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Promoting universal social protection system

The need for targeting disadvantaged groups

November 26, 2023 00:00:00

Bangladesh has made remarkable strides in terms of socio-economic advancement indicators, sustaining an average yearly Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth of close to 6 per cent since the early 1990s, accelerating the pace in recent times, and markedly reducing poverty incidence from nearly 60 per cent to about 18.7 per cent in 2022. However, significant challenges remain in tackling poverty and in addressing the manifold vulnerabilities that inform the growth narrative. To recall, only 28 per cent of the country's population is covered by at least one social safety net programme. In urban areas, social protection coverage is even lower, at only about 10 per cent, according to the Household Income Expenditure Survey (HIES) data of 2016. Additionally, the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic of the recent past has exposed major weaknesses in the prevailing social protection system in Bangladesh. Extensive job cuts triggered by the pandemic revealed significant shortcomings in the system as it failed to offer proper assistance to individuals who became suddenly jobless.

Against the above backdrop, more specifically in view of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which has the "Leave No One Behind" (LNOB) spirit at the centre of focus, the case for establishing a Universal Social Protection system (USP) in Bangladesh has emerged as a key deliverable that demands urgent attention and action on the part of policymakers. Indeed, Bangladesh's commitment to social protection is enshrined in the country's constitution. Article 15 of the constitution stipulates that securing the right to social protection is a fundamental state responsibility.

The introduction of the USP system will allow Bangladesh to strengthen social protection across four broad aspects: universal coverage; comprehensive protection in terms of risks covered; adequacy of protection across the life cycle; and sustainability of the social protection system.

It is important to note that countries have chosen a diverse range of ways to achieve USP. A number of countries provide universal social protection for children through either a single universal child grant or a blend of multiple programmes. For instance, in Argentina, over 80 per cent of children benefit from a combination of different programmes, which include (a) social assistance and (b) social insurance.

It is thus worth noting that there is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach to establishing a USP scheme. Bangladesh's socio-economic context and specific vulnerabilities will need to be considered while rolling out the USP system. To this end, the spirit of the SDGs, "Leave No One Behind (LNOB)", should serve as one of the key guiding principles that inform the USP framework.

In light of these, this paper puts forward several actionable recommendations which are expected to pave the way for launching a comprehensive USP scheme in Bangladesh which will enable vulnerable citizens to address various shocks which they are likely to face across lifecycle phases.


Conduct a comprehensive needs assessment by keeping vulnerable groups in the focus, with the help of a community-based and participatory approach. As was noted, Bangladesh has a range of vulnerable groups, each struggling with unique challenges in terms of vulnerabilities. However, the current social safety net programmes (SSNPs) have proved to be inadequate to tackle the situation. For example, the per capita benefits under cash transfer programmes are inadequate and arbitrarily determined. Also, it is important to note that the proliferation of fragmented programmes, as is the case now, is not good value for the money spent. There is a need for a holistic approach. A pragmatic approach over the short term would be to enhance and expand existing programmes to accommodate the needs of disadvantaged groups. This could lay the foundation of the USP scheme over the medium term. For designing an appropriate USP scheme for Bangladesh, there is a need to carry out a thorough needs assessment for each vulnerable community at a disaggregated (e.g., district) level. Such assessment must take into cognisance inputs offered by community leaders and members, through participatory social dialogues and consultations, both at national and grassroots levels. This will help design a more inclusive and responsive social protection system that considers the specific needs of the diverse range of vulnerable communities and a broad range of vulnerabilities. The results of the needs assessment should inform the policy decision to scale up and expand existing social protection programmes and innovate new ones.

It is also important to note that such an exercise will help enhance social protection floors i.e., the basic set of social protection guarantees provided to citizens according to international best practices. Effective social protection floors, in general, are found to ensure four guarantees: (a) essential healthcare services; (b) income security for children; (c) income security for the unemployed, underemployed, disabled, sick and the poor; and (d) income security for the elderly.

Adopt and implement a pragmatic action plan by taking advantage of the needs assessment findings and engaging stakeholders through social dialogues. A well-running USP scheme would entail rolling out an action plan. This will need to be designed by engaging with a range of stakeholders and by making critical policy decisions to be implemented across multiple years. In order to ensure that the programmes meet their intended purpose and are truly inclusive, social dialogues with key stakeholder groups, particularly with vulnerable and disadvantaged groups and communities will be crucially important. Implemented properly, such social dialogues can form a fundamental building block for an LNOB-centred USP scheme.

