Microfinance institutions in Bangladesh have historically played an important role in enabling economically disadvantaged communities to access opportunities for growth. Emerging in the aftermath of the country’s independence to ensure financial means for impoverished communities, MFIs have evolved over the decades into multidimensional development platforms with multifaceted poverty-alleviation strategies. Today, as the Covid-19 pandemic brings the economy to a near standstill, Microfinance institutions like SAJIDA Foundation have spurred into action, rapidly reorienting activities to serve the large majority of the country’s most vulnerable.
Since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Bangladesh on March 8, 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has not only presented as a high public health risk, but also jeopardized the daily lives and livelihoods of millions of people. In a country wheremore than90 percent of jobs are generated by the informal sector, the pandemic has threatened to unleash a massive humanitarian crisis. Millions of people dependent on daily labor or small and medium businesses have been hit hardest by the immense economic disruption caused by a nation-wide shutdown. Most are either a direct member or an indirect beneficiary of Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) that have been operating throughout the country with the objective to improve the financial health of low-income communities.With decades of experience and expertise in health, microfinance and social development services,SAJIDA Foundationwas a quick responder to the crisis. Over the last month the organization has rapidly diverted its resources and operations to tackle the issuefrom multiple frontiers. On the health front, one of its secondary-care hospitals have been dedicated to the treatment and isolation of Covid-19 patients, while the other has continued general medical services focusing particularly on maternal and child care. The Foundation also extended mental health services for adults and children through online platforms as well as specialized care services for the elderly. At the same time, SAJIDA’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program has been actively involved in installing handwashing facilities in high-risk zones while distributing essential hygiene material such as soaps and sanitizers for the most vulnerable.
In terms of economic support, SAJIDA’s microfinance program has undertaken substantive emergency preventive and protective protocols to safeguard its members against health and livelihood shocks.Since microfinance members comprise a heterogenous group with varying degrees and complexities of need, the organization has strategically customized support for maximum efficiency and effectivity. A combination of awareness-raising, risk-mitigation and financial support has been undertaken with prevention and preparedness at the heart of all activities.
In order to ensure availability and accessibility of vital Covid-19 related information particularly for the vast majority of marginalized communities, SAJIDA’s microfinance field officers have maintained continuous contact with members over the phone. At the same time, nearly 2,000 field forces have reached 0.4 million microfinance members (with daily calls to around 20,000 members) with life-saving information regarding the prevention and treatment of Covid-19. These measures were further supported by a call center campaign which delivered these important messages to members while responding to concerns and queries, reaching 4,686 members till date. Additionally, a separate 24/7 hotline (09678771511)was introduced with a pool of professional doctors offering free medical consultation.
Mass awareness raising efforts have included leaflet distribution as well as household visits, while maintaining social distancing measures. SAJIDA staff, along with over 500 volunteers, have distributed leaflets among 2,59,253 people while frontline workers visited door to door in an effort to build community awareness which is crucial to curtailing spreading of the disease. To ensure the means for frequent handwashing in densely populated, high-risk zones, SAJIDA also set up 470 handwashing containers made of low-cost, locally available material, which are now accessible to about 0.7 million people.
Food security for destitute members of the population has been a pressing concern during the period of economic stagnation. SAJIDA has been reaching out with food and hygiene packages containing a week’s supply of daily groceries (e.g. rice, lentils, oil, salt, potatoes, soap etc.) to support needy microfinance members as well as other ultra-poor families in its working areas. Till date, 38,414 packs have been distributed through a hundred branch offices of the Foundation while working closely with government officials to ensure due diligence to beneficiary selection methods and social distancing and hygiene regulations.
Based on an assessment of the needs of its microfinance members during this crisis, SAJIDA has extended support in the form of cash and kind, where appropriate. The countrywide closure of local markets, factories, unessential service sectors and day laborer jobs over the last month have weighed most heavily on families reliant on daily wages. The organization has determined that 10% of its members (approximately 40,000 families) require some form of direct cash support and is committed to bearing this support through its own funds.In case of cash support, the organization plans to rely on digital financial services to minimize human interaction at the branch level.On the other hand, for small farmers and shop owners who currently face market linkage challenges, SAJIDA has established a system of forward linkage, buying off produce (e.g. seasonal fruits and vegetables, chicken and milk) from small farmers and allocating these as food relief packs for needy members. While prioritizing its own members as suppliers, the organization is turning towards similar suppliers within the local community in case of shortage or unavailability of particular items (e.g. rice, lentils, oil, sugar and salt).
SAJIDA’s Agriculture Unit has also actively engaged in creating market linkages for small scale farmers who have been unable to reach wholesale buyers on time or get competitive prices due to restrictions in public transport and mobility. The Unit which provides advisory services, technical training and market linkage support to microfinance members and local farmers, has taken the initiative to connect marginal vegetable producers with individual buyers. By taking orders from urban households and arranging deliveries twice a week, the Unit is helping farmers to sell their products at a fair price.
In the interest of its members, SAJIDA is also negotiating with its financing partners for a sizeable portion of funds allocated recently by the Bangladesh Bank as part of a 30 Billion BDT Revolving Refinance scheme. This scheme is intended to support people from low-income households, farmers, marginal and micro-businesses with micro loans for income generating activities which will be disbursed directly to target groups through MFIs at a discounted rate. SAJIDA’s microfinance teams are in the process of collecting information from members over the telephone to prepare a list of potential clients who will be served through this refinance scheme. Since a significant portion of SAJIDA’s microfinance members (or their family members) are migrant workers who will need financial support to restore their lives, SAJIDA plans to refinance their current loans on flexible terms.
