There is a growing concern that Covid-19 will stay for quite a while, and therefore, we need to explore innovative ways to cope with the 'new normal' realities. More and efficient utilisation of information and communication technology (ICT) could be a critical tool to handle various challenges induced by Covid-19. This is also true for the successful implementation of social protection programmes during this pandemic and beyond.
IMPORTANCE OF SOCIAL PROTECTION IN THE CONTEXT OF Covid-19 PANDEMIC: When all the citizens of a state feel that the government is committed to protect them in distress and provide them with opportunities to thrive in life, inclusive economic growth is ensured. A range of social protection programmes, cash or in-kind transfers, public works, and incentive schemes serve as essential instruments to support the poor in navigating the hardships of life and aligning them with the country's growth path. To achieve inclusive growth, the Government of Bangladesh allocates resources to implement a broad spectrum of social protection programmes. On the one hand, the allocated resources are still not sufficient; on the other, a range of implementation challenges undermines the commitment of poverty alleviation through social protection programmes.
The special circumstance created by the COVID pandemic also provided us with the opportunity to realise the sheer importance of having social protection programmes in action. Being able to reach out to the population in a time of distress is a crucial indicator of successful governance. Existing social protection programmes, with their administrative structure and protocol, equipped with proper ICT tools, could be valuable to enable responsive governance.
Bangladesh has a long history of formal social safety-net programmes, which, in part, has shaped the nature of the current social security system. The political viewpoints and programme designs of social protection in Bangladesh have gradually evolved from a poor-relief approach in the 1970s to a safety-net approach in the late 1990s and finally to a life cycle framework in 2015 with the adoption of the National Social Security Strategy (NSSS). The NSSS has identified various risks for different cohorts of life and has designed the programmes accordingly. Before adopting the National Social Security Strategy (NSSS) in 2015, the leakage rate was very high in the social protection programmes of Bangladesh. The new social security strategy reflects a broad structure that may reduce vulnerability at different stages of life and thus alleviate poverty. However, the social security system in Bangladesh still remains complex, comprising a large number of programmes and managed by 35 ministries/divisions. There were 125 programmes under the social security system in FY 2019-20.
With a need to spend 4 per cent of GDP to sufficiently overcome the vulnerability of the poor, the allocation for social protection programmes has been 2-3 per cent of GDP in Bangladesh over the last 10 years, though with a continuous rise in both allocation and the number of beneficiaries. Only six of the 125 programmes in the FY2021 budget account for 46 per cent of the total social protection allocations. The programme with the top allocation under SSNP (24 per cent) is for the Pension for Retired Government Employees and their families. Thus, a large part of the safety-net programmes is serving ex-government employees who do not necessarily belong to the poor segment of the society. As the vulnerability in health services in Bangladesh has been exposed intensely after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to look into the allocation for health-related social protection programmes. Only 15 per cent and 12 per cent of the total social protection budget was allocated for health-related social protection programmes in FY2018 and FY2019, respectively. According to the Mid-term review of NSSS, most interventions put in place were on an ad hoc basis, being considered without any coherent and well-structured strategic framework for social protection.
The national budget of 2020-21 has allocated Tk 95,574 crore for various social safety net programmes. The allocation is a 28.52 per cent increase from the proposed budget of the last fiscal year and a 16.75 per cent increase from the revised budget of the last fiscal year (13,709 crore increase without adjusting for inflation). Part of the various stimulus package announced in response to the COIVD-19 outbreak is also included in the budget allocation for social protection. Allocation for the social protection programmes exceeds 3 per cent of the GDP for the first time in FY21.
As the vulnerability in health services in Bangladesh has been exposed intensely after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to look into the allocation for health-related social protection programmes. The health-related social protection programmes include Child and Maternal Health programme; Urban Public Environmental Health Care Development Programme; Urban Primary Health Care Service Delivery; Maternal, Child, Reproductive and Adolescent Health programme; Family Planning Field Services Delivery; Clinical Contraception Services Delivery; Community Based Health Care; T.B., Leprosy, Communicable and Non-communicable Disease Control; Assistance for Cancer, Kidney, Liver Cirrhosis and other Patients. It is noted that 15 per cent and 12 per cent of the total social protection budget was allocated for health-related social protection programmes in FY18 and FY19, respectively.
