Disaster, Displacement, And Dependency: An Analysis Of Environmental Displacement In Bangladesh


Climate change is an increasingly pressing global concern. The quickly rising population of environmentally displaced people (EDP’s) represent the human face of this complex crisis. Bangladesh is a particularly pertinent example of the interconnection between climate change and displacement. Due to its geographic location, lack of infrastructure and growing population, Bangladesh is widely recognized as one of the world’s most climate-sensitive countries. Flooding and tropical storms threaten the safety and livelihoods of many of the most vulnerable people of Bangladesh (Nishat & Mukherjee, 2013). Rising water levels ruin agricultural land and make many coastal communities unlivable, forcing many to leave their homes and move inland. Disasters, such as the severe Cyclone Ailsa in 2009, cause large scale displacement and require international aid (Torikul & Farjana, 2014). Despite a thriving clothing industry in and quickly rising GDP, poverty remains a widespread problem (Plowman, 2016). Here, I will argue that the environmental displacement suffered in Bangladesh stems from an exploitative global system which maintains Bangladesh’s position of underdevelopment. In the first section, I will explain the methodology I will be using, including the aspects of dependency theory which are pertinent to my arguments. In the second section, I will analyze environmental displacement through the lens of dependency theory.

First, dependency theory stems from Marxist ideology and offers a critique of the global capitalist system in which developing countries exist. This theory argues that the weak structural position of developing countries within the international economy prevents their overall political and economic development (Burnell, 2014). This lack of development is referred to as underdevelopment. In the view of dependency theory, developing countries cannot be viewed in isolation. Rather they must be considered with regard to their relationships with economic powers (Sørensen, 2011). Dependency theory categorizes countries as core or periphery, based on their role in the global economy. Each of these categories can be further divided into centre core (the wealthiest and most powerful countries or peripheral), periphery core, centre peripheral, and periphery peripheral (the least wealthy nations, who are most dependent on core countries). In this model, resources flow up through the hierarchy of countries to serve the needs of centre core countries. This division and flow of wealth exist within each country as well (Ferraro, 2008). Dependency theory explains the maintenance of this exploitative system in a number of ways. In this essay, I will identify the ways in which Bangladesh’s vulnerability to problems of environmental displacement can be linked to a hierarchical global division of labour. Then, I will address the effect of a transnational capital class vis-à-vis the exploitation of cheap labour on EDP’s. Finally, I will examine the exploitative system of international aid and investment that facilitates Bangladesh’s unfair interdependence.

Dependency theory was developed by Latin American scholars, beginning in the 1950’s and has most often been applied to Latin American countries (Ferraro, 2008). While it is a less dominant school of thought today, it offers insight into the sources of economic inequality. In this paper, I will seek to answer the question: how can environmental displacement in Bangladesh be explained using dependency theory?

Second, environmental displacement in Bangladesh can be linked an inequitable global system of capitalism. These climate-related challenges faced are in part a consequence of the exploitative nature of the hierarchical global division of labour. Centre-core countries like the United States rely on Bangladesh for cheap manufactured goods, particularly for manufactured clothing (Plowman, 2016). In order to produce goods at extremely low prices, fewer regulations and precautions are put in place in Bangladesh than would be in place in the United States (Torikul & Farjana, 2014). This means that Bangladesh suffers more from pollution and climate change, and has a weaker physical infrastructure for the benefit of Core countries (Torikul & Farjana, 2014). While it is core countries which are benefiting from the industrial production, it is Bangladesh, a periphery country that is suffering the consequences. The many problems faced by Bangladesh due to this industry affect its ability to develop. The workers in Bangladesh’s “thriving” factories have unsafe working conditions and menial wages, but are reliant on their jobs to survive and provide for their families (Plowman, 2016). This indicates that the global capitalist system is not benefiting the majority in Bangladesh. Rather, the exploitation of cheap labour in Bangladesh is furthering the divide between the wealthy and the poor globally.  Many workers are forced to work fourteen to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. These workers primarily make minimum wage, 200 taka, which is equivalent to $36.51 Canadian dollars a month. This is $29.20 Canadian dollars under what is considered to be a living wage in Bangladesh (“Sweatshops in Bangladesh”). Likewise, the hierarchical global division of labour results in a reliance on agriculture and subsistence living for many of the poorest people in Bangladesh (Nishat & Mukherjee, 2013). Due to the high pollution levels in industrial city centres, the prevalence and severity of natural disasters, such as floods have increased in coastal areas. These areas, already geographical hotbeds for natural disasters, are where the majority of subsistence communities exist (Nishat & Mukherjee, 2013). Flooding ruins farming land and forces migration towards city centres. Consequently, migrants must take jobs at highly unregulated factories, creating more pollution and leading to a cycle of exploitation and underdevelopment (Nishat & Mukherjee, 2013).

