Is the Tk7.27bn for the poor going down the drain?

Logo of Bangladesh government

Logo of Bangladesh government

The statistics and informatics division under the planning ministry in 2013 took up a project to make a list of the wealthy and the poor to ensure that the genuinely poor people could be placed under the social safety net.

The planning minister has been changed twice and the secretary five times since then. The incumbent minister is already two years into his tenure, but the government is yet to publish the list.

Now the question is whether the list has lost its relevance or not. What about the allocated Tk7.27 billion (727 crore)?

The a list of the wealth and the poor seemed very crucial in May last year when the government had announced it would support 20 million (two crore) people of five million poor families with Tk2,500 each. It was a huge challenge for the local administration to identify the two crore targetted people. When asked, the unprepared statistics and informatics division failed to provide the list to the government.

Due to absence of the list, mismanagement ruled the distribution of the financial aid as many non-poor people had reportedly received the money. As the distribution process seemed questionable, the government cancelled the project mid-way.

According to planning ministry, the government is implementing 145 projects targeting the poor communities.

There is a long-standing allegation that some non-poor have been cashing in on the project benefits while most of the target people, the poor, are left deprived. Several studies suggest that 46 per cent of the project beneficiaries are not actually eligible for the social safety programmes.

Some policy makers think that such discrimination prevails as there is no list of wealthy and poor in the country.

For the distribution of the social safety allowances, the government assigned the statistics and informatics division to prepare a list of wealthy and poor with a census on 30 million (3 crore) households. Initially, the project cost was estimated at Tk3.38 billion (328 crore). AK Khandker was the then planning minister.

Although the project was scheduled to be completed by 2017, it is yet to be finished.

According to the planning commission, the project tenure has been rescheduled four times and finally extended to December 2022 while the project costs rose to Tk7.27 billion (727 crore).

Issues behind the delay

While investigating the delay, it was found that there was a problem since the beginning of the listing. Usually Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) conducts government-initiated surveys or census. Ironically, the assignment of listing rich and poor was handed over to the statistics and informatics division that had no prior experience about the task.

Uninterrupted sampling at grassroots is a prerequisite for survey or census. But the division collected samples in three attempts–in April of 2017; January and September of 2018.

BBS surveyors follow a standard by publishing the primary survey report within six months of the sample collection. The statistics and informatics division did not follow the standard.

Interestingly, the division, being assigned to prepare the list, was not given charge in developing the software necessary to preserve of the information. The disaster management department was assigned to develop the software. Related officials think that lack of coordination between the two government wings also caused delay in the project.

National Household Database project director Tofayel Hossain told Prothom Alo, “We are prepared with the information. But the software is yet to be developed. After the software is ready with necessary inputs, we will make the information open for use.”

Dilly-dallying in software development

According to disaster management department, US-based Synergy International System was awarded the contract to develop the software in 2018. Despite two years having passed, the software company is yet to develop the software. Related officials said the company is developing the software at its development and global learning center in Armenia, despite being invited several times to visit Bangladesh.

“For sure, they will not be available in Bangladesh until the pandemic ends. We have to accept this inconvenience,” the officials said.

Additional secretary at the disaster management department, Siddiqur Rahman, also designated for coordination in the software development, said, “I cannot provide details now as I am new with the responsibility. I hope the software will be developed this year.”

Questionable effectiveness

Government policy makers have expressed their doubts with the credibility of the data that was collected two years ago. On 12 April, the issue was raised in a virtual meeting presided over by Md. Shamsul Arefin, additional secretary to cabinet division.

Participants of the meeting said the lifetime of the samples collected through the proxy-means testing (PMT) system is very short. The economic condition of the respondents often changes. That means, the two-year old data bears little credibility to provide the best output.

“How can we use the 2018 data in the list to be published in 2022?” they questioned.

While enquired, cabinet division’s joint secretary Mohammad Khaled Hasan said, “The published list might not portray the real demography of rich and poor. But we want the list to be published. If needs be, the list will be updated.”

*This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Sadiqur Rahman

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