Strategy for social safety net

| Updated: October 24, 2017 00:04:36

Strategy for social safety net
Social safety through public social security programmes came of age after the Second World War when a number of developed countries adopted policies to provide pension, unemployment benefit, health services free of charge or at minimal cost, and subsidised education. These gave rise to the idea and practice of 'welfare state'. Taking care of citizens' needs from 'cradle to grave' Great Britain became the epitome of welfare state and was followed by a number of European countries. The concept of welfare state was rooted in socialism and was influenced by the practice in Soviet Russia. Because of its association with the communist state America was initially chary about adopting the social welfare measures but before long passed legislation about these under pressure from trade unions. 
Social welfare measures cost money. Only countries that are rich and have substantial revenue at the disposal of their governments can afford to undertake comprehensive social welfare programmes. Though convinced about the necessity of providing social safety net to the population developing countries could not adopt the model of welfare state as it was practised in Europe and in socialist countries. Only a minuscule section of the population who worked for the government enjoyed welfare benefits like pension. But because of the widespread prevalence of poverty and severe living conditions of those who are poor many developing countries had to adopt programmes for poverty alleviation some of which came under the rubric of welfare measures. 
Test Relief Programme, Food for Works Programme and Vulnerable Group Feeding Programme were some of the measures undertaken by the government of Bangladesh that can be considered as providing social safety net. To these were later added specific welfare programmes like old age pension, allowance for widows and deserted woman, allowance for insolvent disabled persons and financial assistance to poor lactating mothers in urban and rural areas. The number of beneficiaries under these programmes has increased gradually with the total number now standing at 500 thousand (50 lakh). Of this total, 270 thousand (27 lakh) receive elderly allowance, 110 thousand (11 lakh) widowed and deserted women allowance, 60 thousand (6 lakh) get the benefit of insolvent disabled allowance and 60 thousand (6 lakh) receive lactating mothers' benefit. According to a recent decision, an additional 40 thousand  (4 lakh) poor will come under the social safety net programme of the government during the current fiscal year for which an additional Tk. 2.0 billion (200 crore) will be needed. It has been decided that hermaphrodites and oppressed (Dalit) communities will receive allowances in 29 districts. At present around 10 thousand hermaphrodites and 40 thousand (4 lakh) Dalits receive educational allowances between Tk. 300 to Tk. 1,000. The government is giving allowance to Freedom Fighters at the rate of Tk. 5000 per month. It has been decided to double the allowance above the age of 65 years in the next budget raising the allowance to Tk. 10,000 a month. In the current fiscal year Tk.  22.23 billion (2223 crore) has been allocated for the various welfare programmes. In the revised budget of the last fiscal year the allocation was Tk. 15.56 billion (1556 crore).
In spite of a number of welfare programmes a holistic approach covering the vulnerable groups among the population is lacking. Measures taken are piecemeal and sporadic and the amount given are not based on objective criteria. For instance, the old age pension initially amounted to a paltry sum of Tk. 100 per month. As the implementation of various welfare measures got underway the need for a clear-cut and comprehensive strategy for welfare measures was felt necessary. This strategy would provide a framework within which various welfare measures could be integrated into a comprehensive programme. In view of this need the government has now launched a new National Social Security Strategy (NSSS) that will bring more than 30 million (3 crore) people under various social safety net programmes for their entire life cycle. The goal of the NSSS over the next five years is to ensure more efficient use of resources, strengthening of delivery system and progress towards a more inclusive form of social security that will tackle life cycle risks, prioritise the poorest and the most vulnerable members of the society. The first phase of the plan will start in the current fiscal year and end in fiscal 2019-20. As per the strategy and the plan based on it Tk. 337.10 billion (33710 crore) will be required in fiscal 2015-16 to implement the programme which is 1.96 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). The core lifecycle programmes will take up Tk. 184.10 billion (18410) crore out of the total. In the last year of the first phase (fiscal 2019-20) Tk. 516.10 billion (51610 crore) would be required which is 1.80 per cent of the GDP. Tk. 322.10 billion (32210 crore) would be spent on the core life cycle programmes. It is envisaged to implement 60 per cent of the programme target in the first year, 80 per cent in the second year and 100 per cent in the third year.
The strategy paper and the programme targets fixed appear ambitious at first sight and cynics may point out to resource constraint as the main stumbling block. But very few know that currently 145 social safety net programmes are being implemented by 23 line ministries at a total cost of  Tk. 308 billion (30800 crore). If seen as annual increases of the present amount spent the projected total should not be considered as ambitious and unrealistic. What is needed is co-ordination and integration of the present programmes to avoid overlap and misallocation of resources. Streamlining the existing programmes within the common framework of the NSSS should be able to overcome the resource constraint. In addition, based on experience fine tuning of some of the existing programmes may pay dividends.
Bangladesh cannot become a welfare state overnight. But it cannot wait until middle-income status has been attained. Poverty alleviation is now at the centre stage of development strategy. The adoption of NSSS was more than overdue. 

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