The NSSS outlined service delivery reform areas in the social security system and instructed the implementing ministries and divisions accordingly. It recognises that a single ministry or division may implement a scheme, but others have a cross-cutting role. Based on this idea, the Central Management Committee (CMC) on Social Security Programmes has formed five thematic clusters: i) Social Allowance, ii) Food Security and Disaster Assistance, iii) Social Insurance, iv) Labour/Livelihood Interventions, and v) Human Development & Social Empowerment. Each cluster has a coordination ministry or division, and the rest are the members. According to the NSSS, thematic clusters are the forum for intra and inter-cluster coordination in service delivery.
The CMC provides support to five thematic clusters to coordinate cooperation, approve action plans, assist ministries in obtaining budget allocation etc. Some issues are common for all clusters. CMC is responsible for coordinating those cross-cutting matters. Every thematic cluster is responsible for reforming, consolidating, and integrating social security programmes in the spirit and guideline of the NSSS and to coordinate the action plans of ministries within each cluster (Table 2).
IMPACT OF Covid-19 AND ADDRESSING NEW CHALLENGES: The World Bank has projected that the extreme poverty rate in Bangladesh will increase from 12.8 per cent last year to 21.8 per cent in 2020. PPRC and BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) jointly conducted a quick sample survey including 50 per cent poor and 40 per cent vulnerable non-poor covering both rural and urban areas (71 per cent respondents in urban areas and 55 per cent in rural areas). The conclusion from this study was that there had been a massive income loss among the population. The income of ultra-poor, moderately poor, and vulnerable non-poor fell by 70 per cent following the countrywide shutdown during the global coronavirus pandemic. It has thus been affecting the consumption capacity of the poor.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, 20 per cent of the population was poor, with a significant segment of poor or vulnerable households being excluded from various social safety nets. The absence of a comprehensive database of programme participants, discretionary selection of beneficiaries, high leakage involving cash handouts, and implementation progress tracked mainly against disbursement rather than through actual intervention impact rendered monitoring and evaluation ineffective.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is a useful and absolute necessity to address different operational challenges in providing social protection to the vast population. The Covid-19 pandemic demands more integration and use of ICT in social protection programmes to make the most effective use of our limited resources. The growth and coverage of the internet, mobile phone, and mobile financial services have created an opportunity for the utilisation of ICT to initiate a paradigm shift in revamping the social protection programme. The Covid-19 crisis has also opened our eyes to how important it is for all citizens to have access to digital devices with reliable internet connections and access to digital financial services.
As a result of various initiatives to utilise ICT, access to education and learning, access to healthcare, access to market and income opportunities, and most importantly, access to financial services are now at our doorstep. The women and girls who are lagging behind can also avail the digital opportunities. Bangladesh now has the resources and the readiness to ensure these four essential items within the next two years. This will allow for the development of a universal identity system for all citizens, adults and children alike, which will allow the identification of the right beneficiaries for all social protection benefits and deliver them to the citizens without delay and with minimum targeting error.
To make the delivery system of social protection more efficient, we may utilise ICT in the following ways.
Universal Identity System for all citizens: The absence of a reliable single-entry database of selected recipients limits the capacity of the government in providing quick and direct assistance to the citizens in need. Though exclusion errors reduce with increased coverage, it does not account for the sizeable errors during implementation. A single-entry database for all citizens with information on various characteristics and vulnerability measurement needs to be created. This will allow to track and monitor the assistance received by each household.
Universal Access to Digital Devices, affordable Internet, and mandatory digital learning: It will allow all citizens to take advantage of the digital technology for education, livelihood, healthcare, and accessing social protection benefits. Although the initial investment for this initiative is high, it will reduce the cost of identification and delivery.
Universal Access to Digital Financial Services: Digital Financial Services (DFS) is yet to make sure that there is no leakage in the disbursement process of social protection. The Government-to-Person (G2P) payment system under the NSSS shows promise in transferring allowances directly to the beneficiaries. However, only a few programmes have come under this mechanism to date. Every citizen should be included in DFS by utilising multiple channels (post-office, schedule bank, mobile financing, agent banks, etc.) with a national payment gateway.
Multi-stakeholder monitoring system of social protection programmes: Leakages occur during targeting, delivery of benefits, sharing information, and even self-appropriation of benefits. The monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Framework of the NSSS depends mostly on a fully digitalised system when the ICT literacy of the local government is not up to par.
Respective ministries should develop a thematic cluster-based monitoring mechanism to avoid duplications in monitoring. The capacity of the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluations Division (IMED) programme needs to be strengthened.
[The article provides a summary of the thematic paper titled "Post Covid-19 ICT Roadmap for Bangladesh: The Social Protection sector" prepared for the ICT Division by Datasense, iSocial.]
Dr Nazneen Ahmed is a Senior Research Fellow at BIDS.