Some 77% of the new poor – those who have gone below the poverty line during the Covid-19 pandemic – remained out of the government's relief initiatives, experts said on Thursday.
Relief assistance that the government allocated last year for the pandemic-hit poor people and those affected by flooding and cyclone Amphan was only half of the demand, they said at a virtual dialogue organised by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and Oxfam Bangladesh in association with Citizen's Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh.
Only 24.8% of the ultra-poor people – who are 25% of the total population and remain at the bottom in terms of income got – the government's support. The issue of district-wise poverty rate had not been given much importance, the speakers at the dialogue pointed out.
Moreover, informal sector workers who suffered the most received less relief assistance, the speakers said at the event titled "Relief supports to cope with Covid-19: How effective were they?"
Professor Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow of CPD, presented a keynote paper analysing last year's food relief and Tk2,500 per person as cash aid allocated by the government for 50 lakh poor people after surveying 2,600 households and conducting 24 focus-group discussions.
Government policymakers claim that irregularities and corruption in selecting beneficiaries and distributing social security allocations among them have gone down compared to the past, he said.
They say the beneficiary selection is becoming easier because of the use of information technology, especially mobile phones. Allocating cash aid instead of rice has reduced the cost of distribution.
All participants at the discussion event expressed dissatisfaction over the government's lack of a specific database of poor people.
In his keynote, Mustafizur said only 23.5% of people received support from at least one out of the three government's relief packages - GR (rice), GR (cash) or cash support for 50 lakh poor people.
The coverage of the poor people was inadequate in rural areas. While 18.9% of the rural population belonging to the poorest quartile received support, it was 43.3% in urban areas, he informed.
"Primary reason for the low-coverage was inadequate relief allocation," Mustafizur said, adding that there was at least a 50% shortage in food relief against the demand.
The allocation of rice and cash aid had been made based on population size, rather than the poverty rate situation in a particular locality, he also said.
He explained that the allocation of rice increased by 0.84% in one district compared to that of another district in response to a 1% increase in population. But the rate is only 0.14% with an increase of 1% in extreme poverty.
There was a serious error in the inclusion of the beneficiaries, said Mustafizur, explaining that about 44% of beneficiaries were well-off. About 34% of beneficiaries of any packages were from the 25% of the poorest.
A large number of workers in the informal sector remained outside the three relief programmes, while only 23.4% of the group received from any of the three packages, he also said.
Some 77.3% of the "new poor" were excluded from the three relief packages, Mustafizur said, adding that these people did not previously belong to the poor category but lost income during the pandemic.
He also said it was very difficult for the new poor to get included for the packages. The share of beneficiaries who had applied on their own and got selected was significantly low - only 1.4% for GR (rice), 1.5% for GR (cash) and 7.6% for the cash support programme.
The study found significant allegations of corruption and a lack of grievance redress system in the relief distribution process.
Mustafizur said at least 44% of beneficiaries of the three social safety net programmes complained about a lack of transparency in the selection process. A high level of "influence of acquaintance with local government representatives" was mentioned in connection with the selection process during the focus group discussions.
Some 59.3% beneficiaries of GR (rice), 57.7% beneficiaries of GR (cash) and 48.9% beneficiaries of cash aid programme were not aware of the eligibility criteria for inclusion.
The list of beneficiaries was not publicly available in most places, particularly in rural areas.
Survey findings revealed that only 7.7% of GR (rice), 7.2% of GR (cash), and 3.2% of Tk2,500 per person beneficiaries had reported that the beneficiary list was publicly available.
Over 90% of the beneficiaries had to bear the costs involved in travelling to reach distant relief centres for collecting provisions, revealed the study.
Dr Mustafizur said 17% of the cash support beneficiaries had mentioned that they had to bear transportation costs even though the cash transfer was provided through mobile banking.
He also said very few beneficiaries of GR (rice) and GR (cash) had to spend extra money for collecting the benefits but 46% of beneficiaries of the Tk2,500 support were forced to pay additional money to entitle themselves.
"Some 85.1% of the beneficiaries were not aware of any grievance redress system in connection with the three relief programmes. Some even insisted that no such system was available," said the study.
Mustafizur Rahman said a very few beneficiaries who had indeed submitted complaints regarding the three assistance programmes, did so by using the "hotline" numbers. All such complainants asserted that their problems were not resolved by the service providers.
Dr Enamur Rahman, state minister for the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, said relief supports are being distributed and there are no complaints of people suffering from hunger.
He also stated that more emphasis will be given to making the relief distribution process more transparent.
He said, "We have a deficiency only in the field of data collection and database. A database of 7 crore people has been created with the support of the ICT division and Access to Information (a2i) Programme. We have ensured more transparency with support of the database."
AB Tajul Islam, chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, commented that both service providers and recipients need to take a moral high ground so that it becomes possible to distribute relief supports to the most deserving people.
He also called for a complete database of poor people to operate relief distribution activities in a disaster.
Dr M Abu Eusuf, a professor of Development Studies at University of Dhaka, re-emphasised the importance of a national household database and recommended a higher focus and coordination in this regard.
The government set a target to provide cash support to 50 lakh people but it reached only 35 lakh. A database would help reach the target of distribution, he added.
"Information dissemination regarding relief was very poor in the Covid-19 period. We had efforts but failed to do it," said Anir Chowdhury, policy adviser to the a2i programme.
The government introduced the 333 helpline for self-selection in relief activities where more than 1.4 million people requested assistance, he said, adding, "The mechanism is available. We have to expand it."
Tanvir A Mishuk, managing director of Nagad, highlighted the need for innovative ways to create awareness among the people about the relief programmes.
He stated that the use of technology to distribute cash relief has helped ensure better transparency.
About 1,650 beneficiaries of the Tk2,500 cash aid package had been identified, who have savings certificates worth more than Tk5 lakh each. The technology identified the fraud and they would be eliminated from the next stage of distribution.
Lawmaker Barrister Shameem Haider Patwary claimed that there was no massive corruption in relief distribution.
For example, local representatives included four names from one family. They received Tk1,600 instead of Tk400. It is not huge corruption, he explained.
He said the local government has insufficient manpower and technology to identify beneficiaries. The listing is very costly, that is why each beneficiary had been charged Tk50-100.
Debapriya Bhattacharya, distinguished fellow at the CPD, said the pandemic has made it clear that there is a huge shortage of data nationally. Since the poverty database was not updated even after initiation in 2017, work is dependent on decade-old data.
The allocations under social safety programmes should be increased. The distribution system needs to be improved. If there is any irregularity, the grievance redress system should be strengthened, he added.
Dr Fahmida Khatun, executive director of the CPD, Dr Dipankar Datta, country director of Oxfam in Bangladesh and representatives from 13 districts also spoke at the event.