With the help of such an inclusive and participatory approach, policymakers will be able to identify and prioritise, adaptation tools, legal frameworks, financing modalities, monitoring and evaluation methods and data requirements for introducing a comprehensive USP in Bangladesh. This will also help them to undertake sustainable and responsive initiatives. Informed of this, specific programmes may be designed and subsequently integrated with relevant national policies, plans and strategies.

Key stakeholders who will need to be involved in the process of consultations include, but are not limited to (a) direct beneficiaries of the programmes; (b) high-level policymakers, representatives of political parties and Members of Parliament; (c) local level government functionaries such as Deputy Commissioners and local level elected representatives such as Zila, Upazila and Union Parishad Members; (d) implementation facilitators including Ministry officials, as also other actors such as enlisted distributors of the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh's Open Market Sales programme; (e) Civil Society Organisations and Rights Groups, particularly those advocating for the rights of vulnerable groups and communities.

Formulate appropriate and sustainable financing mechanisms for the USP scheme. Once the fundamental principles of social protection are established in line with the constitution and national strategies and agendas, a clearly articulated mechanism for financing the scheme will need to be framed. While many social protection schemes were implemented over the years, the reality of fiscal space has constrained the ability of the government to scale them up and raise entitlements. Against this backdrop, it is critically important that a well-thought-out roadmap for financing the USP scheme is prepared which is able to operate on a sustainable basis.

According to an estimate carried out by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, an international organisation, Bangladesh will need to invest an additional 3.5 per cent of GDP in social protection to help close the existing income and health gaps. While this may not be a precise estimate, it does provide some indication about the range of resources required for implementing the proposed USP scheme.

Bangladesh's social protection system is, for the most part, tax-financed. The amount spent is equivalent to about 2.52 per cent of the GDP. The government (as per the Perspective Plan Bangladesh Vision 2041) intends to increase the tax-GDP ratio to 19.6 per cent by FY2031 and 21.9 per cent by FY2041, compared to the 9.99 per cent target for FY2024. If these targets are achieved, fiscal space will be created. Thus, it is important that the government gives the highest priority to issues of domestic resource mobilisation to create the required fiscal space. The government can set annual targets for social protection allocation, as per cent of GDP, for each fiscal year. This can be done through a gradual increase in allocation, as a percentage of the budget and the GDP, in line with the targeted rise in revenue collection.

It should also be noted that, ideally, a USP system should aim to strike a balance between tax-financed and contributory programmes, with contributory schemes going beyond unemployment and healthcare insurance, and addressing such vulnerabilities as crop failure and climate risks. A clear framework for deciding which programme should be tax-financed and which should be contributory needs to be decided. International experience may be studied to this end. A research study suggests that a "risk-layering approach" to financing may be a good way to proceed in this connection. The risk layering approach stipulates that risks that have a high impact on economic and social outcomes (i.e., severity of shocks and risks), but a low frequency (perhaps only a few times throughout an individual's lifetime), such as healthcare insurance for fatal diseases, should be contributory. On the other hand, risks that occur with high frequency but with lower severity, such as minor health issues, can be tax-financed. In addition to designing a framework for deciding which programmes should be contributory and which should be tax-financed, the government should also assess the viability of involving the private sector through contributions from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds to underwrite specific elements of the USP scheme.

Establish and mobilise district job centres to connect left-behind groups to productive jobs. Connecting marginalised populations to job opportunities is expected to have a transformative impact, by helping to lift such groups out of poverty and deprivation through income-generating activities, on a sustainable basis. Although Bangladesh is implementing various public works programmes, the per capita benefit is rather low, and the skills acquired can hardly be used for integration into the mainstream workforce. In addition, issues such as youth unemployment, skills mismatch, and a significant informal workforce remain key challenges in view of the country's labour market dynamics.

Incentivising productive employment, the establishment of district job centres could play an important role. This could lay the foundation for a USP system through active labour market policies. The aforesaid centres can offer three different types of support: labour-market responsive training, job placement counselling, and start-up/entrepreneurship support. Support of development partners can be leveraged to establish these job centres. The centres can also engage with the local private sector and enterprises to provide in-demand and labour-market-responsive training and placement support. Such centres can also help generate the necessary labour market data and help build a comprehensive data bank on labour market information, catering to both the demand and supply side. Such an approach will help harness the productive capacity of the workforce and generate employment opportunities to help the marginalised groups graduate out of vulnerabilities. Such an approach is also in line with the SDG localisation approach which takes into account spatial dimensions of vulnerabilities and job market needs.

