The government has launched a significant programme to provide rice at Tk 10 a kilogram to the ultra-poor across the country. Under the programme titled 'Sheikh Hasinar Bangladesh, Khudha hobe Niruddesh' (Hunger to vanish in Bangladesh of Sheikh Hasina), each card holder, mainly in monga-affected districts, would get rice at Taka 10 per kilogram for five months a year during the lean season. About five million poor families would get the food support for the months of March, April, September, October and November every year.
As per official announcement, the food programme for the ultra poor would cover the entire country gradually for which special cards would be issued. Exactly that is where the shoe pinches. Will the ultra-poor get the ladder to come out of poverty or will the huge quantity of rice meant for them fatten the pockets of those who will be at the helm of affairs?
The months have been selected in view of job scarcity for the day-labourers during lean period. Besides, female-headed families, widows, divorced or abandoned women and the poor households with children were given priority under the food support programme. The government has allocated Taka 21 billion for food-support programme to distribute food among the poor with Taka 27 subsidy for each kilogram of rice.
Officials said, the ultra poor families have been selected through the local public representatives. But who are they? What was their track record when they were given the charge of implementing various social protection programmes for the poor at the grassroots? Will the ultra-poor, who do not support the ruling party in villages, get the heavily subsidised rice? Or will the target groups be motivated to join the ruling party only to get the rice as almost all the local representatives belong to the party in power? These are basic questions now being asked by keen observers.
The country already has the bitter experience in implementing social safety net programmes where the target groups were often ignored to enrich the pockets of rural vested groups. The quantity of rice to be allocated for a whopping number of five million ultra-poor families will be enough for the vested groups to mint money unless the recipient families are strictly and impartially selected. It is indeed a crude fact that despite Bangladesh's remarkable progress of lifting 16 million people out of poverty in the past decade, poverty remains a stubborn problem, with about 47 million people living in poverty and 26 million in extreme poverty. To support the poor and vulnerable, the government is implementing a number of social safety net programmes that involve spending of more than 2.0 per cent of GDP yearly. Despite these interventions, 70 per cent of poor people still do not receive any safety net support, mainly due to shortcomings in identifying poor beneficiaries and weak programme administration.
The government must categorically identify beneficiaries and implementing agencies of the cheap food programme in order to avert leak and a lack of coordination. Fragmented bureaucratic set-up, coupled with corruption and irregularities, also takes a toll on the schemes. The budgetary allocation for the social safety net projects has gone up over the years. But the yield is not satisfactory. The government has to find out the reasons behind the failure to achieve desired success and take remedial steps.
The harsh realities are that the eligible beneficiaries are not being targeted in the projects. Guidelines are not being followed. There are nepotism and corruption as well. There must be a database of half of the nearly 27 per cent population living below the poverty line. Otherwise, no projects will be successful. According to Binayak Sen, research director of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, although about 2.0 per cent of the GDP is being spent on safety net projects, the country will not be able to narrow income inequality by leaving out disparities unaddressed in the 98 per cent of the GDP. It is time for preparing a database of the country's richest one per cent people alongside a database of the extreme poor, as the top one per cent is beyond the surveillance.
Bangladesh will have to go a long way before having a desired social protection system. "Bangladesh currently spends Tk 156 for a person under the social safety net. You can't have an effective social protection system with that amount of per capita spending," he said. The economist said the country also needs to think about the older people, as they currently account for about 7.0 per cent of the population, but will be 20 per cent of the populace 10 years later.
CARE Bangladesh has made an independent assessment and identified non-transparent processes in targeting beneficiaries, absence of baseline information and strong governance, abuse of political power and insufficient allocation as the major challenges for the social protection schemes. Other obstacles include a lack of monitoring, overlapping in getting entitlements and the poor being left out. The government should also include the issue of healthcare and health insurance in its social protection system, as illness is the main contributor to poverty across the world.