The occurrence of frequent natural disasters in Bangladesh, given its flat topography and land characteristics, has made it resilient in its preparation, monitoring, and natural disasters management.
However, the onset of COVID-19 with a shutdown announced on 26 March has presented a different challenge that is made more difficult because of its high population density. The economy, which was growing at an average of about 7% a year over the past decade, is expected to fall to about 2%. This decline will greatly affect Bangladeshis and particularly the urban poor.
Government Measures Amid the Pandemic
In late March, the enforcement of the lockdown saw unemployment levels rise astronomically, and about 13 million people lost their jobs. The number of people projected to fall into poverty stands at about 50 million people. Many of these people are from the urban areas who have no social safety nets since most of the social protection programs in Bangladesh are directed towards the rural poor.
To curb this, the government embarked on an extensive stimulus program in May that aimed at helping a wide range of industries and beneficiaries. For instance, the cottage, micro, small and medium enterprise (MSME) sector received about US$2.4 billion in loans in the 2021 budget. Additionally, the social security sector was given about US$11 billion.
Another program that was rolled out by the government was the Open Market Sale (OMS). The special operation’s objective, which was launched on 6 April, was to provide subsidized rice to the poor, with rice being sold at about US$0.12 per kilogram.
Failures of the Measures and Irregularities in Aid Distribution
While the government’s effort to aid the poor is commendable, the stimulus packages it has offered are insufficient in helping the urban poor. Most of them are informal workers who lack collateral and whose businesses may lack the legitimacy required by financial institutions to access loans. Moreover, beneficiaries of social security programs are the rural poor.
The OMS program was suspended in just a week following difficulty in maintaining social distancing protocols and the mismanagement of food aid. According to government reports, about 35 million people had already benefited from the program.
The selection of the aid beneficiaries by local administrators was marked with irregularities. A high-ranking official of a branch of the ruling party was reported to be one of the government cash handout program recipients. An investigation into the food aid distribution saw the Finance Division remove 493,200 people from the list since they belonged to the middle class.
Ensuring Transparency and Accountability
Social services need to be expanded to cover the urban poor and made easily accessible. Additionally, the engagement of the local community members and other civil society organizations is likely to promote the fair distribution of resources.
Lastly, a database detailing all beneficiaries and how they are selected should be created and monitored by a system to ensure that all the measures work as intended.