Debacle of National Household Database
For the nearly eight years now that I've been working in the newspaper industry, I don't think I've seen a whole month go by without coming across some report relating to corruption in one government aid delivery scheme or another. Keeping in mind that even reporting on such topics may now land you in jail – thanks to the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) – or worse, get you disappeared, and that not all incidents are reported in the media, it's perhaps safe to say that corruption in government aid delivery programmes is extremely rampant in Bangladesh.
According to a 2021 World Bank report titled "Bangladesh Social Protection Public Expenditure Review," 49-66 percent of Bangladesh's social safety net allowance and food support beneficiaries are not poor. Young but poor children are getting only 1.6 percent of the total social protection benefits from the government exchequer, even though they represent one in eight poor in the country. And around 36 percent of the country's total social protection spending serves only 0.45 percent of its population – through the pensions for government officials.
Had these government programmes effectively reached the poor, poverty level in Bangladesh would go down from 36 percent to 12 percent, the report said. It is for this reason that experts have been calling on the government to establish a national database of some form, which could help identify who the real poor are.
In July 2013, the government undertook the initiative to set up the National Household Database (NHD) project which, according to the government's own officials, would give the socioeconomic indicators of each household and help the government select the eligible beneficiaries of social safety net programmes. The initial project deadline was set for December 2017 and the project was estimated to cost Tk 328 crore. However, after numerous deadline extensions, the project is finally expected to finish later this year, with its cost rising by a whopping 112.75 percent to Tk 727 crore.
Since the lack of accurate and organised data has remained a major challenge for the government in delivering aid to the poor, the NHD could have been a most valuable tool for the government during the pandemic. For example, in July 2020, a staggering two-thirds of the five million poor families who were badly hit by the pandemic-induced shutdown were reportedly 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.
To prevent similar blunders, Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal said in his letter to the World Bank on March 2, 2022 that the government was committed to using the long-overdue NHD to disburse this year's social safety net allocation of Tk 113,576 crore. He had echoed similar sentiments in January 2018 when while admitting that misuse occur at the time of spending money set aside for safety net programmes, he said: "The national database will stop the misuse."
Unfortunately for the finance minister – and even more so for the poor – that dream will remain unfulfilled.
According to a recent report by the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) under the Ministry of Planning, the long-awaited NHD project – costing Tk 727 crore and taking more than eight years to complete – based on its "current status," is "unusable." After costing enormous amounts of time and money, and despite how crucial such a database is to ensure that the poor get the government benefits, which taxpayers are paying for – instead of it being stolen by the corrupt – the project undertaken by the government has proven to be worthless.
But it gets worse. The reason for the failure, according to the IMED report, is that there were too many inconsistencies in the data collected from 35 million families from 64 districts. "Even though several consultants were appointed," the fact that "there are inconsistencies in the database" shows that "the consultants did not perform their tasks properly." In 2016, as many as 545 data entry operators were recruited, but they were not given any defined tasks or responsibilities. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) also did not assign an experienced officer, which hindered its implementation. The project had many IT consultants and senior programmers of BBS working on it, but they did not do any noticeable work.
Although the terms of reference for editing the collected data capturing and correction were well-articulated, the contracted firm did not edit the data adequately. And these issues were not raised in the meetings of the project implementation committee (PIC) and project steering committee (PSC).
Since the project's implementation began in July 2013, there should have been at least 35 PIC meetings. However, in reality, only nine PIC meetings and 15 PSC meetings were held. And because of that, important decisions and project implementation were delayed.
So basically, at every step along the way, and at every level, government officials could not care less about implementing the project, which shows how little they care for the plight of the poor and the taxpayers' hard-earned money, as well as how inefficiently that is being utilised. This apathy on part of government officials – not just the top-level politicians, but all along the governance hierarchy – is also evident in the fact that other government projects across the spectrum have a tendency to get delayed, cost more, and sometimes similarly fall completely by the wayside.
But ultimately, this attitude has come down from the top. During the pandemic, numerous non-government organisations had come up with different facts and figures indicating that poverty had risen alarmingly. Top government officials dismissed such findings, without presenting any counter evidence. Not only that, their own individual ministries sat idly by and didn't even bother to collect their own data.
That same lethargic and uncaring attitude is what has led to this project becoming a complete disaster. And while the poor and the taxpayer's will have to pay for the failure, those really responsible for it will most likely just continue on with their lives, without even having to answer for it. And the corrupt will continue to benefit as a result. All these must be obvious to government officials. Which begs the question: whose interest are they truly looking to serve with their actions?
Eresh Omar Jamal is assistant editor at The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is @EreshOmarJamal