Put the needed legal frameworks in place for introducing the USP scheme. To provide universal social protection on a sustainable basis, it is important to put in place effective legal frameworks. This could be in the form of a comprehensive social security act or through separate acts for social security and social insurance and others. Legal frameworks in place in other countries may be studied in this connection. Legal frameworks play an important role by delineating the responsibilities of various stakeholders and by providing a sound legal foundation to secure the rights of citizens and their entitlements. Legal frameworks also provide predictability in this backdrop.

A well-designed and legally framed USP will bring several advantages to the table. This would ensure clarity, equity, legality and stability by defining explicit rules and guidelines for entitlements, and for implementation of the USP scheme. It will guard against discrimination, ensure sustainable financing and promote transparency and accountability. A sound legal structure will safeguard the rights of beneficiaries, facilitate coordination involving programme implementers, and allow for the necessary adaptation of programmatic interventions to address evolving societal and economic needs.

Address data limitations towards better USP implementation. The NSSS has rightly identified the need for a comprehensive and sound database to implement social protection programmes. However, the database is yet to be established. To note, at present there is no integrated Management Information System (MIS) for the 113 social protection programmes in place. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) has taken an initiative to establish a National Household Database (NHD), by digitising household-level data, to feed into the social protection targeting system. However, this has yet to materialise. Lack of an integrated MIS means that programmes have to rely on traditional means of targeting, such as Proxy Means Tests (PMTs), or community-based selection with the help of local government agencies. The latter, in particular, exposes the existing social protection system to leakages and mis-targeting, thus undermining its effectiveness. The lack of reliable and up-to-date data creates opportunities for relatively better-off individuals to receive benefits earmarked for the disadvantaged. These issues can be mitigated through the implementation of a sound MIS. A dynamic MIS will need to incorporate changes in household status on a regular basis. If this can be done, targeting and selection of social protection programmes will be more accurate and leakages and wastages will be significantly reduced. Such a database will be a good foundation on which to build an inclusive, universal and comprehensive USP scheme in Bangladesh.

Strengthen and scale up the USP in alignment with the lifecycle framework proposed in the NSSS. The NSSS envisages consolidation of the social safety net programmes in alignment with life cycle demands. The goal is to minimise leakages and enhance efficiency by streamlining and merging the disparate programmes and the various initiatives undertaken by the line ministries and agencies. This is important since, as was noted earlier, the social protection system in Bangladesh includes a significantly large number of programmes that are scattered across various implementing entities. This has led to a structure that is spread too thin and over too many programmes. The adverse implications of this uncoordinated system are manifold: the efficiency of social protection programmes is adversely impacted because of duplication, widespread leakages, selection and targeting bias and, in general, makes the system difficult for the beneficiaries to access and take advantage of. Efforts towards consolidation of the various programmes have, till now, been mostly ad hoc. However, note that although this is an exception, the Child Benefit programme is being implemented at present by merging the Maternity Allowance programme and the Lactating Mother's Allowance programme (renamed as the Mother and Child Benefit programme). Key areas identified for consolidation include the merging of small schemes and special programmes, priority schemes to protect against life cycle risks, and consolidation of the various food transfer programmes under the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief.

Introduce an effective grievance redressal system. It is high time to put in place a transparent grievance redressal system for the effective execution of social protection programmes. A dedicated and widely advertised toll-free helpline should be introduced to enable citizens, particularly the marginalised LNOB groups, to report any irregularities and register complaints to relevant authorities directly, regarding concerns about the implementation of social protection programmes. Past experience with respect to dedicated hotlines using the number 333 during the COVID pandemic and cyclone disasters has been highly positive. The redressal system must articulate clear timelines for addressing grievances and should ensure that these are dealt with effectively and promptly. Periodic audits should be undertaken to establish accountability and ensure responsibility.

Establish a monitoring and evaluation system to assess the efficacy of the USP scheme. Along with the implementation of the USP schemes, a rigorous monitoring and evaluation (M and E) system should be put in place. Regrettably, rigorous post-roll-out impact assessment of projects by government agencies is largely absent. As a result, it is difficult to know if the programmes being implemented are achieving their objectives. This also limits the scope for ex-post cost-benefit analysis of programmes, meaning that it is difficult to judge whether social protection programmes are making use of public money effectively. It also exposes the programmes to risks when attempts are made to scale up; embedded weaknesses of programmes create new bottlenecks when this is attempted. A sound M and E system will help identify weaknesses, adapt interventions, undertake mid-course corrections and ensure accountability. M and E exercise should cover activities at all levels, from the ministries to the local-level functionaries involved with the implementation of the USP scheme, and cover all aspects of implementation. Not only is this crucial to raising the efficacy of interventions but this will also ensure inclusivity if citizens and beneficiary groups are involved in the M and E exercise.

