Is the social safety net becoming a bottomless pit?
It's a classic case of contradictions central to how Bangladesh approaches its major problems. The country, according to a new report, has a commendable social safety net programme on paper, with substantial allocations that place it among the top four countries in the Asia-Pacific region. To that effect, the government spends more than Bhutan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, China and others in terms of the share of GDP. Yet, like many other centrally undertaken pro-people interventions, the social safety net programme suffers from myriad challenges that have the effect of cancelling out its benefits, making it all but cosmetic.
The report, unveiled by the World Bank on Thursday, offers an insight into what's keeping the programme from delivering expected results. It identifies poor targeting and unplanned deployment among the major roadblocks to success. The targeting problem has various components. For example, 49-66 percent of the beneficiaries of allowance and food support programmes in Bangladesh are not poor, the report says citing the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey. The implication of this is not difficult to comprehend: the inclusion of so many undeserved beneficiaries can only mean the exclusion of so many deserved beneficiaries, which is a frightening thought. In some cases, the problem of poor targeting results in areas with higher poverty rates receiving less coverage than areas with lower poverty incidence. Reallocating existing transfers to the poorest could reduce poverty by 24 percent, the report says. It also underscores the gap between urban and rural populations and different risk groups in terms of the benefits received. Although rebalancing geographic allocations (with a greater focus on the urban poor) and using a comprehensive social registry could help identify the most deserved beneficiaries, the lack of flexibility, coordination and accountability in the system means that these problems persist.
The delivery/deployment problem is another major challenge. A huge number of poor beneficiaries could benefit from the programme if its resources were deployed properly and fast. For example, according to the World Bank report, central allocations for the Food for Work programme were released relatively fast, but delays of up to 100 days were noted between receipt of funds, project approval, implementation and payments. This is unacceptable. Ideally, if the multiplicity of steps in the process could be cut down, it wouldn't take more than 10 days to transfer funds from the treasury to the beneficiaries. We are told that digitising the payment system is on the cards, and that by June next year, all social safety net payments would be done through the government-to-person scheme. We only hope that this will be done as planned and with the urgency it deserves.
The pandemic has exposed the underbelly of our social safety net programme like nothing else in the past. It has pushed many new categories of people into poverty and many existing poor into further destitution, which calls for a system that is robust, efficient and adaptive. Even though the government announced a number of schemes to help them, the benefits of those have eluded the most vulnerable because of the lack of proper planning and execution, as well as corruption. We urge the government to take the World Bank report seriously and implement its recommendations.