Ch 1. Downing College

Ch 2. Gold Coast/Ghana

Ch 3. East Pakistan

Ch 4. Zambia

Ch 5. Bangladesh

Ch 6. Retirement

Ch 7. Afterthoughts

 

Ch 5. Agricultural Development Adviser in Bangladesh 1974−1987

 

Transition

When I left Zambia in January 1974, FAO had planned to keep me in Africa and, after my home-leave, send me to Sierra Leone. I welcomed that opportunity, to work on some of that continent’s poorest soils in the hope that I could find ways to increase agricultural production on them: (in those days, our sole objective was to ‘develop’ soils for agricultural production; preservation of the natural environment was not then a planning objective).

 

But that was not to be. At the request of the World Bank, FAO immediately sent me from Zambia to the new Bangladesh to help resolve a controversy that had arisen between an official view that the new, IRRI (International Rice Research Institute), high-yielding rice varieties (HYVs) could be grown only under irrigated conditions, and a lay view that the new varieties could be grown under rainfed conditions wherever traditional varieties were already grown. I was tasked with reviewing our soils information to resolve the controversy. I was given two months for the task; in the event, it took four.

 

With a Bangladeshi soil survey counterpart, I went through all our crop suitability assessments, interviewed rice research specialists and experienced Agricultural Extension staff, and made relevant field visits. I came up with much the same conclusions as the lay advocates: 6.1 million acres suitable under rainfed conditions in the pre-monsoon aus season and 6.6 million acres in the monsoon aman season, with almost 3 million acres suitable for double cropping of HYV aus-HYV aman. This, I should add, was before the potential to expand HYV boro rice cultivation in the dry season with groundwater irrigation was realised. In 2015-16, Bangladesh had nearly 12 million acres under boro paddy (99% HYV), 13.8 million acres under aman (73% HYV) and 2.5 million acres under aus (80% HYV). Annual rice production (34.7 million tons in 2015-16) has almost kept pace with the tripling of the human population since I first went to Dhaka in 1961 (though how much I had to do with that is quite uncertain!).

Getting involved

After the HYV rice assessment, I went on my delayed home-leave. Inevitably perhaps, I was then invited back to Bangladesh to help implement the recommendations that I had made. That opened up a wholly new career for me. On my return to Dhaka in September 1974, I began working as an adviser to the Secretary for Agriculture, Mr Anisuzzaman, who coincidentally had taken over as Secretary on the day I first went into the Secretariat building to meet him. We worked closely together for most of my remaining 13 years in Bangladesh as he moved from Agriculture Secretary to Rural Development Secretary and then to Chairman of the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (responsible inter alia for distributing small irrigation pumps, fertilisers and new HYV seed). This was both a novel and a frustrating experience. The Secretary liked to hold large gatherings around his desk, and seemingly needed 50 opinions before he would take a decision. On the other hand, he was an enthusiastic field visitor, and during his five years as Agriculture Secretary we spent much time, weekdays and weekends alike, visiting low-lift pump irrigation sites, agricultural research stations and seed multiplication farms. He was an ardent fan of ‘Yes Minister!’, requesting me to tune into radio repeats as we travelled.

Almost my first task on my return from home-leave, however, was to help organise an agricultural rehabilitation programme following the severe flood in 1974 (that was later followed by a famine). That involved working with other agricultural agencies in assessing crop damage and arranging relevant programmes to help affected farmers to grow crops in the following dry season. Over the years, I gained considerable experience in helping to organise such programmes, and one of the achievements of which I am most proud was, in 1980, drafting a Drought Code, then a Flood and Cyclone Code, on the pattern of the earlier Indian Famine and Relief Codes, setting out procedures for agricultural officials, local government councils and NGOs to help farmers to avoid or minimise disaster impacts and to recover from crop losses after disasters: (the two codes are summarised in Brammer, 1999).

An early activity, too, was organising and participating in task forces to assess progress with, first, the HYV aman rice programme, then subsequently an HYV wheat expansion programme. By 1974, the area under HYV aman (the main monsoon season rice crop) was reported to be 2.2 million acres. I organised multidisciplinary teams to visit each of the country’s four regions to assess actual achievements and joined one of the teams. In the first Union (lowest administrative unit) that we visited, the Agricultural Assistant could not show us more than 2 or 3 acres of the 2,000 acres that he had reported to be under HYV rice. In one Thana (the next higher administrative unit), we found that the 1,000 acres the Thana officer had reported had been increased to 10,000 acres at District level. And so it went on. We had to be discreet in our report; but, privately, I told the Secretary that I did not think there was as much as 1 million acres of HYV aman. It took some years for reality to catch up with the reported achievement

I was closely involved in operating the World Bank-promoted Training & Visit (T&V) System in the 1970s. This system did, I think, provide a better sense of purpose to Extension activities than existed earlier. But I found that, as operated, it was not well adapted to the complex farming systems of Bangladesh. I recall on one field visit observing farmers harvesting wheat, then finding the Thana Agricultural Officer at the next place where I stopped telling farmers about pest control in wheat because that was the subject planned for teaching that fortnight in instructions received from on high. Operated bureaucratically, the system did not allow for local flexibility. Cooperation between Extension, Research and input supply agencies was also difficult to achieve: like trying to coordinate negatively-charged particles I once reported.

