A $300 million project funded by the World Bank was taken up six years ago to support 6 lakh extreme poor in poverty-prone Rangpur and Mymensingh divisions, but less than even 1 lakh people could benefit from it.
The project failed to achieve its goal because the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) failed to prepare a list of the eligible beneficiaries.
The project has now been extended up to June 2022.
This is only a glaring example of how 15 World Bank-funded projects are running but at a snail's pace. Some of them have disappointing implementation rates – only 1-2% even five-seven years after their initiation.
The World Bank is to virtually hold a two-day review meeting from today (Tuesday) with the Economic Relations Division (ERD) and representatives from the ministries and divisions concerned to discuss issues regarding the projects.
Mohammad Yamin Chowdhury, secretary to the Statistics and Informatics Division, told The Business Standard, the formulation of the National Household Database has almost been completed. But it is not usable in the absence of a MIS software. The ministry of disaster and relief is the proper authority to develop the software.
Of the $300 million under the "income support programme for the poorest", only $94 million could be utilised. Its slow progress – 37% in five years – has prompted the World Bank to cut $50 million from its previous pledge and reduce the number of beneficiaries to 4 lakh.
Would-be mothers from poor families in 43 upazilas of the two divisions were supposed to get Tk4,000 each as support for medical checkups during their pregnancy period. These families in seven districts could have received Tk700 every month for each of their children up to two years of age as growth and nutrition support.
In another example of a very slow-going project, the World Bank promised $50 million in 2016 to provide urban slum people with improved housing support.
Prior to implementing such a big project countrywide, the government decided to pilot it to assess its success.
But the project is hanging in the balance with 10.49% fund disbursement and over 31% implementation in the last five years as there are only eight months to go before its tenure ends in December this year.
Under the project, the National Housing Authority is supposed to build 5,700 houses in three cities and municipalities at a cost of $32 million.
The review meeting will identify the problems by discussing each project separately. Possible solutions to all these problems will also be discussed in the meeting.
Top officials of the government's Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division, economists and experts have blamed bureaucratic complexities, reluctance in project implementation, land acquisition problems and a lack of efficiency for many projects' implementation remaining stuck.
Costs of many projects are going up as they remain hung up for a long time.
It also takes extra time to get benefits from all these projects.
Development partners often withdraw money from hung-up projects. Later, all these projects have to be implemented with internal resources or by taking out costly loans on tough conditions. This increases the pressure on the economy.
A review of the working paper of the meeting shows that in 15 slow-going projects the World Bank has pledged $3.65 billion. Of this, $880.46 million or 24.15% has been released thus far.
Agreements on most of these projects were signed between 2013 and 2017.
ERD officials said the World Bank has identified eight of the 15 slow-going projects as completely stagnant. These eight projects, including three in the power sector, will be at the centre of discussion in the two-day review meeting.
The World Bank in 2016 pledged $360 million to help develop the waterway from Chattogram to Ashuganj via Narayanganj, but has released only $6.23 million or 1.73% of the total amount till now.
Under a $400 million loan agreement signed in 2013 for the construction of disaster prevention infrastructure in coastal areas, $237.81 million has been disbursed so far.
The global lender also pledged $240 million in 2018 to help implement the Sustainable Coastal Marine Fisheries project, and has released 8.32% of the amount so far.
On the other hand, the amount of money released till now under a $100.5 million loan agreement for the Dhaka City Neighborhood Upgrading Project is a paltry 1.31% of the total loan figure.
The power sector dominates the list of slow-moving projects as three out of the bottom eight in the list are from this sector.
Among these, the sum of loan disbursed in the last three years as percentage of the total pledged amount for the Enhancement and Strengthening of Power Network in Eastern Region project is 5.57%, while that for the Power System Reliability and Efficiency Improvement Project is 4.75% in four years.
What do people concerned say?
Asked about the slow pace of housing projects for slum dwellers, Shahidullah Khandaker, secretary of Housing and Public Works, said the pace of work has slowed down due to delays in land acquisition in the Narayanganj area.
Apart from that, every step of the procurement process has to be approved by the World Bank, which also interrupted the progress of work, he added.
Mahmud Hasan Salim, project director of the Bangladesh Regional Waterway Transport Project 1, told the TBS it took one and a half years to finish the approval process at various stages.
"Besides, no bidder responded to the first tender call.
"Time was wasted in obtaining the World Bank's endorsement on the tender-related approvals. For all these reasons it took time for the project to start. This has had an impact on loan disbursal."
When asked, Zahid Hussain, former lead economist at the World Bank's Dhaka office, said all kinds of development work in Bangladesh takes extra time, causing delay in reaping benefits from them and increasing the cost as well.
"In addition to some acceptable complications, inefficiency in and reluctance to implement projects also lead to delays."
Bangladesh still receives flexible loans from the World Bank for development work, he mentioned, adding, leaving such money in the pipeline is detrimental to the economy in this situation.
Donor agencies set aside funds as soon as a loan agreement is signed. In this situation, the authorities should be judicious in taking up a project considering its implementation viability, he added.
According to an IMED report, foreign aid has remained underused in recent times owing to a lack of representation of development partners at the field level due to Covid-19.
The division said the needs of beneficiaries are not assessed in taking up a project. The overall work plan is not followed either during implementation.
Apart from that, the impositions of many conditions of foreign donor agencies, the obligation to take approval from the headquarters of the organisation concerned at each step also slow down projects' implementation.
Habib Ullah Majumder, former secretary to the IMED, said a project with foreign aid is actually taken with much enthusiasm. But, this enthusiasm goes away at the time of implementation.
Different types of projects have different problems. But the most common problem is that officials engaged in project implementation are reluctant to visit project sites, he also said.