SAJIDA’s members have also benefitted from a “credit shield facility” which supports members through loan outstanding waivers and cash benefits during emergencies (such as death of family members). Through this facility SAJIDA has, till date, waived fourteen outstanding loans of current members who have lost their lives to Covid-19 while also immediately transferring funeral cash benefit using mobile financial services to help manage necessary arrangements.
As with all its efforts, SAJIDA remains particularly attentive to extending support to the most vulnerable groups and marginalized communities that are often excluded from mainstream social and economic support.During this crisis, SAJIDA is committed to supporting at least 1,000 marginal indigenous families across Bangladesh. In collaboration with specialized NGOs, SAJIDA’s microfinance program is also reaching out with small grants to 2,200 families of socially excluded minorities including sex workers, Bede (river nomads) and Hijra (Indian transgender) communities, who are now struggling to earn a minimal income for their daily meals.
Often overlooked during a national crisis are the needs of the elderly and children with special needs. As such, SAJIDA has developed separate guidelines focusing exclusively on these vulnerable groups. SAJIDA’s Home and Community Care program has developed a guideline on caring for the elderly during the pandemic which proposes practical ways to support elderly members during a lockdown and social distancing. To ensure support for children with special needs, SAJIDA’s social venture - Inner Circle – has published a guideline on parenting children with special needs during an emergency. Recognizing the impact of the current pandemic on mental health of the general population, SAJIDA’s sister concern, the Psychological Health and Wellness Clinic (PHWC), has also been extensively involved in mental health and wellbeing initiatives for all. In addition to publishing a guideline on maintaining good mental health during the pandemic, the PHWC has partnered with BRAC and Kaan Pete Roi to launch tele-counseling support in response to Covid-19 titled MonerJotno Mobile-E (mental health through the mobile phone). Through this initiative, 763 sessions of mental health tele-counseling support have been provided till date. Furthermore, key messages from all the published guidelines have been used by the microfinance program to build awareness in communities of microfinance members.
SAJIDA’s frontline teams play a vital role at all fronts to help people in high risk communities and environments overcome critical adversities through a combination of essential services. The organization in turn, places the highest priority on ensuring their protection and wellbeing. This involves a rigorous process of maintaining health and safety measures at the individual as well as branch level. SAJIDA has ensured adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and compliance with health safety protocols, while SAJIDA’s staff diligently adhere to set protocols of using PPEs, disinfection and social distancing. In addition to maintaining regular disinfection of branch offices and supplying staff with hygiene material, SAJIDA has sanctioned a special hygiene allowance for staff living in rented dormitories without their families. This allowance enables them to keep their environment clean and disinfected to reduce health risks. Alongside these measures SAJIDA is committed to bearing the full treatment cost of any employee infected with Covid-19, while employees are also covered by a corporate health insurance policy. SAJIDA’s Human Resource department maintains regular contact with staff through phone calls to boost their morale during the pandemic;and senior managers are particularly attentive to the health and wellbeing of their teams. For those who are sick, the organization is continuously reaching out through telemedicine hotlines and providing physical and mental health counseling where applicable.
Although Covid-19 has united the world in a global struggle, strategies to battle the pandemic have been country-specific and developed in accordance to the specific social and economic contexts of each country. Bangladesh requires multi-strategic planning owing to its high population density combined with serious public health constraints and a vast majority of people who are economically disadvantaged. In such a complex scenario, the future also must be reimagined with practical solutions at different levels that cater to the diversity of needs. SAJIDA has developed a detailed guideline and protocols in anticipation of future needs in a new climate, where frontline roles must be redefined, field operations must be revamped and adequate measures must be taken to secure workplaces once the crisis has abated. The guideline serves as a living document with directives to practice contactless field operations; maintaining adequate physical distancing at the workplace; ensuring strict health and hygiene measures and etiquettes; continuing a combined practice of working from home and office; and implementing a policy of reduced work hours.
In accordance with guidelines of Bangladesh Microcredit Regulatory Authority, SAJIDA’s loan classifications will remain on halt till June 30, 2020. This means default clients will not be classified as defaulters and their borrower status will remain unchanged. SAJIDA is also exploring possibilities of integrating digital financial services in field operations so as to minimize human contact, while ensuring maximum safeguards to assist members to recover from the economic shocks arising from this pandemic. SAJIDA also plans to reinitiate a community-based health program, whereby trained community health workers (known as SAJIDA Bondhus) will be redeployed to provide post-Covid-19 medical support for member families at the community level.
The aftermath of Covid-19 will undoubtedly present new challenges and opportunities in reviving and restructuring the lives and livelihoods of thousands of SAJIDA microfinance members nation-wide. However, continuously adapting to changing environments with innovative solutions is a practice that is deeply embedded in SAJIDA’s values and organizational culture. At a time of such unprecedented global crisis SAJIDA is uniquely positioned with decades of experience in healthcare, microfinance, social development and disaster response, to deliver effective and innovative solutions. While the journey will not be easy, SAJIDA remains true to its values and committed to its resolution of building back better.