The way to the future | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 25, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 25, 2014

The way to the future

The way to the future

<i>Shahid Alam studies a work on social issues</i>

Social Protection in Bangladesh Building Effective Social Safety Nets  and Ladders Out of Poverty Eds Hossain Zillur Rahman, David Hulme,  Mathilde Maitrot, Luigi Peter Ragno The University Press Limited, UNDP
Social Protection in Bangladesh
Building Effective Social Safety Nets
and Ladders Out of Poverty
Eds Hossain Zillur Rahman, David Hulme, Mathilde Maitrot, Luigi Peter Ragno
The University Press Limited, UNDP

SOCIAL protection in Bangladesh has a long history of innovation and transformation and has been promoted and expanded by governments and politicians across the political spectrum.  While the significance of social protection to combating poverty by protecting people from falling into poverty and promoting poverty exits, and to spur national development has been increasingly recognized in the literature…and is well documented in countries like Mexico and Brazil…the role that social protection has played in Bangladesh is little understood and the country's contribution to international social protection innovations, such as conditional cash transfers…and asset transfers…little recognized.”  These lines set the thematic content of Social Protection in Bangladesh, a book that seeks to illuminate those in the dark about Bangladesh's social protection programmes and its contribution to social protection innovations, as well as ways through which the programmes could be made even more productive.

Social Protection in Bangladesh is an anthology, in which various authors have contributed, and has been edited by Hossain Zillur Rahman, Chairman of a think-tank, David Hulme, Executive Director of a research organization, and Mathilde Maitrot and Luigi Peter Ragno, both doctoral research fellows at the time of the book's publication.  All, including the other contributors, are of scholarly minds and leanings, and the book that has resulted from their combined efforts would also best serve those with scholarly bents and minds, and, dare I say, policymakers of Bangladesh (if, that is, they care to seriously go through it).

Eighteen chapters, covering a wide range of issues, make up the book, and mentioned here in chronological order:  Consolidating Nets and Promoting Ladders in Bangladesh:  From Social Safety Net Programmes to a National Social Protection System; Social Protection's Role within a Modern Development Agenda:  The Socio-Economic Impacts; Social Protection, Poverty Exit and Household's Behaviour:  A Multidisciplinary Perspective; Social Protection's Role in Reducing Poverty and Promoting Inclusive Growth in Risk Prone Environments; Global Perspectives on Graduation and Promotion; Fiscal and Financial Dimensions of Social Protection Systems; Child Sensitive Social Protection:  A Case for Enhancing Effectiveness and Efficiency in Development Programming; Oportunidades --- Mexico's Experience; China's Experience on Social Protection of Migrants to Urban Areas; Use of Technology in Delivering Social Protection:  The Case of M-PESA; International Experience of Delivering Social Protection:  Are There Lessons for Bangladesh?; Extreme Poor Adivasis and the Problem of Accessing Social safety Nets; Comprehensive Social Protection for the Urban Poor:  Integrating Health and Social Protection Programmes; Child Poverty in Bangladesh and the Social Protection Response:  A Brief Overview and Ways Forward; UNICEF Support to Bangladesh Government in Modeling Child Sensitive Social Protection; The Fiscal Dimensions of Social Protection Reforms in Bangladesh; The Treatment Effort of Social Safety Nets Programmes in Bangladesh:  A Regression Discontinuity Design Approach; and, Social Protection in Bangladesh:  The Road Ahead.

Notwithstanding the enormous challenges posed by political, economic, social, and environmental issues, as well as the initial questions posed soon after gaining its independence, internecine conflict, famine, total dependence on foreign aid, widespread poverty and deprivation, a decimated infrastructure and the systematic elimination of a good section of its educated population, Bangladesh has achieved much as a low income country:  5 to 6% annual economic growth for 15 years, reducing extreme poverty from 41% in 1991 to 17 % in 2010, and on target towards attaining many of the Millennium Development Goals.  The book identifies several factors contributing towards bringing about this enviable situation:  a combination of government, non-government and private sector endeavours that have led to economic growth spurred by macroeconomic stability and the rise of new industries (the RMG sector obviously comes to mind); a rapid decline in fertility rate; public investment in rural infrastructure, agriculture and food production; and the role of NGOs and community-based organizations in service delivery and women's empowerment.

