The TBS recently carried a report on the poor implementation of several World Bank projects.
For example, it mentioned a $300 million project funded by the World Bank, which was expected to support 6 lakh extreme poor people in Rangpur and Mymensingh divisions. Even six years after the start of the project, less than 1 lakh people have benefited from it.
According to the report, the World Bank is concerned about the slow use of funds – only $94 million out of the $300 million allocated to the project has been spent so far – and has reduced the project amount by $50 billion and the number of beneficiaries to 4 lakhs.
This news is disappointing for several reasons.
First, it means that thousands of poor families are being deprived of much-needed support even though the funds are available. We can understand if funds are not available. We find it unacceptable that the poor be deprived even when the funds are there.
Second, the World Bank loans are provided at concessional rates; hence, they are relatively cheap. It is all the more unacceptable that we cannot make good use of resources provided to us on favorable terms.
The report mentions several other projects where implementation has been slow.
This raises some important questions: a) why we have such implementation gaps, and b) what can be done to improve implementation and achieve high returns from our developmental expenditures.
These are critical questions given the enormous developmental and welfare needs of the country, and the limited amount of resources available to meet such needs.
I shall emphasise three points.
First, it is important to ensure adequate buy-in for a project from all relevant parts of government. Often higher levels in government are enthusiastic about a project while mid-level officers who are primarily responsible for implementation are not, or some parts of government are behind the project, but others are not.
It is important that both during the conception and design stages, as well as the implementation stage, of a project, efforts are made to make all relevant stakeholders within government aware of the project, its rationale and importance, and what each player needs to do to make the project successful. This is in addition to bringing on board the societal stakeholders, especially the expected beneficiaries of the projects.
Second, it is important to ensure good coordination within the government. The TBS report indicates that a major reason why implementation of the above-mentioned project has been slow is that the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) was unable to prepare a list of the eligible beneficiaries.
And why did BBS fail to do so? The report quotes the Secretary to the Statistics and Informatics Division of the Planning Ministry who indicated that while a National Household Database is almost complete, it could not be used in the absence of a MIS software. Apparently, another ministry which was responsible for developing the software had not done its job.
I got a feeling of déjà vu reading this.
When Covid-19 first hit us last year, we learned that the task of targeting poor people to whom support needs to be provided was being hampered due to the lack of data. The irony was that a few years ago a huge social safety net database was generated using considerable resources.
However, the data had not yet been digitized and, hence, when the data was urgently needed it could not be used.
There are at least two reasons why we end up with such situations: lack of coordination within government and inadequate attention to completing a task. Often the benefits from a project carried out by one ministry can be reaped only when some complementary tasks are carried out by other parts of government. This requires coordination.
The final point I would like to make is about the importance of monitoring.
There is a saying "what gets measured, gets done". It appears that the enthusiasm in government to start a project is not matched by an enthusiasm to implement it well.
It is critical that we have processes in place to regularly monitor implementation progress and take prompt corrective action when implementation gaps arise. This monitoring must be just-in-time when there is still scope for corrective actions.
The TBS report points out the many benefits that the poor people of Bangladesh would have received if these projects were better implemented. We owe it to them to ensure that when resources are allocated to projects, these are used well, i.e., efficiently and effectively.
Syed Akhtar Mahmood is an economist.