On June 6, Youth Policy Forum's ambitious series on budget dialogue culminated in its much-anticipated final event, "Youth meets Leaders." Standing true to the name, six distinguished experts of political and non-political backgrounds gathered to analyse the policy proposals presented by teams of young specialists from YPF.
The panel included MA Mannan, Minister of Planning; Saber Hossain Chowdhury, MP of Bangladesh Awami League; Dr Fahmida Khatun, Executive Director of Centre for Policy Dialogue; Khandaker Muktadir, advisor to BNP chairperson; Barrister Nihad Kabir, Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry; and Dr Mohammad Tareque, former Finance Secretary and Director of Bangladesh Institute of Government and Management. The session was moderated by Dr Akhtar Mahmood, renowned economist and advisor to YPF.
The floor was first given to YPF's team of young professionals and students. Keeping the ongoing pandemic in mind, they presented socio-economic concerns and budget-relevant solutions. The crisis has led to deflationary shock to the economy and will be an integral consideration in this year's national budget. The subsequent discussion between YPF teams and the esteemed speakers showed there were many practical policy solutions that could improve six critical sectors—healthcare, social protection, agriculture and food security, education and employment, infrastructure and energy and macro fiscal management.
YPF Team identified lack of resources, inter-ministerial coordination, and mental health treatment facilities as key challenges. MA Mannan agreed with the team's suggestion for an independent monitoring body to regulate pricing in the medicine market. He highlighted the need for a regulatory agency in light of the pandemic, "A vaccine, if and when it hits the market, should be a global good—not an intellectual property right."
Khandaker Muktadir said, "The real figure of infected cases cannot be gauged clearly because of insufficient testing and limitations in the health sector." He recommended establishing district-level field hospitals, containing ICUs and oxygen support, and conducting a crash course to train medical professionals in the fight against Covid-19.
Barrister Nihad Kabir stressed on a collaboration of the private and public sector in these trying times saying, "The private sector can be involved when the public sector faces a shortage of beds."
Bangladesh's social protection sector suffers from targeting mistakes and benefit leakage. There is also a lack of coverage for informal sector workers and an existing framework that widens gender disparity. YPF found that integrating centralised MIS into a digital database system could improve targeting and implementation. Saber Hossain Chowdhury sees merit in digitalising analogue systems to make the mechanism more efficient: "However, I'm sceptical about the statistical accuracy, barring which, the transformation may not come to fruition."
According to Dr Fahmida Khatun, "The 2.5 percent of the budget allocated to social security is a misleading figure because it also includes pension for government workers and scholarship for education and if these factors are excluded, the percentage drops to 1.5 percent." She recommended that the 2.5 percent be dedicated solely to social security.
Barrister Nihad Kabir addressed the flaws in the distribution channels of relief funds and suggested BCCI and Bangladesh Bank coordinate more closely to address the issue. Dr Akhtar Mahmood also pointed out that increasing resource allocation must come with increased monitoring to prevent leakage. MA Mannan said, "Corruption happens when the allocations reach grassroot levels. We are trying to prevent those small disseminations, and that will reduce corruption further."
Agriculture and food security
The threats looming over this sector are declining demand and a disarranged supply chain for agricultural goods. Khandaker Muktadir remarked on the need for effective cost analysis that would set a fair price for farmers, which in turn would incentivise them. This point was agreed upon by Dr Khatun who suggested similar solutions and proper implementation of technology, in the face of a food crisis forewarned by World Food Programme.
Dr Tareque mentioned the importance of Bangladesh's arable lands, which help maintain food security but are now shrinking in size. "We have to protect these lands, otherwise it may lead to a massive crisis."
Education and employment
The shockwave of this pandemic has caused serious bottleneck for students and workers due to high dropout rates and job losses. Saber Hossain Chowdhury commented on how the country's employment rate was not impressive, given the extent of its economic progression. In the context of education, he insisted on a higher budget allocation for the education sector. He said, "At least 5 percent should be allocated to the education sector (along with the health sector), or else we will be failing ourselves."
MA Mannan recognised the shortcoming in our education system but also applauded the considerable achievements the sector has achieved over the years. Dr Tareque stressed on the importance of setting up a national research fund for the sole purpose of promoting pure science subjects. "Research is the secret of first-rate innovation and development," he concluded.
Infrastructure and energy
MA Mannan talked about the challenges posed by union groups that the energy sector oftentimes faces. He further commented on the extensive provision of electricity supply, which, although fluctuating, has been successful in covering up to 95 percent of national households.
Khandaker Muktadir recommended the government take over diesel power plants, inclusive of their loans, and reach an agreement—a contract which can reduce cost greatly.
Macro fiscal management
The government is dealing with a great predicament due to the pandemic. The urgency to generate revenues must be pitted against the need to relax taxation to keep the economy afloat. On that note, Saber Hossain Chowdhury commented that specific tax could be levied on tobacco products without raising their price, to generate more revenue. He further mentioned how the placement of inheritance tax and preventi of money laundering has become imperative.
Barrister Nihad Kabir strongly urged government agencies to prioritise the wellbeing of individuals over strictly maintaining a budget deficit. Both, she and Dr Fahmida Khatun, reached the same conclusion that more money should be injected into by the government to raise aggregate demand, sustain consumption and protect the domestic economy. "This is not a year for budgeting as usual. Let us get this straight: government needs to be the biggest investor this year," said Nihad Kabir.
For his concluding remarks, MA Mannan agreed with the rest of the panellists regarding the proper allocation of resources, utilisation of technology and focusing on revenue generating streams rather than the budget deficit margin. The dialogue ended on a high note, packed with commitments of future collaborations with Youth Policy Forum and civil society as a whole.
Iqra L Qamari is a program associate at Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and a contributor to The Daily Star.