However, more needs to be done, and different approaches required.  The editors say as much in Chapter 18:  “The transition from being a poor, rural country to an urbanized and middle income country requires a different approach --- a systematic and multi-dimensional approach that can face emerging challenges and vulnerabilities and harness the growing capacities of the country.  As the international experience shows, moving from a large portfolio of social protection programmes towards a systematic National Social protection Strategy --- grounded in well-structured institutional arrangements, resource access, improved service delivery --- could contribute to addressing the challenges that Bangladesh does and will face.”

In Chapter 11, David Hulme and Mathilde Maitrot suggest some lessons that Bangladesh could learn from international experience.  It has the resources to do so:  large number of mobile phone users, a dense population, and large numbers of bright young people.  Mobile phones can be used to serve and deliver health, education, food security, market information, and access to financial services.  Regarding institutional arrangements, the country has the possibility of decentralizing social protection programmes delivery system.  In Chapter 6, Armando Barrientos suggests a financial mix for developing countries for financing their social protection, and assistance from a range of sources that include government revenues, workers and employers' contributions, natural resource revenues, and foreign grants and loans.  He believes that international aid has short-term beneficial effects for low income countries, reallocating public expenditure and subsidies will be crucial in the short and medium term, while domestic resources will be important for the medium and long term financing of the extension of social protection institutions.

Luigi Ragno (in Chapter 3) discusses how, in developing countries, social protection has a developmental function and is designed to contribute to poverty alleviation by preventing people from falling into poverty (poverty entry) and by supporting people and households already living in poverty out of the situation (poverty exit).  He observes:  “…social protection instruments can lift restrictions on the productive capacity that households living in poverty face in, for instance, participating to saving scheme, securing of credit, improving consumption, as well as improving households resource allocations towards higher return investments in the short, medium and long term (e.g., children's education).  This, in turn, can contribute to micro level growth and poverty exit by facilitating the accumulation and protection of assets, supply of labour, and several types of local economy effects.”  Touching on children, Disa Sjoblom (in Chapter 14), while acknowledging that Bangladesh has made much progress with its social protection response to child poverty, suggests that the social protection system be developed by:  (1) placing children higher on the social protection agenda; (2) making household social protection programmes more child-sensitive; and (3) improving the effectiveness and inclusiveness of education stipends.

The social protection programmes in Bangladesh grew out of the country's early food and emergency relief schemes in the 1970s.  These projects were institutionalized in the 1980s and 1990s into an efficacious disaster management system to reduce the vulnerability of the millions of Bangladeshis regularly displaced by floods and major cyclones.  In the course of mapping out the evolution of social protection in Bangladesh, the editors (in Chapter 1) spell out its broad objectives:  “…promote human development --- reducing hunger, permitting access to basic health services for the vulnerable, getting girls and boys to school, providing security to the aged and disabled --- and they also contribute to economic development through employment, skill training, encouraging micro-enterprise and risk-taking, household level asset accumulation and local infrastructural development.”

The editors, though, are under no illusion as to the success rate of the social protection programmes:  “However, the contribution of social protection to Bangladesh's development is becoming increasingly constrained by the lack of a coherent strategic framework.  Without a vision of how the social protection portfolio can evolve into an integrated and harmonized system, and with so many programme and agencies involved (alongside their differing capacities and interests), the potential achievements of social protection are constrained.  Rationalizing the present portfolio, creating monitoring systems to assess performance, setting in motion experiments from which to develop innovative programmes, co-ordination and sharing of resources and designing effective institutional arrangements, are crucial challenges for the government of Bangladesh.”  Furthermore, to add to the woes, there is the problem of redundancy.  Specifically, as the editors point out, “…while the government and development partners have introduced many new programmes they rarely close down old programmes.  As a result, Bangladesh has witnessed a proliferation of safety net programmes over time.”

An interesting point that one may intermittently come across in the book is that some of the social protection programmes in Bangladesh are modeled after those in India.  To cite an example, the Employment Guarantee Programme that was introduced by the caretaker government (which was a controversial and dismal failure from both the political and economic standpoints) in 2008-09 was inspired by India's National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.  So it is ironic to come across an otherwise valid observation made by the editors:  “If Bangladesh wishes to avoid the shame of India --- becoming a middle income country with mass poverty --- it must pursue economic growth whilst systematically converting its social safety net programmes into a National Social Protection System.”  Social Protection in Bangladesh deals extensively with an area where Bangladesh has performed reasonably well, and in which it can excel even more.   

Shahid Alam is an actor, critic and former diplomat

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