Throughout, I continued to assist and review the field programmes of the agricultural research and extension agencies. That entailed frequent travel, alone or with Government ministers or officials; (on one trip, I recall persuading a junior minister to state “no representation without taxation” in his speech to assembled local council members!). In all, I visited virtually all of Bangladesh’s near-500 Thanas (now Upazilas) during my two innings in East Pakistan/Bangladesh, an invaluable information resource in my advisory role, both then and after my retirement.

Other activities

In 1979, Mr Anisuzzaman, by then Secretary for Rural Development, sought to revive the Comilla model of local development planning that had been set up by Akhter Hamid Khan in the 1960s but which had virtually collapsed after Independence in 1971. For two years, with help from two officers from the soil survey organisation (SRDI), I organised two-week courses at the Comilla Rural Development Academy (and later at the Agricultural University at Mymensingh) for successive groups of Thana (subdistrict) councillors and officials to show them how to use the information in soil survey reports for local land use planning (described in Brammer, 2002). In all, about 400 councillors and officials from 94 Thanas were trained, but full national implementation was stopped by a military coup in 1981, (one of several coups I experienced in East Pakistan/Bangladesh).

Involvement in the rehabilitation programme after the 1974 flood disaster had brought me into close contact with NGOs. That was a time of intensive development activity in Bangladesh. A charismatic former high-ranking government official, Mahbubul Alam Chasi, was then vigorously promoting a village self-help programme (Swanirvar Bangladesh) outside official procedures, which I helped by preparing a village land-use planning manual. Also, hundreds of NGOs were doing their own thing, operating independently of government policies and plans. I regularly attended meetings of ADAB (Agricultural Development Agencies in Bangladesh) and, throughout my second innings in Dhaka, wrote articles for their monthly newsletter ADAB News. That was a way not only to inform NGOs of my technical information; it was also a way for me to think through my field observations and ideas. In all, I wrote over 60 articles for ADAB News; I also wrote 100 technical guides for planning, research and extension staff and 28 conference papers. This ‘grey literature’ provided invaluable material when I came to write up my experience in the first six books that I produced on soils, disaster preparedness and agricultural development in Bangladesh after I retired.

 

It wasn’t all fieldwork, of course. I recall making trips to attend meetings in New Delhi and Bangkok; visiting Hong Kong en route to or from three meetings that I attended at IRRI in the Philippines; making an extensive tour in China with a group of UN friends from Dhaka just before the end of the Cultural Revolution (a visit which the Chinese refused to recognise was unofficial, so we were given the full official treatment, speeches, toasts and all); visiting Bhutan, Assam and Meghalaya (including Cherrapunji: Figure 5.1) on holiday with continuing Hove friends Edward and Mavis Clay; and having a long holiday touring in Oregon and Wyoming, and visiting ex-Kumasi and Chittagong Hill Tracts friends in Vancouver (three times, in fact, over the years).

 

Figure 5.1. Visiting the world’s wettest meteorological station at Cherrapunji − on a dry day

Reminiscences of a career in Geography

Agroecological Zones Project

From 1979 until I left the country in 1987, I also managed the FAO/UNDP Agroecological Zones Study in addition to my role as Agricultural Development Adviser. We filled a room with the huge computers of that time, trained staff – including the first young professional women in the department – and input the huge amount of soils data collected in the 1960s and early 1970s together with available climate and hydrological data in order to make a comprehensive assessment of the country’s agricultural development potential. That provided the data base for national and regional agricultural development planning for many years to come.

 

It is rare for a soil surveyor to see his data used and recommendations implemented. Usually, one moved on to new surveys, often in a different country, leaving behind a report that probably merely gathered dust because no-one knew how to use the information. I was fortunate to return to Bangladesh, therefore, and fortunate, too, that FAO did not move me on after the usual maximum assignment of five years in a country (though they tried). But government requested that I stay, and it suited me to stay where I felt I could be most useful. I was honoured by receiving the Bangladesh President’s Gold Medal for Agriculture in 1979, FAO’s B.R. Sen Award in 1981 ‘for the field officer who has made the most outstanding contribution to the advancement of the country to which he/she has been assigned’, and the O.B.E. on my retirement in 1987.

 

Figure 5.2 Receiving the B.R. Sen award from Eduard Saouma, FAO Director-General, 1981

I did not feel ready for retirement at 62, FAO’s mandatory retirement age. But, instead of the garden with a cottage attached that I thought lay ahead, another 30-year career unexpectedly opened up, to be described in the next chapter.

 

 

References

Brammer H. 1999 Agricultural disaster management in Bangladesh. University Press Ltd, Dhaka

 

Brammer H 2002 Land use and land use planning in Bangladesh. University Press Ltd, Dhaka