

The north-western portion of Bangladesh is recognized as the poorest region in the country. It is characterized by an uneven distribution of land, unfavourable weather conditions, low levels of education, lack of industrialization, and rice mono-cropping. It is estimated that 65% of the population here are landless, and many of these people work as farm labourers in exchange for housing.

As a result there is a cyclical economic phenomenon that occurs between September and November, when the rice crop has been planted and there is a low demand for labour. This forces many of the men to migrate to the cities to look for work, leaving women and children vulnerable. The compounded effects of these conditions result in a season known as monga, which is a local term describing the economic deprivation caused by the lack of gainful employment resulting in a near famine situation.

Addressing this problem is complex, and the government requested NGOs to fill the gap; so MCC began working in the Nilphamari district in 2006.

In Bangladesh there is a severe shortage of fresh milk; therefore approximately 30% of the milk supply is imported. After much action research, it was determined that the most impactful means of addressing monga was through providing landless women with cows so that they could sell milk to supplement their income.

This approach is known as value chain development, and through MCC’s Monga Mitigation Project (MMP), an asset (cow) transfer was provided to the extreme poor. MCC then worked to develop market linkages for these farmers to sell their milk upmarket to milk processors, train support services like veterinarians, and also work to provide farmers’ access to improved input supplies.

As a result, the beneficiaries were able to increase their income, allowing them to improve their nutritional intake, housing, and pay for their children’s education.

Although the MMP has progressed successfully, we had come to this remote region to examine some of its bottlenecks in order to ensure its long term sustainability and to ensure the poor were included in this market system. At the end of the visit we had a better understanding of the nuances to the challenges that needed to be addressed.

As we arrived back at the guesthouse, we were informed that a hartel (general strike) was called for the following day. Consequently we would have to head back to the city that night, so we packed our things to leave. However, with the abrupt change of plans we would now have to transport some additional staff and equipment; so we waited as the necessary logistics were arranged.

As we waited, I noticed the caretaker bring his cow to tie up to a tree; so I quietly observed this beast of the field graze as far as the tether would let her. After some time, the caretaker returned and moved the cow to another tree, and so she seemingly mindlessly continued gratifying her immediate hunger.

As I witnessed this mundane activity, I was reminded of a story about the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar was a proud king, so God humbled him by taking away his sanity to metaphorically show him how he was acting. Thus Nebuchadnezzar mindlessly roamed the fields like a wild beast for seven years until he realized there was One greater than himself, at which God then restored his sanity and the humbled Nebuchadnezzar became an even greater king (for more on this story, see: Daniel 4).

Quotes 1The lyrics to a song by Canadian rapper K-os then came to mind: “I wanna swing my sword decapitate, but what is man if he acts like an ape?” (K-os, Man I Use To Be). Here K-os rhetorically contemplates the futility of unbridled freedom, of acting like a mindless beast, and thus hinting at the complex dynamics of freedom.

In his influential book Development as Freedom, Bengali economist and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Amartya Sen, argues that the purpose of development is to expand people’s freedoms.

Development can be seen… as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy… Growth of GNP [gross national product] or of individual incomes can, of course, be very important as means to expanding the freedoms enjoyed by the members of the society. But freedoms depend also on other determinants, such as social and economic arrangements… as well as political and civil rights… Similarly, industrialization or technological progress or social modernization can substantially contribute to expanding human freedom, but freedom depends on other influences as well
(Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, 3).

Sen believes that people should have the freedom of choice, though many are deprived of this ability. In the MMP, the lack of physical infrastructure was a major bottleneck that limited people’s economic freedoms, but there was also another major bottleneck that wasn’t as obvious. One of the consequences of prolonged economic poverty is that it leads to a poverty of the mind, thus limiting people’s freedom to make informed decisions.

Quotes 2When MCC began with its asset transfers, some recipients were unable to fully grasp the long term benefits of such an investment. Because they were free to choose, some people were tempted to simply sell their cows for immediate cash. Although cash is usually a good asset to have, saving too much can actually be detrimental; in economic theory this is known as the Paradox of Thrift as there is a risk that saving too much limits its productive use. In the context of the MMP, it was far more productive to invest in livestock. Therefore MCC spent time educating people that they would be better off looking at the long term rather than trying to only meet immediate needs. Paradoxically, by limiting their freedom, they were in fact expanding their freedoms.

Quotes 3In a recent sermon, the pastor of our church in Toronto, Sunder Krishnan, distilled down the understanding of freedom into two statements that eloquently express the tension: “Freedom is the joyful acceptance of divine limits. Freedom is wanting to do what you ought to do.” (To listen to the full sermon, check out: Illusions of Our Culture: Freedom).

Development interventions are brief, but the lasting change takes time and there are many variables that we cannot control. In Bangladesh, patience is often needed when waiting for the lights to come back on; patience is also needed for us to be enlightened to our limitations.

Through the MMP, MCC worked to provide people with economic freedoms they were once denied. This has enabled them to freely choose their limitations, thus enabling them to move beyond simply mitigating the impact of monga; they are now beginning to navigating the paradox to their freedom.  This is an ongoing process, and often it seems like we all are mindlessly gratifying the immediate. It is in these times that we can learn from the perspective of a psalm of David:

Many, Lord, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?” Let the light of your face shine on us. Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound. In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.
(Psalm 4:6-8).

As we work to implement change, we are humble to freely accept divine limits and are able to recognize God as the ultimate provider
2. We are safe as we frequently travel around Bangladesh
3. MCCB continues to transition well has there are many changes in how we approach our work on the horizon

Earlier this month we had a great visit from Erin’s parents. A good friend of Erin’s also came and surprised her!

Nishant (and Erin)

PHOTOS:Picture Banner 12Check out the full album at: November 2014


Here is the full song that I quoted from in the blog; it is about a man that has compromised his ways and laments the loss of innocence.



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