National Household Database : Project delayed, data obsolete
The government project undertaken to prepare the country's first-ever poverty registry has not been completed in more than seven years, with the data collected for it already rendered useless.
The National Household Database (NHD), initially known as the Bangladesh Poverty Database, is meant to help streamline the beneficiary selection process for social safety net programmes by gathering socioeconomic data of each household in the country.
Implemented in collaboration between the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and the Department of Disaster Management (DDM), the project beginning in 2013 was supposed to be completed by 2017.
But the Tk 328 crore project, financed by the government and the World Bank, saw its deadline pushed to June 2021 and cost balloon to Tk 727 crore.
After taking four years only to work out the modes of operation, BBS collected the socioeconomic information of 3.5 crore households from 64 districts in three phases in 2017 and 2018.
The data, BBS officials said, is synchronised with the Election Commission's database.
Progress on the NHD slowed to a halt while developing the Management Information System (MIS), where the socioeconomic data of each household in the country would be uploaded so various government departments could easily access it for selecting appropriate beneficiaries for their programmes.
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The project delays mean not only are poor households deprived of benefits targeted to them for longer but also that the list has been rendered outdated due to the coronavirus pandemic, said experts.
CPD Distinguished Fellow Prof Mustafizur Rahman said the NHD data collected between 2017 and 2018 is now obsolete. Without the scope for periodic upgradation, the database may not be able to serve the people as it could have if ready on time and before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country in March last year, he added.
Former lead economist of World Bank Dhaka Zahid Hussain expressed similar concerns, saying the NHD may now only help implementing agencies to identify the households covered.
A major purpose of the NHD was to simplify the selection of beneficiaries for the government's various social safety net programmes targeting the ultra-poor and help avoid overlapping.
Lack of accurate, organised data to reach the poor has been a major challenge for the government, which became more evident during Covid-19, the experts said.
In July last year, a staggering two-thirds of 50 lakh poor families who were hit hard by the pandemic-induced shutdown were yet to receive Tk 2,500 each in cash support from a government fund of Tk 1,250 crore because of a flawed beneficiaries' list.
Experts noted that due to the delays, the NHD project has lost relevance significantly as the socioeconomic conditions of households countrywide have changed drastically in the pandemic, with many more "new poor" now added to the ranks of poverty.
In January, the results of a survey conducted of 5,577 households by the South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (SANEM), found 42 percent to be below the poverty line -- roughly double the 21.6 percent from when the same households were interviewed back in 2018.
Another recent study jointly conducted by SANEM and ActionAid Bangladesh revealed that in Barguna, Kurigram, Rajshahi, and Satkhira, only 10 percent of people in these districts received benefits from programmes introduced to tackle Covid-19 induced shocks. A majority of these recipients, 68.8 percent, were first-time beneficiaries.
Currently, the project has no plans to upgrade the data, said BBS officials.
It only kept an option for grievance management, where someone not identified as poor in the MIS can update their classification to poor by applying to their 10-member upazila NHD verifying committee.
"Applying for inclusion to the committee will create further poverty, as many people had to bribe the local administration for inclusion in the PM's cash relief schemes during Covid-19," said Zahid Hussain.
In case of an economic shock or crisis like Covid-19, people need the money immediately and if someone has to wait for months to get included, it won't be any help because the damage is already done, he added.
Dr Selim Raihan, executive director of SANEM, said many people will be reluctant to apply for inclusion due to bureaucratic tangles and timidity.
He blamed the authorities' negligence and an inefficient bureaucratic machinery for the prolonged delay in making the final database.
"This is just another lesson for us. The Covid-19 crisis has made it clear to all that this [project] must be done on a priority basis and the responsible must be held accountable," Dr Selim said.
REASONS FOR DELAYS
The project used data on housing type and assets to determine a poverty score for households and so, identify the poorest households.
BBS' questionnaire gathered information on the number of rooms, electricity connections, a separate dining room and kitchen, type of roof, status of toilets, source of water; appliances like a television or fridge; ownership of land and animals; any remittance received; and number of family members.
Kabedul Islam, NHD project director of BBS, said BBS was designated to collect, capture, store and analyse this household data and upload the information to an interoperable MIS, developed by DDM.
Although BBS initially wanted to opt for manual data collection procedure, the project's steering committee decided to collect data through a tablet PC, with the technical assistance of WB, he said.
BBS conducted a pilot in Rangpur and Nilphamari districts, collecting data on tablets before this became unviable due to poor internet connection in these remote districts. The piloting, however, took a year and a half.
After the first unsuccessful attempt, the committee decided to collect data using the information collection request (ICR) method by 2018. A total of 213,264 enumerators and supervisors, directed by BBS's zonal statistical officers in every upazila and district coordinators, were given a three-day training on the data collection process.
Only after the completion of the MIS and successful uploading of the data, BBS can sign memorandums of understanding with the relevant government departments to share the poverty data, said the NHD project director.
DDM, tasked with developing the MIS, had contracted an Armenian software company Synergy International Systems.
DDM Director General Md Atiqul Haque said that Synergy didn't work for around nine months due to the pandemic, during which time there was also a communication gap with the local consultancy firm.
The DG, however, added, "We have given them the deadline to complete the whole thing before June."
The NHD project director says BBS is currently assisting the disaster management department and the contractor with the progress of the MIS.
However, according to BBS officials, the deadline is likely to be pushed again as much work remains even after the completion of the MIS.
Zahid Hussain, former WB lead economist, said "Since the data collection is done, the interoperable system can easily be done within six to 12 months. There must be accountability for the work because it is related to the poverty status of a large number of people."
He, however, added that the government could use other methods like the databases of mobile financial services organisations and Bangladesh Bank's Tk 10 account holders, to identify poor households faster and cheaper.
"If these organisations could be given certain variables -- such as the location of the households, number of family members, monthly transaction amounts, seasonality of the transactions -- and these could be analysed by the experts, it is enough to identify poorer households," he added.