Are social protection programs in Bangladesh fit for purpose?

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In Bangladesh, the increase in investment in social protection programs have helped program beneficiaries In Bangladesh, the increase in investment in social protection programs have helped program beneficiaries

In Bangladesh, there has been a consistent increase in human capital investments through various social protection (SP) programs, amounting to 2.6% of the GDP in FY20, which is on-par with other middle- income countries. 

The SP initiatives adopted over the years have covered a wide range of beneficiaries and have positively impacted their lives. However, the World Bank’s latest Public Expenditure Review of Social Protection for Bangladesh, which reviews four aspects (planning, design, programming, and delivery) of quality of social protection spending, which together point to elements that could be reformed to increase the overall impact of the resources devoted to this sector. The report reveals that the programs aren’t reaching some of the people who need it most. There is underinvestment in early childhood development, weak support for working age and youth and limited investment for programs focused on households affected by shocks. For instance, while the SP expenditures account for almost one in every eight poor individuals in Bangladesh, less than two percent of these investments are directed at young children.

While social protection investments have improved conditions of the most vulnerable and poor populations, a lot more can be done to improve the planning, design, and programming of these programs. 

Planning starts with aligning the allocation of resources with national policies and strategies. With SP being a term that can describe a broad range of programs, covering safety nets or social assistance, insurance against some risks, programs addressing shocks, and interventions focused on employment or productivity, it is critical to categorize these programs in line with the existing National Social Security Strategy (NSSS). As per the NSSS, different risks are faced by different life-cycle groups – pregnancy and early childhood (for instance birth, malnutrition, or cognitive development), school age, working age, elderly etc. Categorization can be based on the programs’ beneficiaries (following the life-cycle) and/or the functions they serve.

The design of these SP programs is just as important as their planning. In order to maximize impact, programs need to be designed to have the right coverage, to target the right beneficiaries and to provide the beneficiaries with the right benefits. 

In Bangladesh, regular increases in the social protection budget have typically prioritized increases in coverage. The share of households benefiting from SP programs more than doubled from 12 percent in 2005 to 28 percent in 2016.

The country has been experiencing rapid urbanization, but only about 5 percent of total SP expenditure is exclusively focused on these urban areas. Ideally, coverage should follow poverty rates, with areas with higher poverty benefiting from a stronger coverage.  Also, household surveys for 2019 suggest that a high percentage of beneficiaries who received the benefits for allowance programs (old age, widow, disabled, freedom fighters, families of martyrs), food support and maternity allowance programs, were in fact not eligible for them. The public expenditure review finds that reallocating all transfers from beneficiaries in the top 80 percent of the income distribution to beneficiaries in the bottom 20 percent (first quintile) would provide better results.  That way extreme poverty and poverty among current beneficiaries would decrease from 22 percent to 4 percent and 36 percent to 12 percent, respectively. 

With a focus on increasing coverage, the benefits provided by many programs have stagnated or remain very low, which results in limiting the impact of many programs on poverty. The Public Expenditure Review finds that transfers under the SP programs in Bangladesh are on average equivalent to only about 3 percent of total income of a poor or extremely poor person and are responsible for reducing the poverty or extreme poverty headcount by a maximum of only 2.4%.

Lack of proper targeting has resulted in many poor people not benefitting from social protection programs.
Lack of proper targeting has resulted in many poor people not benefitting from social protection programs. Courtesy: World Bank


Finally, programming, highlights another area where challenges remain. Since, SP in Bangladesh is characterized by a large number of programs with multiple agencies implementing numerous interventions, this often results in fragmentation and coordination challenges. 

The budgeting process itself is long, rigid and top-down which often makes it hard to propose innovations. Furthermore, the existence of dual budgeting system, with separate processes for operating and development budgets, weakens strategic alignment and creates inefficiencies. Also, weaknesses in financial reporting and capacity constraints at the local level contribute to inefficiencies.

What can be done?

To minimize systemic inefficiencies and maximize the impact of SP programs, the Bangladesh government should consider the following reforms:

To learn more, read the full report here.


Mostafa Amir Sabbih

Social Protection Specialist

Ramim Ahmed

Communications Consultant

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