Social safety net programs (SSNPs), a well-designed development strategy, have been promoted in developing countries to restrain the accelerated rate of poverty. The usefulness of these programs is to protect people from the consequences of contingencies like Covid-19.
After several decades of involvement and experiments, Bangladesh is now providing coverage to 661.1 million people under 123 programs in FY2020-21. Despite the growing trend of expanding the number of programs in recent years, concerns over identifying genuine beneficiaries and effectiveness of the programs has arisen among the policy experts.
The shortcomings of SSNPs in the developing countries commonly observed are inadequacy of allocation, weaknesses in targeting, leakages, lack of coordination, high administrative costs, inefficiencies, and more. Bangladesh is not an exception to this.
A country which has now transformed itself into a developmental state - a model based on economic bureaucracy where economic development is the top priority of government policy and necessary measures are taken to accomplish that objective - has been exposed to vulnerabilities while implementing the SSNPs.
For example, economists hypothesised about a positive correlation between expanding the amount of old age allowance and poverty reduction. Therefore, they estimated that, poverty rate among the older people can be reduced by 5.7 percent, compared to the present 0.37 percent, by increasing the transfer amount from Tk300 to Tk569.
The projection had taken into consideration, increment in monthly allowances to Tk569 for all sample beneficiaries. The result was simply disastrous. The ratio of elderly in poverty was reported to be down by only 0.57 percent, far lower than assumed in the research "Compendium of Social Protection Research in Bangladesh".
The experiment went into vain not because of inappropriate prediction but the efficiency of the institutions that distribute the public resources in a valid and equitable way, which have been suppressed and distracted by an invisible "net".
The idea of "net" emerged from a sterling effort of BRAC to anatomise the rural power structure of 10 villages, where a web of interconnected relationships among the prominent rural characters had played a role by diverging the supplements allocated for the poor during food shortage in 1979. The finding of that study is considered a landmark study to understand the internal dynamism of local power structure.
After four decades, the structure of the "net" remains nearly unchanged but the strategies to control the assistance and manipulate the disadvantaged were remarkably modified over time.
The rigid nature and propensity of the "net" to capture any resources from the government to support only a limited poor has now been remolded and access of beneficiaries is based on building important connections.
To get a more clear picture we can look at details of the process of the Food For Work (FFW) program, one of the top 10 SSNPs. According to the system, union parishad (UP) members will submit the lists of projects to the chairmen, who are primarily responsible for identifying and designing the projects according to the needs of their constituencies.
With the approval of the upazila level Village Infrastructure Improvement Committee (VIIC), the chairman will send the lists to the project implementation committee at upazila level for further procedure. To increase civic engagement and ensure transparency in the overall process, a provision has been put in place to include local government officers or reputed citizens of the region while forming the committee.
But the evidence supported by field based research - "Micro politics of Social Safety Net Programmes: The case of the Food-For-Work Programme in Bangladesh" stated that neither are these committees functional nor are the actors following script in runing the development operations.
The truth is that, in most cases, members of the union are kept out of the plan and union chairmen with their close aides arbitrarily prepare the list of the projects. The UP or the PIC chairmen maintain their own channel to choose the labor contractors. Then, not on the basis of eligibility but ability to serve their interests, contractors select the laborers on condition of paying a lower wage against a higher working hour. Therefore, those living in marginal locations, underprivileged communities, and women are more likely to be excluded from overall development.
A reciprocal relationship of patron-client has endured throughout the course, which encourages ordinary people to advance their interests within a wider framework of political and social institutions. As the responsibilities of formal and informal institutions are becoming blurred, the roles of the "net" are evolving into a more complex form in local resource distribution.
The challenges to smooth delivery of the public resources is also felt in the newly formulated National Social Security Strategy (NSSS) and some recommendations have been forwarded. Establishing a national database of poor for minimising targeting error and automating the transaction system to mitigate the leakages are two commendable propositions.
Acknowledged by both government as well as think tanks as an ideal program to fight against poverty, a plethora of literatures on SSNPs have been produced but the point of confronting difficulties of the local power structure remains mostly unexplored. But the empowerment of this structure corresponded to the declining role and status of the union parishad, a basic institution of local government.
A recent longitudinal study - "Local Political Consolidation in Bangladesh: Power, Informality and Patronage, Development and Change" - also drew similar conclusions. This downgrading further shows the negative implications for improving poor people's participation in local decision-making and achieving productive local government and securing improved levels of local resource mobilisation.
Today's mainstream development policy is obsessed with economic growth, but we cannot afford this to be at the expense of diversity, inclusion, and civil society action. Power asymmetry feeds the structure of the "net" and will sustain exclusion, inequality, and restrict equitable growth.
To break the strength of "net", a strong political commitment, governance in distributing the resources, increase in institutional accountability, promoting result based monitoring and evaluation systems, and strengthening the civil partnership are now a call of time. Until then, the inclusive development we are hoping for will continue to elude us.
Ataur Rahman Maruph is a researcher and available at firstname.lastname@example.org