A Place at the Policy Table

Akhter Ahmed feeds the evidence into Bangladesh’s evidence-based policy process.

Akhter Ahmed

Akhter Ahmed

Bangladesh was spending millions of dollars in the early 1990s to subsidize food for poor rural people. It wasn’t working. By the time it reached the poor, the flood of rice that the government had procured for the program was only a trickle. As leader of a team of researchers charged with evaluating Bangladesh’s rural rationing program, Akhter Ahmed found that 70 percent of the subsidized rice went to people who did not qualify to receive it. The program was so inefficient that the government was spending 6.25 takas for every 1 taka it delivered in benefits.

In response to these findings, the government scrapped the program in 1992, but it still needed an alternative safety net for millions of extremely poor people. And it needed to dispose of the tons of rice it was acquiring through public procurement channels. “So much rice was piling up in government warehouses because the major outlet was shut down,” says Ahmed. “Rice was rotting.”

So the government asked for help designing a new, more cost-effective safety net program. Ahmed joined other researchers from IFPRI and elsewhere to lay out options, including one approach that had never been tried. Why not tie the distribution of food to families’ enrolling their children in school? The resulting Food for Education program, developed jointly by the government of Bangladesh, IFPRI, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and other development partners and launched in 1993, was the first conditional food transfer program of its kind and became an internationally recognized flagship for innovative social safety net programs.

Nearly a quarter century later, Ahmed serves as chief of party of IFPRI’s Policy Research and Strategy Support Program in Bangladesh, which is funded by USAID. When policymakers have questions about food and agricultural policy options, Ahmed and his team dig for answers.

Right People, Right Place, Right Time

Looking back on his early career, Ahmed says he had the good fortune to “meet the right people in the right place at the right time.” Born and raised in the capital city, Dhaka, he grew up admiring his father, who worked for the country’s Ministry of Agriculture. Ahmed enrolled in the national agricultural university, where he studied agricultural economics. Soon after completing graduate studies at the national university, he accepted a position with USAID in Dhaka.

Part of his new job was to take visiting consultants out into the field, and it was in this capacity that he first crossed paths with two US-based professors who invited him to complete a second master’s degree and PhD at Cornell University and Colorado State University, respectively. While finishing up his doctoral research on the economics of irrigation in Bangladesh, Ahmed received a call from an IFPRI researcher for a job interview. Soon after, Ahmed joined IFPRI and was posted in Bangladesh where the study on Bangladesh’s subsidized food program was his first project.

Akhter Ahmed visits with Bangladeshi farmers.

Getting Help to Those Who Need It

Bangladesh’s Food for Education program was groundbreaking. A study led by Ahmed found that not only did it effectively target and reach poor families with limited access to food, but it also raised school enrollment and attendance, particularly among girls, who often are the first to be pulled out of school in times of hardship. These dual impacts—providing immediate sustenance for the hungry and empowering future generations by educating today’s children—have been cornerstones of Ahmed’s work on human development.

At the global level, Ahmed has become a leading expert on the fate of the so-called “ultra poor”—people living at or below 50 cents a day. While progress has been made in pulling people living on less than a dollar a day out of poverty, for the ultra poor progress has lagged. At a 2007 IFPRI-organized conference, Ahmed presented a compelling case in favor of scaling up efforts to reach the ultra poor through various development assistance programs.

Today, Ahmed reports, the situation is improving. In 2012, he designed and led an experimental project called the Transfer Modality Research Initiative (TMRI). Implemented by the World Food Programme in Bangladesh, the joint project benefited 4,000 ultra-poor women and their 21,000 family members over a two-year period. An evaluation showed that when programs combine safety net transfers with nutrition education for mothers and community leaders, the impact on children’s nutrition is remarkable. “I am highly encouraged by the research findings,” says Ahmed. “But it gives me even more satisfaction when I visit the project villages and see the happiness in those beneficiary families.”

In the Situation Room

In 2011, the government of Bangladesh asked Ahmed to draft a concept note for a new unit—a kind of “situation room” for agricultural policy planning—within the Ministry of Agriculture. The Agricultural Policy Support Unit (APSU) was born the following year. The APSU involves both IFPRI staff and government officials, who analyze policy issues, offer policy options, and evaluate the impacts of policies. “The APSU also serves as a data source for other institutions wishing to conduct their own research,” says Ahmed.

APSU analysis has helped shape the ministry’s priorities. Since March 2014, the APSU has considered 246 Ministry of Agriculture programs and projects and selected 147 of them—with a total budget of US$2.04 billion—for implementation over the next five years.

Reviewing the APSU’s work, Minister of Agriculture Matia Chowdhury praised its high quality while emphasizing her ministry’s commitment to enacting research-driven policies. In this sense, says Ahmed, Bangladesh is an outlier: “Successive governments have tended to follow evidence-based policy. I’ve worked in many other countries, and I’ve not seen this level of willingness to use research for policymaking in any of them.”

Bangladesh’s reliance on research and evidence has already helped it cut poverty significantly—between 2000 and 2014, the country’s poverty rate fell from 49 to 26 percent. Moving forward, Ahmed hopes to leverage the APSU not only to scale up important initiatives, but also to undertake projects on, for example, empowering women as a way of strengthening linkages between agriculture and nutrition. “This would be a remarkable achievement,” he says, “and would really add to the evidence base of what works by helping those in the greatest need.”

Photo credits (top to bottom): IFPRI/M. Mitchell; F. Khan

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FEATURE: Millions of poor people around the world are enrolled in safety net programs that hand out cash or food. What’s the best way to design these transfer programs?