With a growing number of older people and a large impoverished population, Bangladesh needs to improve social security support for the country’s most vulnerable groups, experts say.
Over 6 percent of the population or 7.2 million people are aged 60 or over, according to the last census in 2001.
About 80,000 people are added to this older population every year, which is projected to be over 17 million people by 2025, growing at a rate faster than that of Europe’s, according to government officials.
However, most of these older people and many of the poor in the country - about 50 percent of the population lives on less than US$1 a day, according to the UN - are not covered by any form of social security.
Meanwhile, existing social security measures are unable to meet the needs of vulnerable people, and the scope of these programmes urgently needs to be widened, say experts.
Bangladesh is exposed to natural disasters, extreme weather events and other shocks, leaving the poorest without any form of protection, said Wahiduddin Mahmud, a member of the UN Committee for Development Policy (UNCDP), a subsidiary body of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
“The vulnerable condition of Bangladesh may force people who are now barely above the poverty line into the depths of poverty any moment,” Wahiduddin told a recent NGO-organized seminar in Dhaka on extreme poverty alleviation.
“To ensure sustainable social security for the poor, the efforts of the local government units must be supplemented by a strong framework of government economic regulations,” he said.
About 1.2 million people are employed by the government and are eligible for pensions after they retire at age 57, but most of the country’s labour force, which is rural, does not receive a pension.
Another 1.7 million people over 65 who are unable to work or do not have family support receive allowances through a programme introduced by the Ministry of Social Welfare.
However, few other safety nets exist, and officials and experts say that providing social security benefits to assure food, lodging and health care facilities for the impoverished should become the country’s top priority.
Minister of Food and Disaster Management Muhammad Abdur Razzaque said current social security and welfare programmes were unable to cover more than 50 percent of the extremely impoverished in the country.
Almost 25 percent of the population of Bangladesh falls within this category, he told the poverty seminar, held in Dhaka last month.
Allowances, food stamps and food rations, subsidies for basic goods, public programmes which provide livelihoods and income for the poor, and fee waivers for services such as healthcare are identified by experts as examples of needed social security nets.
VGF and VGD
The government runs two major programmes for supporting vulnerable populations.
The Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) programme provides food to low income and other vulnerable groups who cannot meet basic needs for survival due to natural disasters or socio-economic circumstances, such as age, illness or disease.
The Vulnerable Group Development (VGD) programme, on the other hand, exclusively enables the poorest rural women and their family members to overcome food insecurity and their low social and economic status.
VGD includes sustained, longer-term activities such as risk management for natural disasters, HIV/AIDS prevention, maternal and child health and livelihood skills.
Officials acknowledge the government should focus its efforts more on longer-term development programmes, rather than short-term relief efforts.
“Over time, the relief programmes such as VGF, should move towards becoming sustainable development programmes like VGD,” Naser Farid, policy research director of the Food Planning and Monitoring Unit (FPMU) of the Ministry of Food, told IRIN.
“About two-thirds of food assistance programmes are now financed by the government. In the mid 1990s, this used to be only 40 percent,” he said.
Hussain Zillur Rahman, a former government adviser, said there was a disparity in spending on different poverty alleviation programmes.
“Currently the government spends more than five times more money on feeding vulnerable people than it invests on programmes that help the hardcore poor to earn their own living,” he told the poverty seminar.
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