6.53cr Bangladeshis need assistance: UN | The Daily Star
11:02 PM, July 24, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 10:40 AM, July 25, 2020

Pandemic hits poor, vulnerable

6.53cr Bangladeshis need assistance: UN

UNDP recommends cash aid of $25 a month for the poorest; govt yet to complete one-time cash aid scheme for 50 lakh families

Nearly 6.53 crore poor people in Bangladesh should receive time-bound temporary cash payments to cope with the worst impacts of Covid-19 pandemic, according to the United Nations.

A working paper of the United Nations Development Programme suggests those people should get a temporary basic income of at least $25 or Tk 2,100 per month, as the UNDP argues the financial aid would help slow the spread of the virus by enabling impoverished beneficiaries to stay home.

The money would give them the means to buy food and pay for health and education expenses, it said.

Titled "Temporary Basic Income: Protecting Poor and Vulnerable People in Developing Countries," the UNDP paper, released on Thursday, said an estimated $1,623.4 million would be required to help nearly 6.53 crore people living under or near the poverty line in Bangladesh.

The paper comes at a time when the coronavirus is wreaking havoc on people's income across the world, including in Bangladesh which is now the 16th worst hit country in terms of number of Covid-19 cases. Till yesterday, the death toll in the country stood at 2,836 while the total number of infections rose to 218,658.

The government has already started providing a monthly cash aid of Tk 2,500 to each of primarily estimated 50 lakh families, whose incomes have taken a hit by the pandemic. The move, however, has been marred with mismanagement.

The UNDP, a UN body, carried out assessments in the past few months on the socio-economic effects of Covid-19 in more than 60 countries.

The paper said around three billion of the world's poorest population should get financial aid to shield them from the impact of the pandemic, which has brought havoc to the developing world where millions work in the informal sectors with little access to government welfare or other support.

And it would cost from $199 billion per month to provide a time-bound, guaranteed basic income to the 2.7 billion people living below or just above the poverty line in 132 developing countries, said the paper.

It also said the measure is feasible and urgently needed, with the pandemic now spreading at a rate of more than 1.5 million new cases per week, particularly in developing countries, where seven out of 10 workers make a living through informal markets and cannot earn money if they are at home.

Speaking on the UNDP report, Zahid Hussain, former lead economist at the World Bank's Dhaka office, said there was little doubt that poverty in Bangladesh has increased significantly in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak.

The UNDP estimates 40 percent of the country's population need help and the estimation is pretty much in line with the perception surveys and simulations done by leading think tanks and researchers, he told The Daily Star yesterday.

The recommendation to provide cash support to the poor amounting to Tk 2,100 per month is also in accordance with inflation rate, he said.

He, however, said it would be a huge challenge to arrange the funds if the aid has to be provided for several months, he added.

"What is needed therefore is a national strategy on flattening the virus curve. For this, cash support of this kind will keep a large number of people in home while the government should launch aggressive Covid-19 testing and contact tracing in areas where transmission rate is high," Zahid said.

The UNDP paper said the economic costs imposed by the pandemic are hard not only for the existing poor, but also for those who were at high risk of falling into poverty before the pandemic and who are likely to experience a limited income-generating capacity.

Many of the huge numbers of people not covered by social insurance programmes are informal workers, low-waged, women and young people, refugees and migrants, and people with disabilities -- and they are the ones hardest hit by this crisis, it said.

Besides, according to a Brac survey, earnings of 51 percent households in Bangladesh plunged to zero due to the coronavirus outbreak.

A massive 95 percent people suffered losses in income, it said, adding that around 62 percent of low-income wage earners lost their work opportunities after public holidays were declared in late March to curb the spread of the virus.

Due to the income shock emanating from the pandemic, 77.2 percent of the vulnerable non-poor fell below the poverty line.

This would imply that beyond the 20.5 percent of the population officially recognised as poor, there is a group of "new poor" representing an additional 22.9 percent of the population that need to be brought within the discussion on poverty, it said.

Recently, a survey of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies said about 13 percent people have become unemployed in the country due to the pandemic.

To help people hit hard by the pandemic, the government allocated Tk 1,250 crore for nearly 50 lakh families where the breadwinners lost their jobs because of the shutdown of the economy.

Under the scheme, each of the poor families is supposed to receive Tk 2,500 a month.

Rickshaw and cart pullers, labourers, construction workers, farmers, employees of shops, and people employed at small businesses, poultry labourers and transport workers are supposed to be the beneficiaries. They would get the cash support through mobile financial services.

In order to execute the task properly, another Tk 8 crore was released. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the fund disbursement on May 14.

But the government has managed to disburse the funds only among 16.16 lakh families amid flaws and inconsistencies found in the list of beneficiaries.

Officials of the finance division said they were examining the list re-sent by the district administration and hoped that they would be able to provide the cash assistance to nearly 10 lakh families before the coming Eid.

Zahid Hussain said the Tk 2,500 cash transfer programme has suffered from serious management problems.

"It stumbled at the very start with a large number of fake beneficiaries included in the list. This has caused major implementation delays as well as abuse of scarce budgetary resources," he said.

"Design of any new cash support programme must start with a legitimate list of eligible beneficiaries identified by experts and institutions who deal with the poor and the vulnerable population. Electronic transfers directly to the targeted poor is possible if there is sufficient will to do so," added the renowned economist.

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