A Tale of Misplaced Priorities
It's mind-boggling to think of a situation where there is an urgency, poor people are in dire need, and money is in the hands of the government allocated to help those in need, but the money is not being distributed properly. This is what is happening with the Bangladesh government's cash transfer programme for the poor people in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak. It is both baffling and symptomatic of the government's mismanagement in addressing the catastrophe of an unprecedented magnitude. It is also a tale of misplaced priorities.
Since Bangladesh was hit by the pandemic in March, with its first case of infection identified on March 8 and the first fatality on March 18, concerns grew about the impact of the looming crisis on public health and the economy. By the time its first case was recorded, more than two months had already passed of the global pandemic with the global death toll surpassing 7,800 and the number of infected 191,000—but the government was in denial. Ministers and ruling party leaders claimed that "we are ready". But a pandemic, like a tsunami, does not wait for someone's acknowledgement. It just ravages as it wishes. Consequently, Covid-19 continued to spread in Bangladesh while testing was done at the lowest rate in the world, even though complacency was palpable among the ruling party leaders and government officials. The focus of the entire state machinery, since the beginning of the year, was somewhere else.
The economic impact of the pandemic rapidly became obvious by late March. As businesses were being shut down, albeit partially, and economic downturn began, anyone could see that the misery would spare no one, but it would hit some more than others. There were repeated calls from the economists and concerned citizens that the poorest sections of the society need help from the government. The stimulus packages, which were declared in two phases in March and April, left the most vulnerable behind. The misplaced priorities and ambiguous modalities of these stimulus packages were evident. While cash transfer was a key component of the stimulus packages of governments all around the world, Bangladeshi stimulus packages completely ignored the option.
The government's decision to extend its social safety network, provide food relief and enhance its Open Market Sales (OMS) programme were badly needed steps taken in late March and early April. But largescale corruption, theft and pilferage defeated their purpose. Throughout April, media reports showed how local Awami League leaders, elected representatives of local councils, parliament members and local government officials were collectively part of a scheme to deprive the poor and needy. The official reaction of the ruling party was that it is "embarrassed", while its activists filed cases against anyone who dared to speak on social media. Journalists faced the wrath and the Digital Security Act (DSA) once again became the weapon of choice. As for those who perpetrated the crime, few were reprimanded, and far fewer brought to justice.
These were happening when at least 16.4 million new people were pushed below the poverty line, according to Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS). Bangladesh's overall poverty level was projected to increase by 25.13 percent, where rural poverty would be 24.23 percent and urban poverty would be 27.52 percent. According to the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM), the rate of poverty in Bangladesh may have doubled to 40.9 percent since the beginning of the pandemic.
By mid-May, there were some realisations that those who are in the informal sector and relying on daily income, the poorest of the poor, are in a desperate situation. Despite the claims of the previous years that economic growth has addressed poverty, within weeks of the pandemic the huge disparity that these strategies have engendered was laid bare. The extent of vulnerabilities of the poor and the lower middle class became difficult to hide behind the rhetoric of success.
It is against this background that the government declared a plan to provide a one-time assistance of Tk 2,500 each to five million families among the most vulnerable sections of society. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the initiative on May 14, and it was promised that the fund would reach everyone before Eid-ul-Fitr, May 20. The listed families were supposed to receive the money through mobile financial services. The government allocated a total of Tk 1,250 crore for this initiative; Tk 8 crore was allocated to cover the cost of distribution. As the lists were being prepared, copious press reports revealed how it became a repeat of the relief distribution scam, with the ruling party activists, their families, local officials, and local representatives being listed to receive the money. Dozens of cases were reported in which a single phone number, of an influential local AL leader, was used to list dozens, in some cases hundreds, of names.
Almost two months have passed since the announcement was made—"help is on the way". But as of July 7, only 1.6 million have received the money. Some 3.4 million are yet to get any support. Why the delay? Because the lists prepared by the local administrations are full of flaws. Those who should not be eligible were listed; for example, 3,000 government employees and 7,000 pensioners were listed. These lists included people who are receiving support from other social safety programmes. Some are listed with inaccurate information. Interestingly, according to a press report, some government officials have reportedly worked out an arrangement with their fellow officials—"I list your people, you list mine." But so far, nobody has been held responsible for these corrupt practices. There is no way one can justify these as "mistakes". Not holding anyone responsible is nothing short of condoning the crimes committed. The culture of impunity of the past years has contributed to these practices as those who did all these are well aware that nothing will happen to them.
The Covid-19 situation is rapidly deteriorating in Bangladesh, and the economic fallout is being borne by those who are at the bottom of the ladder. But they are the ones who are being ignored by the government, except for lip service. The cash transfer programmes adopted in the wake of Covid-19 all around the world were meant to help individuals address the immediate crisis. They have been implemented accordingly. In many instances, there have been more than one round of cash transfers. Bangladeshi poor are waiting.
The failure to administer the cash transfer programme quickly and efficiently is symptomatic of the mismanagement of the government. Lack of coordination, from testing to economic stimulus packages, is easily discernible. Instead of trying to address the rampant corruption and reign in the party activists and loyalists within the administration, the government's actions have slowed down the programme itself. Most importantly, it has revealed the priorities of the government—poorer segments are the least of its concerns. The public health system has already failed to serve the citizens, particularly the less fortunate, while the elite and so-called VIPs are being treated differently. The decision to impose fees for coronavirus tests at the government sites demonstrates the same mind-set. The number of tests has declined since the fee has been imposed, and it is the poor people who are now avoiding the test because they can hardly afford to spend the money at this time of economic hardship.
The economic crisis caused by the pandemic is not going to go away soon. The global recession is already upon us. Bangladesh's economy is bound to face more difficult days ahead. But it should not be the poor and middle class who disproportionately bear the burden, while the members of the privileged class and political elite enjoy preferential treatment.
Ali Riaz is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University, and Nonresident Senior Fellow of Atlantic Council, USA.