Similarly, the power of the transnational capital class maintains vulnerable cheap labours in Bangladesh and perpetuated the problem of environmental displacement. This global ruling elite collaborates for their own interests. Large corporations are able to lobby governments to control policy and regulation to benefit the transnational capital class. This class has more control than nations over globalization. Due to their stronghold over global wealth, they are able to largely control the economies and politics of underdeveloped nations. Despite the need for strict regulations to slow climate change and displacement, the transnational capital class is able to derail or ignore policies which protect the rights of vulnerable people and the environment (Sklair, 2002). For this reason, Bangladesh continues to suffer from displacement and the needed action is not being taken. The collusion of the transnational capital class, including the elite of Bangladesh, prevent equitable political and economic development in order to benefit themselves, maintaining systems which leave the country climate-sensitive and its people vulnerable to displacement. The devastating impact can be seen in the case of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. Many of the women working in this garment factory had come to the city after being displaced. With the loss of their homes due to flooding and the destruction of crops their families were employed to tend, their families were left indebted to landowners. These landowners, some of whom are part of the transnational capital class, further put the hardship of climate change on the poor by forcing them to pay for the loss of crops due to disaster (Plowman, 2016). This same transnational capital class was responsible for the poor working conditions and regulations which allowed women to be locked into a poorly built factory after it had given signs that it may collapse. The wealthy managers working in the factory left upon warning signs of collapse and were not harmed, leaving the poor workers to die (Plowman, 2016). This is indicative of the great collusion that goes to protect the wealth and lives of the elite, through the exploitation of the labour of the poor.

Also, Bangladesh’s position of underdevelopment is maintained through an exploitative effect of international aid and investment. Despite unequal trading conditions and exploitation, Bangladesh engages with the global economy. It is extremely difficult for countries to buy out of the global system of capitalism, especially when, like Bangladesh, they lack wealth and power to resist adopting liberal economic policies (Sørensen, 2011). Due to its perpetual underdevelopment, the country relies on international aid and financial support from international organizations like the IMF and World Bank, especially in times of crisis and disaster (Torikul & Farjana, 2014). This aid is only provided with certain conditions, which force Bangladesh to continue to participate in the exploitative system (Sørensen, 2011). These are known as structural adjustments programs. They force Bangladesh to implement liberal policies, including free trade, cutting of wages and social programs and privatization (Bhattacharya & Titumir, 2001). While these conditions are bolstered as beneficial for Bangladesh’s development, they have a negative effect on the general population and unequally benefit core countries. As well, problems of corruption often result in the loans being funnelled into the pockets of elites rather than towards the problem, such as environmental displacement, that the loan was given (Bhattacharya & Titumir, 2001). The debt compounds and Bangladesh remains indebted. Rather than spending its government funds toward development, it must divert this money towards debts to wealthy nations (Bhattacharya & Titumir, 2001). When countries and organizations provide specific aid to EDP’s, Bangladesh becomes more dependent on Core countries for support and infrastructure development (Sørensen, 2011).

A similar effect is caused by foreign investment in Bangladesh, and especially by foreign direct investment. It is cheaper to open factories in periphery peripheral countries than in core countries, so the elite will invest in Bangladeshi businesses. While some wealth is transferred through the employment of people, the majority of money returns to the core country, Bangladeshi people continue to be exploited for cheap labour and the country becomes more reliant on core countries for investment and the provision of jobs (Sklair, 2002).

In conclusion, environmental displacement in Bangladesh is perpetuated through a globally inequitable and exploitative system, which unfairly benefits Core countries and the transitive capital class. Through the analysis of dependency theory, the labour of the vulnerable working class of Bangladesh is exploited by the global elite. Due to the hierarchical global division of labour, farming and factory work falls to the poorest. This explains the vulnerability of Bangladesh’s poorest to displacement, since farming regions exist in coastal areas, prone to flooding and disaster, and which lack proper infrastructure. Likewise, this division of labour accounts for the exploitation of those displaced toward city centres who must take unsafe and low paying factory jobs to survive. These factories are highly unregulated due to the control of the transitive capital class, causing high levels of pollution, climate change and ultimately more environmental displacement. Each of these elements are part of the larger global system of capitalism which maintains Bangladesh’s persistent underdevelopment. Dependency theory’s ability to deconstruct the vulnerability of EDP’s in Bangladesh demonstrates its theoretical value to current global problems. As global warming progresses, environmental factors add another layer of necessary analysis to existing discussions about development and migration. The use of theories like dependency which are currently less commonly used may be helpful to gain a deeper understanding of this emerging field.

Rudi Barwin

Rudi Barwin

Rudi is a second year undergraduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is double majoring in Human Rights and Linguistics, and minoring in Economics. Her research interests include sexual violence, human rights and the role of language in the creation and normalization of political violence.
Rudi Barwin

About Rudi Barwin

Rudi is a second year undergraduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is double majoring in Human Rights and Linguistics, and minoring in Economics. Her research interests include sexual violence, human rights and the role of language in the creation and normalization of political violence.