The government should increase the threshold for safety net schemes in a bid to eradicate extreme poverty by 2021, a noted economist said yesterday.
About 17.3 percent, or around 25 million, of the country's population still live in extreme poverty, according to the latest Household Income Expenditure Survey.
Most of the safety net programmes, say widow allowance or old-age pension schemes, are examples of “tokenisms”, as they provide only Tk 300 a month to each beneficiary, said Binayak Sen, research director of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies.
“I am sceptical that this tokenism can really play any role in eradicating extreme poverty.”
The amount should be $500 or equivalent to a transfer of Tk 1,667 per person per month, adding that the government does not need to arrange huge funds as it requires only $3 billion, which is less than 3 percent of GDP, Sen said.
The country can easily finance it if it can reach the ultra wealthy of the society with better tax collection, he added.
Sen's comments came at a seminar during a daylong event to raise awareness of extreme poverty, organised by Shiree in association with Manusher Jonno Foundation and World Food Programme (WFP) at Bashundhara Convention Centre in Dhaka yesterday.
Shiree is a challenge fund of the Economic Empowerment of the Poorest Programme, a partnership between UKaid and the government to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goal 1 of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.
In partnership with nongovernmental organisations, Shiree helps the poorest 10 percent of the population achieve sustainable livelihoods. More than 30 NGOs among which the £65 million fund of Shiree is disbursed were selected through a competitive three-stage bidding process.
With the aim to eradicate extreme poverty from the country by 2021, Shiree has come up with an action plan, the Manifesto for the Extreme Poor, last December. As of yesterday, the manifesto has received 184 endorsements from the private sector, NGOs, donors and civil society actors.
Shaheen Anam, executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation, said the manifesto is a call for collective action.
“The fact that 25 million people living in extreme poverty in Bangladesh is not acceptable, especially when we have the capacity to overcome the obstacles that keep them there.”
She advised the government to focus on checking corruption as it will ensure access to public services and social protection for the poorest.
On the government's pledge to eradicate extreme poverty by 2021, Moshiur Rahman Ranga, state minister for rural development and cooperatives, said: “We must do our part to make that vision a reality.”
“We must empower the poorest by strengthening their capacity to earn livelihoods and make them part of the mainstream economy.”
“This manifesto indicates that we don't like to live with the presence of extreme poverty in our society. I feel an obligation has been met by endorsing this. It is imperative that we endorse and support this manifesto wherever we are,” said Abbas Bhuiya, deputy executive director of ICDDR,B.
He said the initiative that Shiree has undertaken to bring NGOs and private sector companies together is commendable.
The private sector has the will to participate in poverty eradication, and the NGOs can play a role in facilitating this, said Mominul Ahsan, executive director of Apex Footwear.
The UK government has attached the highest priority to eradicating poverty globally, said Sarah Cooke, country representative of the British government's Department for International Development that oversees UKaid.
She said the country can remove extreme poverty within the next six years if it can improve the collaboration between public and private initiatives.
Christa Räder, director of WFP's Dhaka office, said the WFP has gotten involved with the Shiree project as poverty reduction and malnutrition go hand in hand.
Zunaid Ahmed Palak, state minister for telecoms and information technology, said information technology can help the poor earn significant sums of money, adding that the government will keep the issue of extreme poverty in mind when amending the existing ICT Policy 2009.
Via video conference, Planning Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal and Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Rashed Khan Menon also gave their endorsement to the manifesto.
Shiree provides two types of funds: a scale fund and an innovation fund. The former allows NGOs the opportunity to expand successful existing programmes and the latter to design new approaches to reduce extreme poverty in urban and rural areas. At present, it supports nine scale fund and 24 innovation fund projects, implemented in 92 upazilas of 24 districts.
During the daylong event, the results of the projects were displayed at a fair. Some 100 stalls showcased the various NGO projects targeting the extreme poor, together with the initiatives of the private sector and the government.
Popi and Parvin, orphaned twin sisters from Bagerhat, who used to eat less than two meals a day, spoke at the event. Thanks to Shiree's partner organisation Save the Children, the sisters acquired skills that enabled them to fund their HSC exams last month.
They encouraged everyone to support children who want to get educated to break out of the vicious circle of poverty.
The fair featured a series of presentations on innovative approaches to poverty reduction, which are now available online for others to watch.
Shiree has been organising such daylong events since 2009, save for last year. Around 2,000 participants from home and abroad attended the event.