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Adopt shock-responsive social safety net prog: Experts

FE Report | August 28, 2021 00:00:00

Bangladesh needs to adopt a shock-responsive social-safety-net programme with perfect identification of the extreme poor, experts at a webinar said on Thursday.

Such a social protection strategy will not only prevent inclusive and exclusive errors from the state-sponsored financial or non-financial benefits but also give enough impetus to the economically vulnerable groups to cope with shocks like Covid-19 pandemic and climate change-induced events, they said.

To achieve the target, they also laid emphasis on proper integration of the government and non-government initiatives alongside enough focus on the protection of indigenous communities or minority groups.

The suggestions and observations came at the webinar, titled 'Eradicating Extreme Poverty: Emerging lessons & approaches'.

The event is part of the integrated dialogue campaign 'Bangladesh Miracle - Celebrating 50 years of Development Progress of Bangladesh', organised by the Innovision Consulting Private Limited in association with The Financial Express and the Department of Economics at North South University.

Syeda Saima Ahmed, elected local government representative, London Borough of Redbridge, UK, moderated the virtual dialogue where CARE Bangladesh country director Ramesh Singh delivered a welcome speech.

Mr Singh said the pandemic badly impacted economic and social activities of Bangladesh like other countries in the world and it increased the level of poverty, with adding emerging new poor.

Citing recent data from the country's planning commission, he said the rate of extreme poverty rose from 10.5 per cent to 20.5 per cent in June, 2021 because of the pandemic.

The commission also estimated that the incidence of poverty increased from 20.5 per cent to 29.4 per cent due to the adverse impact of the highly infectious viral disease, said Mr Singh.

"It is a high time to explore and focus on innovation and sustainable programmes for poverty reduction," CARE Bangladesh's country director emphasised.

While presenting a keynote paper, Managing Director of the Innovision Consulting Md Rubaiyath Sarwar said Bangladesh had moved forward after facing many unique challenges over the years.

But Covid has exposed some of the vulnerabilities, including weaker shock-absorption capacity of the urban poor than that of the rural counterpart because of low savings, he said.

Mr Sarwar said non-poor had become extremely vulnerable due to the threat of market dysfunctions and mounting threat on urban economy.

"So, the slippage risk is very high," he said, suggesting recognition of the new poor before bringing them under social safety net coverage.

He also recommended introducing the social safety net programme for returnee migrant workers alongside strengthening social protection for sticky population like ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, transgender, internally displaced communities and sex workers.

Speaking at the event, professor of economics at University of Dhaka Sayema Haque Bidisha said there were differences between poverty and vulnerability, extreme poor and poor, existing poor and new poor.

"So, when we are designing the policy framework, we must keep these aspects in mind," she underscored.

She said the price volatility issue did not get enough importance while talking about poverty. "It is extremely important to keep the price level at a tolerable rate not only for the poor people but also for the middle-income group as well," Mrs Bidisha said.

To ensure price predictability, she suggested strengthening the capacity of OMS (open market sale) and monitoring the market in an effective way.

She said the pandemic gave a lesson to think of a poverty reduction mechanism going out of the box.

"We've to focus our discussion on occupation-based poverty and vulnerability because some occupation groups are very vulnerable falling back to poverty in dealing with shocks like the Covid-19," she said.

Highlighting the importance of proper targeting, Fatima Jahan Seema, social research coordinator of CARE Bangladesh, said an effective way of targeting could actually bring a lot of success.

There are many targeting tools but the country needs a good combination of methods including community engagement, she added.

Talking about the factors that help sustain graduation, Dr Mehrul Islam, senior director (PEARL Unit) of CARE Bangladesh, said social resilience among the poor and extreme poor needed to be developed.

He also highlighted the need for a multi-pronged strategy for eradicating poverty from society.

Masing Newar, programme and policy officer (safety net reform) of WFP Bangladesh Country Office, said Bangladesh continued to experience consequences of global climate change while Covid-19 showed how devastating and prolonged shocks like the pandemic could easily derail poverty progress and create the new poor.

"So, a shock-responsive social safety-net programme can be introduced by providing additional support and services during or before the crisis to the beneficiaries," she further said.

There are very few social safety net programmes targeting the ethnic minorities, but no such programme is being implemented for indigenous communities in the plain land where 80 per cent least focused groups are living, she pointed out.

Supreme Court lawyer Md Rejaul Karim Siddiquee said existing laws and policies on poverty alleviation were not fully compliant with the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.

He said an inclusive atmosphere for such communities was needed for alleviation of poverty.

"There are many laws and policies but these are not being implemented. That's why, persons with disabilities are not getting the benefits of the poverty eradication programmes," he opined.

Dr AKM Atiqur Rahman, professor of the Department of Economics at North South University, said manufacturing and service sectors had played an important role in eradication of urban poverty but these income generating areas were hit hard by the Covid-19.

On the other hand, agriculture and non-farm activities largely contributed to reducing poverty in rural areas and these two areas are least affected by the pandemic, he observed.

So, urban people are much more vulnerable compared to the rural population, but coverage of the social safety net in urban areas is poor, he said.

Talking about the budget, Mr Rahman said the government spent more than 3.0 per cent of the national budget as a percentage of GDP. "But it actually comes down to less than 1.0 per cent if we concentrate only on poverty alleviation," he added.

Anowarul Haq, social development adviser at British High Commission in Dhaka, said the government and development partners completed ultra-poor graduation programmes sporadically.

"This is the time to think about a nationwide ultra-poor programme that will allow poor people in various income generating opportunities. The policymakers can think about innovative approaches to it," he said.

For that, he suggested a collaborative model involving both the government and non-government organisations.

Humaira Aziz, director (women and girls empowerment programme), CARE Bangladesh, highlighted the importance of non-farm activities for empowerment of women, girls and marginalised groups.

She suggested pouring more investment to reduce the existing gender gap in the market.

Dr MA Baqui Khalily of the Department of Business Administration at the University of Asia Pacific said Bangladesh had been growing but the growth was not inclusive and systematically distributive.

"That's why, a good number of populations remain outside, failing to reap the benefits of this economic growth," he said.

Extreme poverty alleviation requires, as Dr Khalily observed, a different programme and focus because moderate poor can, somehow, manage to get access to some financial or non-financial interventions.

"But alleviating extreme (poverty) needs a special programme because of its diverse characteristics. My point is that the extreme poor got to be treated separately," he added.

He also emphasised on targeting efficiency to avoid mistargeting and ensure perfect identification of the extreme poor.

The other organising partners of the event included Nextgenedu, mPower, CARE Bangladesh, ICCO, GAIN Bangladesh, WaterAid, Simprints, BIID, Pathao, Anchorless Bangladesh, Sarabangla, ColorsFM 101.6, Windmill Advertising, Young Economists' Forum (YEF) and Printagraphy.

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