The country's social safety net programmes (SSNPs) meant to support the vulnerable communities appear to have remained confined to their lofty objectives, devoid of any discernible mechanism to monitor targeted effectiveness. The government has been dishing out resources in cash and kind for long, particularly in times of disasters--- reinforced far more in the current corona situation, but while the modus operandi has often been found to be too lacklustre and leak-prone, the achievements in terms of meeting the goals are barely near-satisfactory.
The question how far the government's social safety net programmes are well-directed has remained unanswered ever since the programmes got launched decades back. While there have been reports of rampant mismanagement and corruption for long, the key issue remains the very legitimacy of dubbing the programmes pro-poor. In a country like Bangladesh with varying levels of poverty and disadvantages afflicting the masses, it is too much to ask for a cure-all solution from the government to address the plight of disadvantaged groups across the country. However, given the magnitude and expanse of poverty and manifold hardships, it is indeed expected that, however small or less than adequate, the programmes should reach the target groups. Think tank Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) had revealed in one of its studies sometime ago that around 65.6 per cent of the country's households that receive financial assistance under the government's SSNPs are ineligible for the scheme as they belong to the non-poor category. The study was conducted on the efficiency of delivery mechanism of five leading SSNPs in the country, and it was found that most beneficiaries were selected through political considerations and nepotism. The five SSNPs are: maternity allowance for poor mothers, primary school stipend programme (PESP), secondary school stipend programme (SESP), employment generation programme for the poorest (EGPP) and old age allowance.
According a Planning Commission text, SSN programmes consist of three main types: food assistance programmes, cash benefits and other poverty alleviation activities. There are currently 18 SSN programmes that fall under these three broad categories. The curious thing is that almost a third of the total SSNP budget is used to pay the pension of retired government employees and their families. This makes the allocated resource much smaller than it appears. The government allocates around 2.0 per cent of the country's GDP for SSNPs but the size of this fund is rendered too insufficient to meet people's needs, especially after deduction of pension disbursements for government employees. While funding the pensioners forms part of the SSN programmes, it must be kept in mind that pensioners, given their long tenure of employment, are in most cases better off than others who seek support from the programmes. Ideally, it would have been better to separate the pensioners from the rest of the beneficiaries in order to determine actual targeting of vulnerable groups.
Beside this lacuna in modelling of the SSNPs, there are other problems deeply imbedded in the programme delivery mechanism that have hold them back from what they were meant to be. It is pretty well known that a poor or a disadvantaged person has little chance of making it to the list of beneficiaries unless aided by the middlemen who acting as agents of local political elements often play a foul role. There are also allegations that people who deserve to be beneficiaries of SSNP are often put under the scanner of their political affiliations too.
Experts have often pointed out wrong targeting and lack of institutionalsing the entire gamut of activities associated with the SSNPs as at the root of their ineffectiveness. There is thus the need to develop an authentic database as a starter, which of course should take into account the criteria of targeting, depending on the economic life of the areas concerned-- cropping pattern, employment opportunities, scope for income generation and so on. Involvement of all relevant stakeholders including local administration, locally elected bodies and a representative group of the beneficiaries under a framework of collective accountability may be helpful to make some meaningful progress. Monitoring of the activities, especially of disbursements, must form a key component of the institutionalising process.
Referring to the wrong modelling and mismanagement, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has recently stated that Bangladesh can save about $4.0 billion annually, if it can remove the errors and leakages in the SSNPs and substantially cut administrative and transaction costs. Under the financial assistance of the ADB, the government is going to initiate a project to bring large-scale reforms to the SSNPs. To start with, the project envisages creation of an integrated registry for all beneficiaries by June 2023 to avert mistargeting and duplication. According to a report prepared by the ADB in this regard, creating a single registry of beneficiaries, consolidation of programmes and digitalisation of payments might save around $1.75 billion a year on account of reduced administrative costs alone. Coupled with this, savings from leakage and mismanagement would amount to a total saving of around $15.95 billion in the next five years. It may be noted that the government has allocated Tk 1076.14 billion for the safety net programmes for the current fiscal 2021-22. The integrated registry system will manage various programmes with an integrated entry point of social protection beneficiaries so that targeting or selection of beneficiaries is not affected. According to the ADB, nearly 80 per cent of the SSNPs involving cash-based benefits could be managed under the integrated registry system by June 2023.
It is high time the government took decisive moves in remodelling the SSNPs. Clearly, a digital single registry would go a long way in eliminating many errors before rendering the programmes transparent and effective.