After coming out of the shadow of famine, Bangladesh took moral responsibility to provide people with social safety net coverage. Protecting citizens from economic vulnerabilities has become even more important task during the ongoing pandemic that has shattered most people.
Not just national priorities, some of the development goals under the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are linked to building a strong social protection infrastructure nationally. The goals are: No poverty (SDG 1), Good health and well-being (SDG 3), Gender equality (SDG 5), Decent work and economic growth(SDG 8), Reduced inequalities (SDG 10).
Amidst a ravaging Covid-19 crisis, expanding coverage of the safety net programmes has become almost a pre-requite for offsetting the pandemic effects. Some 24.5 million people have fallen below the poverty line, who are now bracketed as the "new poor", according to the PPRC-BIGD rapid response survey conducted in March 2021.
In the informal sector, income levels are 7.0 per cent below the pre-Covid level whereas the rate is 14 per cent in the urban region. Moreover, 8.0 per cent of the informal sector employees are still unemployed and 41 per cent had to shift to lower-skill jobs.
Non-food expenditures have increased 98 per cent in urban areas between June 2020 and March 2021. This massive increase can be attributed to increments in rent, utility, health and transportation costs.
In these dire times, as widely recommended, the "new poor" should be included in the social protection schemes to save them from suffering and uncertainties.
Social protection is yet to get required priority in Bangladesh unlike the practices in welfare states. However, the allocation for social protection programmes should be immediately increased, given the pandemic effects on lives and livelihoods.
Unfortunately, the proposed budget for the fiscal year 2021-22, too, has not addressed the phenomenon of the new poor in particular.
Although overall allocation has increased, social safety net represents an increase of 12 per cent, less than the average 17 per cent increase seen in the past decade, according to Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD). Allocation for pension has increased by 16 per cent, which is higher than the increment rate of the entire sector. Consequently, the social safety net budget excluding pension as a percentage of budget decreased from 13.49 per cent in FY21 to 13.41 per cent in FY22.
The allocation has been slashed for programmes protecting livelihoods, such as: Work For Money and Skills and Employment Programme in Bangladesh. The allocation has also been cut for several programmes which address the needs of marginalised, vulnerable, and left behind communities.
SDG IMPLEMENTATION STATUS QUO: SNAPSHOT OF GAIBANDHA: In this scenario, it is important to emphasise the importance of proper budgetary allocation for social protection programmes for SDG implementation. Hence, we take a look at the state of SDG implementation and social protection programmes in the county's administrative district of Gaibandha from a CPD-OXFAM study of 2019.
SDG 1 refers to ending poverty in all its forms everywhere. The performance of Gaibandha is not satisfactory in this regard. As can be seen from figure 1, the percentage of the population below the lower and upper poverty line in all the upazila of Gaibandha is substantially higher than the national average. It is also seen that the state of Fulchori upazila is by far the worst.
Hence, targeted social protection schemes are necessary to address the poverty situation in Gaibandha. But if we look at the existing social protection programmesthere, we will see that they lack precision and efficacy.
Allowance for pregnant women
According to CPD analysis, Gaibandha is fifth and tenth respectively in adolescent and under-five children mortality rate. Hence, this is a crucial safety net programme.
The number of safety net beneficiaries was 1027 in fiscal year 2017-18 (FY18) fiscal and the total allocation was Tk 0.44 million. The amount of monthly stipend was Tk 500 each.
So, there are following challenges:
• The beneficiaries lack information about implementation strategies(selection criteria, distribution period etc.) of the programme.
• As it takes a long time to finalise the list of beneficiaries and disburse the funds, the beneficiaries do not get the allowance at the right time.
The number of beneficiaries of primary education stipends was 240,873 in the said financial year while the number of students was 269,172 (APSC, 2017) (almost 90 per cent students included in the programme). The total allocation was Tk 270 million. Accordingly, a single student was entitled to Tk 100, two students from the same family Tk 200, three students from the same family Tk 250, and four students from the same family Tk 300.
Challenges there include:
• The requirement of 85 per cent attendance cannot be fulfilled a lot of the time.
• The lack of transparency of the role of the school management committee in addition or subtraction of beneficiaries list.
• The beneficiaries lack information about the rate of stipend according to the number of children and selection criteria.
In the Employment Generation Programme for the Poorest (EGPP), the number of beneficiaries was 28,845 in the aforementioned year. Of them, 48 per cent was female and 52 per cent male. However, the number of beneficiaries was the lowest in Fulchori (2549), the upazila with the highest poverty rate. Total allocation for the purpose was Tk 489 million and daily wage was Tk 200.
Challenges there include:
• While selecting the priority sectors, the local context is often not considered.
• The daily wage is lesser than the standard wage rate (Tk 250-300) of many other same types of works (carpenters, farm workers).
In the category of old age allowance there, the number of beneficiaries was 66,410 in the FY18. Total allocation was Tk 398 million and monthly stipend was Tk 500 per head.
There are following challenges there:
• As the allowance has to be collected from banks, the beneficiaries face hardship because there are no banks at the union level, i.e: they fall sick standing in long lines; they lose the money; in some cases, a portion of the allowance has to be paid to the helpers who bring them to the banks.
• There is no gender-based database.
RECOMMENDATIONS: Though it is likely that the situation has improved in the last three years, update data is required to know the change and improvement. Nevertheless, in view of the above mention situation, following recommendations may be made:
• The allocation for social protection programmes should be immediately increased in the current pandemic scenario so that the allowance rate and coverage for different programmes can be substantially increased and expanded;
• Planning the finance in advance and designing innovative and flexible financing mechanisms;
• Social protection programmes should be allocated based on consultation at a district level with local MPs and other public representatives so that the implementation at the local level is efficient;
• Improved vulnerability mapping to include the poor, "new poor" and vulnerable non-poor population and preparing a comprehensive national household database of the poor population;
• Preparing a gender, age, and area disaggregated database of the existing social protection programmes.
Tanjim-Ul-Islam, Outreach Team Member, The Financial Express