DHAKA — Millions of impoverished Bangladeshis are barely sustaining a hand-to-mouth existence that would be wrenched from their grasp by any fresh "economic shock," according to the UN food aid agency.
World Food Programme (WFP) country head John Aylieff said two million children aged under five in Bangladesh are suffering from acute malnutrition, which by World Health Organization standards represents a "nutritional emergency."
"The population is beyond the razor's edge, so that any other economic shock is going to have an immediate and direct impact on malnutrition," Aylieff told AFP.
Bangladesh was cushioned from the worst ravages of the global financial meltdown, but experts warn remittances and exports could be badly hit towards the end of this year.
In addition, the WFP is facing a global funding crisis, raising only 3.7 billion of the 6.7 billion dollars needed for its food assistance programmes worldwide in 2009.
In Bangladesh, it had planned programmes to help 6.9 million "completely destitute" people this year, but Aylieff said four million fell through the funding net.
"These are the bottom of the poverty scale. These are the ones micro-credit institutions wouldn't dream of looking at," Aylieff said.
Food prices in Bangladesh almost doubled in 2008 after the country's grain production was devastated by major flooding and a catastrophic cyclone the previous year, pushing an extra 7.5 million people below the poverty line, according to the WFP.
Aylieff said most of those people were still suffering even though prices had eased.
Despite economic growth of six percent a year in the past five years the benefits have not trickled down to the poorest.
"What is unpredictable is what will happen in the garment industry. One family member works in Dhaka and supports a whole family," he said.
Clothing exports hit a record high of 12.35 billion dollars in the financial year to June 30. But July showed a seven percent dip year-on-year.
"Another economic shock, even if it was smaller in size from the high food price crisis, would result in a direct and immediate impact on malnutrition, which is already above the emergency threshold," Aylieff added.
The Bangladeshi government estimates the number of overseas jobs for its workers has plunged 30 percent from January to August as major job markets in the Middle East, Malaysia and Singapore were battered by the global downturn.
Monthly remittance figures to Bangladesh -- about 10 percent of its annual gross domestic product -- have been hitting record figures in recent months but the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank have all forecast a slowdown.
Bangladesh, which has a population of 144 million, is one of the world's poorest countries, with 65 million people -- or 45 percent -- living below the poverty line, according to the WFP.
Aylieff said unless more funding came forward, programme cuts would affect people who could already barely feed themselves.
"If you're already spending 85 percent of your income on food and the price goes up there is nowhere else to go, you can only cut your consumption of food," he said.
"That's what all of the ultra poor did during the high food price crisis last year and that's why we see such a huge spike in malnutrition."
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