4 months ago

Social safety nets need a comprehensive review

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There is a noticeable surge of interest in Social Safety Nets (SSNs), not only in case of the government's poverty alleviation initiatives but also in public discourse. Despite the absence of studies on the performance of the SSN programmes, there's a common belief that despite their inherent challenges, they play a significant role in preventing a general decline in poverty rates and supporting specific sectoral activities.

A critical item on the agenda for the new government should be a thorough reassessment of SSN programmes. It is imperative to implement measures that enhance their effectiveness in an inclusive and expanded manner, catering to the evolving needs of target groups, including those affected by the Covid pandemic and ongoing inflationary pressures.

Introduction of SSNs, despite many drawbacks, is a great respite for many households across the country. Although the government is trying to expand the programmes to various vulnerable groups, and no doubt, this has been achieved to some extent, there are still large segments of the eligible population not covered by the programmes. Given the existing coverage, mismanagement is commonly alleged for less than desired delivery of the programmes which, needless to say, include corruption, nepotism, absence of proper monitoring etc.

The government in the past was quite upbeat about the success of the programme. However, little effort was visible in making it work better to reach out to the target groups. It is often alleged that wrong targeting is a major impediment to the success of the programme. One may find it strange to see government employees' pension scheme also counted as part of the SSNs. Some 27 per cent of the allocation under social safety net schemes goes to government employees' pension, meaning the true allocation for the poor is far less than what is available on paper.  

Presently, the government runs well over a hundred programmes under SSNs, but corruption and misuse of funds are reportedly plaguing the operations. Moreover, although the allocation has increased over the years, it has been found to be still far less than what it should have been in terms of standard practices followed elsewhere.

The  major  social  safety  net  programmes  (SSNPs)  in  Bangladesh  can  be divided  under  four  broad  categories:  (i)  employment  generation  programmes, (ii)   programmes   to   cope   with   natural   disasters   and   other   shocks,   (iii) incentives   provided   to   parents   for   their   children's   education,   and   (iv) incentives provided to families to improve their health status. The SSNs can also  be  grouped  into  two  types  depending  on  whether  they  involve  cash transfers  or  food  transfers.   Around 145 SSN programmes are currently being implemented by 23 ministries, a large number of which suffer from overlapping in various forms, because of lack of coordination and monitoring of progress in a proper manner. Transparency and accountability thus remain the major problems.

Recent discussions highlight Bangladesh's comparatively low expenditure on SSNs as a percentage of GDP, underscoring the need for increased investment in the programme. At a seminar on social protection strategy held in the capital recently, it transpired that Bangladesh was spending less than half of what other countries spend as a percentage of their GDP. Most middle income countries spend between 6.0 to 8.0 per cent of the GDP on social safety net programmes as against little over 2.0 per cent of GDP in Bangladesh.

The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), at a webinar held some time ago, recommended bringing all social safety net programmes under a single umbrella in order to move from the social safety network to social security. Given a high level of food price inflation and a rise in the living cost, CPD suggested that the government increased the amount of allowance to Tk 1,000 and the coverage by 20 lakh elderly, widows and marginalised women all over the country. The think tank also suggested that the government considered increasing the coverage of urban-based destitute people by raising the allocation targeting slum dwellers, floating people, pregnant women and similar marginalised groups. 'Digitalisation of the database with national identification number or other national documents for proper targeting of the beneficiaries will reduce mistargeting and corruption and complexities,' it said. Alongside reforming the modus operandi of the SSN programmes, it has also been suggested that the government should provide additional support for subsidised credit programmes for the agriculture sector--both crop and non-crop--to incentivise production.

Moving forward, SSNs must remain a focal point of government planning. It is crucial to not only allocate adequate funds but also to enhance programme efficiency. In so doing, it is important to prepare a detailed database of the number of people living below the poverty line, which will help the stakeholders involved in understanding the needs of different target groups and strategise result-orientated plans.  Improved management of the schemes through efficient use of resources and plugging the loopholes in the distribution process is crucial to making the social safety nets more effective. It is also important to strengthen monitoring and supervision on the implementation process to make the schemes more accountable and transparent.


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