File photo: People wait for food aid in Dhaka during coronavirus pandemic Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

IFPRI calls on government to put a monitoring mechanism in place

Over a third of the beneficiaries did not receive the full volume of rice meant for the five million ultra-poor during Covid-19-induced lockdown period in Bangladesh last year, a survey has found.

Under its flagship Food Friendly Program (FFC), the government sanctioned highly-subsidized (Tk10 per kg) rice – 90 kilograms for each of the beneficiaries – over a three-month period from March to May in 2020 in a bid to protect the ultra-poor from economic hardship during the nationwide lockdown.

Now, a recent survey carried out in Bangladesh by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has found that only 64% of the respondents received the full 60kg for March-April 2020. 

When the government extended the food aid benefit program for the poor for another month in May, two thirds of the beneficiaries did not actually receive the fill amount they were entitled to in the month, according to the survey.

A previous survey conducted by IFPRI on the same Food Friendly Program in 2018 had found a much better distribution scenario, with 86% of the beneficiaries receiving their full entitlement.

On average, the poor received less than 50Kg of rice each against their 60-kg entitlement forMarch-April 2020. In the pre-Covid-19 period – during the corresponding months of 2018 – they received on average a much higher volume 57.5 kg, though still 2.5 Kg short of their full 60kg entitlement. 

As the government now plans to continue with the low-price FFC and other food aid programs for the poor during the protracted pandemic situation, Washington-based IFPRI has urged the government to set up a unit within the Food Planning and Monitoring Unit (FPMU) of the Ministry of Food to monitor and report on progress of food distribution among the poor and vulnerable.

“The financial and human costs of excluding poor individuals from these social safety nets are large,” notes IFPRI. 

The IFPRI researchers, who conducted the phone survey late last year and are preparing its final report, also called for developing a small sample phone survey to generate real or almost real-time analysis on the FFP – as well as other programs – for policy makers. 

“Particularly in times of Covid-19, technology-based solutions that enable the collection of information while adhering to norms of social distance are the need of the hour. To supplement the quick and lean phone surveys, there is also a need to carry out larger evaluations periodically, taking into consideration the limits placed by safety and resources,” they said. 

“The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare many vulnerabilities in our economic systems and shown us just how precarious the lives of the poor really are. We have a chance now to invest time and effort into designing robust, generous, and efficient safety nets to prepare ourselves for another calamity of this magnitude and ensure that we avert a crisis of hunger. Let this opportunity not go to waste.”

The IFPRI survey findings come at a time when the Food Ministry has also acknowledged at a parliamentary watchdog body meeting that one seventh of the total five million OMS (open market sale) cards, distributed during last year’s lockdown period, have been found to be fake.

According to the Food Ministry, the government distributed 2.78 million tons of food in the 2019-20 financial year under the public food distribution system (PFDS) and a third of that volume was distributed under the Food Friendly Program. The ministry’s last food situation report also says the government has plans to increase the quantity of foodgrain to be distributed under the PFDS for the upcoming months through various safety net programs, to cater to the additional demand due to Covid-19. 

The IFPRI researchers said: “The average amount of rice received in March and April of 2020 was about 8kg lower than that of the same two months in 2018. Only 64% respondents said they had received the full 60 kg in March-April 2020, compared to 86% in 2018.” 

Importantly, the shortfalls were even greater in the additional pandemic month of May 2020, when households received on average only 12.7 kg out of the 30 kg they were entitled to. “Only 41% of households reported receiving their full entitlement in May 2020, while a sizeable 58% reported receiving less than 10 kg.” 

Launched in 2016 as a component of Bangladesh’s extensive food security program, the FFP provides 30kg of subsidized rice per month to eligible poor households in the pre-harvest months of March and April, and September, October, and November. Eligible households must satisfy certain verifiable needs-based criteria. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, the government made available an additional transfer of 30 kg of rice in the month of May 2020. 

The 2018 IFPRI survey included a nationally representative sample of 4,526 poor households in 61 districts. It was found that the program was performing remarkably well for one of its size, with few targeting errors and low amounts of leakage. 

To understand the resilience of FFP to unanticipated shocks, and to document the economic distress faced by households post-Covid-19, IFPRI conducted a follow-up phone-survey late last year among those households from the 2018 survey for whom it had the phone numbers. In total, the survey team was able to reach 2,800 households in 226 union parishads in 61 districts. 

The researchers, who carried out the 2020 repeat survey, are: IFPRI Director for South Asia, Shahidur Rashid, its Research Fellow, Kalyani Raghunathan, Research Analyst, Nahian Bin Khaled, and an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Sydney, Shyamal Chowdhury. 



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