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Putting health and education at centre stage

Syed Fattahul Alim | June 05, 2023 12:00:00

Health care and education should be guaranteed for all citizens in a modern state. That the state should meet these two basic human needs is recognised in the constitution and no government of the nation in its over half a century of existence ever denied the primacy of health and education. But when it comes to allocation of resources for the two sectors of the economy, all the successive governments seem to have been rather stingy, especially in terms of the budgetary allocations for either sector. The just announced national budget for the next financial year FY2023-24 has been no exception. The allocation for the health sector is Tk 380.520 billion which is about 5.0 per cent of the total budget. Given the higher size of the next fiscal's proposed budget at over Tk7.61 trillion, the allocation figure in absolute amount for health may look bigger than last year's, but in terms of its (health budget's) ratio with total budget, it has rather declined. The last fiscal's allocation for health was 5.44 per cent of the total budget. There was, however, no explanation as to why it is so, though the finance minister was quite unambiguous about his government's commitment to ensuring quality healthcare for all citizens.

Similarly, despite official rhetoric, the actual allocation for education, at Tk880 billion, is 11.57 per cent of the total budget. It is no doubt bigger than last fiscal's education budget in absolute terms. But as a proportion of the total, it has declined from the previous fiscal's 12 per cent.

Either as a proportion of the total national budget, or of the GDP's (FY24's education budget is 1.76 per cent of the GDP), it is far lower than what it should be according to international standards. In fact, it should have been close to 20 per cent of the total budget or about six per cent of the GDP. The argument of a poor country's limitations should no more apply to Bangladesh's case, as it is looking to join soon the club of the middle income nations. So, the shares of the budgetary allocations for the health and education sectors vis-à-vis the total national budget should be reflective of the priority the nation attaches to the social sectors under scrutiny. But such arguments have also certain assumptions. The assumptions are that the allocated amounts of money for the sectors in question would be spent as planned as spelt out in the Annual Development Programmes (ADPs). In the current fiscal year (FY23), for instance, in 10 months between July and April, only 33 per cent of the of the allocated funds for the revised ADP (which was close to 34 per cent less than the original ADP allocation) could be spent by the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS). To all appearances, the question of 100 per cent utilisation of even the truncated ADP allocation will not be possible within the time left. Picture for the education is similar. What is of concern is that not only the overall government expenditures for education is on a falling curve over the years (it was 0.17 per cent less in 2021 than what it was is in 2020. While in 2020, it was 0.94 percent less than what it was 2019 and so on). Evidently, the size of the total budget and with it those of the different sectors have proportionally increased. But utilisation of whatever allocations have been made particularly for education have shrunken over the years. The same is true of the health sector. The lack of capacity to spend the allocated funds on the part of ministries concerned have led to further curtailment of allocations in the ADPs. But can the lack of capacity, not to mention corruption, be a perennial excuse for shrinking allocations for the two most vital sectors of human development in the economy? If there is lack of capacity regarding fund utilisation, then the blame for the same can again be laid at the government's door. It is again the government's job to develop the capacity of implementing agencies, here the respective ministries. Part of that capacity building should be reducing, if not removing altogether, corruption in the sectors concerned. Health and education sectors are mired by corruption? The government in the last one decade has laid its highest stress on infrastructure building. Undoubtedly, impressive infrastructures make development visible. Infrastructures, especially physical ones, definitely contribute to accelerating economic growth as resources, both human and materials can be conveyed faster to the centres of growth in the economy. But the highways, the bridges and the railways are of course the indicators of increased capacity of the economy.

True, investments in the health and education sectors do not show up as quickly and dazzlingly as they do in the case of physical infrastructures. But in the longer term, the opposite is true. The benefits of higher investments in health and education are better reaped by the generations to come. That is exactly why the aging generation now at the helm of affairs is working so hard. Otherwise, the entire effort will be meaningless.

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