Saturday, 13 August, 2022
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Social Safety Net Coverage Crucial to Bring Back Dropout Students

Krishna Gayen

Social Safety Net (SSN), a concept of social inclusion, has been prevailing in society for a long time. It has been proven as a measure of poverty reduction to build the resilience of poor and vulnerable families and improve human capital irrespective of the stage of development a nation is at.

The government of Bangladesh is relentless in ensuring the redistribution of wealth effectively through the budget allocation of SSN programs progressively over the years as part of the pro-poor and inclusive growth strategy. Beneficiaries’ coverage is increasing along with the increased allocation of budget.      

For the upcoming fiscal year 2022-23, to protect the poor and vulnerable groups of society, a total amount of Tk 113,576 crore is proposed in the budget. This amount is 16.75 percent of the total budget and 2.55 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Although the proposed size of SSN allocation is larger than that of the outgoing year, it is less in terms of the share of the total budget (17.83 percent) and GDP (3.11 percent).

The Finance Minister announced a budget of Tk. 678,064 crore on 9 June 2022 to meet the post-COVID-19 shock, cope with the volatile global economy and inflation caused by the Russia-Ukraine war, and return to the path of development. The recent floods of the north-eastern region have been worsening the situation. In such circumstances, how the proposed budget can tackle the rapidly changing situation and how we can deal with multifaceted poverty is a concern of the present times.  

The poverty rate of the country had come down to 12.9 percent in the fiscal year 2019-20 before the pandemic period as a result of an increasing growth rate, employment rate and earnings of the people. Our annual growth rate averaged 5.84 percent from 1994 until 2021, reaching 8.15 percent in 2019 - the record highest - but we observed a record decline soon thereafter - 3.51 percent in 2020. The distressing and devastating impact of the pandemic crippled our lives and livelihoods. Many more lost their source of income and became unemployed. One of the world's longest shutdowns of educational institutions created learning loss among the children and youth and increased school dropout rates, which escalated the rates of child labor and child marriage and shattered the mental and physical health of the people. Our social and economic lives paid a gargantuan toll.

Considering the major challenges ahead of the next fiscal year, along with measures to maintain macro-economic stability, the proposed budget has put forward issues of food security and supporting the middle-and low-income group people from the emerging crises of unbound price hike of commodities. Taking into consideration the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government proposed the expansion of safety-net coverage to keep the poor and vulnerable segment of society safe from any form of economic and social crises.

The National Social Security Strategy (NSSS) 2015 recommends five thematic clusters for the programs of SSN with the involvement of the respective ministries. These are (i) Social Allowance (9 ministries), (ii) Food Security and Disaster Assistance (10 ministries), (iii) Social Insurance (7 ministries), (iv) Labour and Livelihoods Interventions (8 ministries), and (v) Human Development and Social Empowerment. Accordingly, the clusters are formed by the Cabinet Division but the split nature of the programs with token allocation failed to bring the expected outcome in most of the areas. At present 118 programs are being implemented under SSN. Thus adequate funding to address vulnerabilities is urgent if we are to reap the full rewards of SSN. 

Bangladesh spends less on SSN compared to other South Asian countries. The average allocation for SSNPs of South Asian countries is about 4 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP). East Asian and Pacific countries spend about 8 percent of their GDP and European countries spend about 20 percent on social protection. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) noted that to ensure minimum social protection, governments had to increase spending by around 30 percent because more than four billion worldwide people live without any welfare protection. This figure was in 2021 when the world was facing pandemic tolls only.

To build a resilient future for our people, the allocation of SSN in terms of GDP needs to be increased, prioritizing long-term benefits along with the short-term. A vital area of prioritization is the education sector, the primary level of education to be precise.

The stipend program for girls and poor students has played a key role in school enrollment and completion rates. ILO recommends cash transfers for children living in extreme poverty because poverty is the root cause of child labour and thus school-based programs are not enough to turn children away from the labour force or early marriage. The failure to pay proper attention to today’s children will spell a grave disaster for a nation that is expecting to be recognized as a developed economy by 2041. Today’s learning loss will result in a generational loss and the country will face a dearth of a knowledgeable and skilled labour force, failing to attain expected economic growth and wellbeing. If we consider the immediate impacts, it is our moral responsibility to save children from a violation of their rights and bring them back to the classroom.

The Finance Minister pointed out that maternal and child support programs are the best investment under SSN programs. Present child support programs have no scope to bring children who already dropped out back into the system. Conditional cash transfers to the mother of dropout children with proper tracking and monitoring could be one immediate solution. This will also enhance the role of women in their families and in society as a whole. The rewards are multifold and multidimensional. Research findings suggest that the conditional cash transfers (CCT) enhance women’s empowerment and increase living standard, particularly when the recipient is women. The government has to take immediate measures to appropriately implement the NSSS by ensuring more efficient and effective use of resources, strengthening delivery, identifying the risks associated with the life cycle and the ways to mitigate the risk.

 

The writer is Senior Research Fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Governance and Management (BIGM) and

former Director General of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS)