Over the last decade, the country has gained impressive economic growth and achieved significant poverty reduction. In spite of all the progress in social and economic indicators, poverty reduction remains a great challenge—particularly the rising inequality across different populations of the country. As the National Action Plan for implementation of the NSSS (2016-2021) is going to end this year and the nation is going to have its new budget, it is high time to shed some light on the implementation of the SSPs and look for some ways to overcome the hurdles.
We appreciate that, to boost the pandemic-shaken economy of the country and to enhance the quality of life among the extreme poor and vulnerable, the government has allocated Tk 95,574 crore for its social security programme, which is 16.83 percent of the total budget and three percent of GDP in Fiscal Year (FY) 2020-21. In 2016, the government increased the number of beneficiaries of the SSPs to 11 million. As a result, the families receiving the benefits of the programme increased from 24.5 percent in 2010 to 27.8 percent in 2020. However, this increase is not distributed proportionately, considering the number of extreme poor in the north-western part of the country. Moreover, the allowances for old aged persons and widows are not distributed fairly according to the size of such populations in the divisions.
It was observed that although the poverty rate is highest in Rangpur division, it did not receive the highest allocation. According to an estimation of the Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) 2016 of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, the services that benefit the most vulnerable households, like widowed, divorced or destitute women, are also not distributed equivalent to their population size by divisions. From an analysis, it was found that 4.2 percent of households received allowances meant for widowed, divorced and destitute women in Rangpur division, which is below the national average. It is also lower compared to the actual population size in the division under the category. However, although fewer impoverished people live in Dhaka and Chattogram divisions, a higher percentage of women—6.72 and 5.76 respectively—received the allowances there. Similar discrimination is also found in the case of allowances for old aged persons and mothers.
In many cases, it was observed that the benefits of social security were distributed to comparatively less poor households. It was mentioned by many potential beneficiaries in the villages that the social security benefits go to the non-poor and not to genuinely eligible people. As has been analysed in the Midterm Review on Implementation (MTI) of the National Social Security Strategy, the targeting errors in beneficiary selection are very high for different schemes directed at poor and vulnerable groups. It has been revealed in the MTI that the exclusion error—the eligible households not receiving social security benefits—estimated from the HIES 2016, is a shocking 71 percent. In other words, as much as almost three-quarters of poor and vulnerable households remain outside of SSP coverage. On the other hand, the inclusion error—the households that should not have been included in SSPs—was found to be applicable to an astonishing 46.5 percent of the total programme participants. That means close to half of all programme participants are actually ineligible and, if there were no targeting irregularities, the number of eligible recipients could almost double even without increasing the social protection budget.
It is worth mentioning here that, as per the provision of the rules, there shall be two persons engaged in the union-based selection committee from civil society, who are respected in the community. However, party affiliation often dominates the selection of these members. The challenges have been further compounded by the new system of political party-nominated candidates for local government elections. As a consequence, the selections of beneficiaries are predominantly politically biased. Hence, eligible people are excluded and ineligible people are included in the lists prepared for different services. It is also observed that there is a lack of information flow, as the lists prepared for such services are seldom shared publicly or displayed in the Union Parishad so that people can give their opinions.
The following recommendations are formulated on the basis of the analysis of implementation of the NSSS in the Rangpur and Rajshahi divisions, where the eligible beneficiaries of the SSP and frontline workers of NGOs gave their views.
First, the selection methods should be made known and the place and time of the meeting for selection of the committee members should be publicly announced to make them accessible to the inhabitants of the wards. Inclusion of representatives of the beneficiaries, NGOs and the civil society in the existing provision of selection committees should also be ensured at union, upazila, and district levels.
In selecting beneficiaries for old age allowance, the NID is considered as the only basis of verification. However, there are frequent mistakes in NIDs, so other means should also be considered acceptable.
The local authorities should display the list of beneficiaries in their offices and the list should be supplied to the civil society, social workers and NGOs. A complaints/suggestions box should be placed in the Union Parishad, and the opinions given by the people should be discussed with all relevant stakeholders.
The distribution of allocations should be determined equitably based on data of region-wise poverty distribution. During the determination of allocations for the social protection budget, local needs should be considered and the participation of people and civil society should be ensured in the selection process. In addition, provision of allowances per person should be adequate to maintain the subsistence level of livelihoods for the households.
There should also be a complete and regularly updated database of the extreme poor and vulnerable households, and selection of the beneficiaries should be based on it. To reduce irregularities, the monitoring system has to be further strengthened and representatives of civil society should be engaged in the process. Lastly, income generation support should be introduced in addition to existing social safety net support.
We are on the verge of getting the budget for the new fiscal year in this perilous time of the coronavirus pandemic. As food security and the livelihoods of the poor and vulnerable people are threatened by growing unemployment in formal and informal sectors, there is a serious need to increase the allocation for SSPs in the upcoming budget and to maximise their impact.
Habibur Rahman Chowdhury is a development practitioner who writes on development issues. Asim Kumar Roy is a development practitioner.