Deploy technology to improve the efficacy of USP implementation. Cross-country experiences of implementing social protection programmes bear out that smart technologies are being used in an increasing manner to enhance efficiency and reduce leakages in social protection schemes. Bangladesh should draw appropriate lessons from this experience and should take advantage of the advanced technologies and put in place similar systems. Indeed, the deployment of technology should be embedded in the USP design to make the scheme more effective. For example, the use of advanced smart technology can help identify, in real-time, communities and individuals who are at risk in view of shocks such as natural disasters. Geographic Information System (GIS) could help the providers to adapt and modify social protection schemes speedily in view of the changing needs of the affected groups. Technology can also be used to predict shocks and their severity. This would allow the government to effectively assess coverage, range and depth of support to be provided. Indeed, technology can be integrated along the entire delivery chain of the USP -- identification of target groups, registration and enrolment, delivery of services, M and E and grievance redressal. The introduction of a modern USP scheme in Bangladesh will need to be founded on the advantages of modern technology.

Concluding Observations

As has been noted, promoting the cause of the USP scheme in Bangladesh is highly commensurate with Bangladesh's aspiration of transitioning to a developed and socially inclusive country by 2041. The country's commitment to social protection is outlined in its constitution which puts emphasis on the provisioning of basic necessities, rights to work and rights to social security.

To strengthen the social protection system in Bangladesh, the establishment of a USP system should be seen as the next important step for Bangladesh going forward. However, this will need to be done by not reaping the mistakes of the past. The task can begin with conducting a thorough and evidence-based demand assessment of various marginalised groups as part of reforming the existing schemes. Existing programmes should undergo a thorough impact assessment to ensure effectiveness, minimise leakages and establish a transparent accountability system. Available benefits should be increased gradually through a sustainable and robust financing mechanism. Gradually, a well-designed USP scheme can be put in place through a blending of tax-financed and contributory programmes. Allocations must be increased by following a transparent and well-planned timeline. The potential of private sector contributions, through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds, should be properly assessed. Establishing district job centres could help tackle various labour market challenges and provide employment support to different marginalised groups, enabling them to graduate out of social protection schemes. The creation of decent job opportunities for disadvantaged groups must be seen as a key anchor for providing universal social protection in Bangladesh.

A reliable database, with real-time information for proper targeting and appropriate selection, is critically important for USP implementation. Advanced technological tools will need to be taken advantage of at each stage of implementation of the USP scheme. In order to advance the cause of the USP, it is important to put in place the necessary legal framework. This would entail the formulation of a comprehensive social security act to provide legal coverage to a sustainable system which is based on the notion of rights and entitlement of citizens. By implementing the USP scheme, Bangladesh can pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable society, by leaving no one behind. A USP scheme should be seen as a key deliverable from the perspective of attaining Bangladesh's aspiration of transitioning to a socially inclusive developed country by 2041.

The paper is an abridged version of a policy brief which is prepared by a team of experts with Ms Shaheen Anam, Core Group Member, Citizen's Platform and Executive Director, Manusher Jonno Foundation, as Chair and Dr Mohammad Abu Eusuf, Professor, Dept. of Development Studies, University of Dhaka and Executive Director, RAPID, as the Penholder Expert. Other team members are Dr S M Zulfiqar Ali, Senior Research Fellow, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS); Dr Mohammad Mahfuz Kabir, Research Director, Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS); Dr Imran Matin, Executive Director, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD); Mr Tofazzel Hossain Monju, RIC Committee Member, Resource Integration Center (RIC); Dr Mustafa K Mujeri, Executive Director, Institute for Inclusive Finance and Development (InM) and Former Director General, BIDS; Mr Md Harun or Rashid, Chief Executive, Light House, and Mr Asif Saleh, Executive Director, BRAC.

The Policy Brief exercise is the outcome of an initiative of the Citizen's Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh hosted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD). The initiative was led by Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya and Professor Mustafizur Rahman, Distinguished Fellows at CPD. [email protected]

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