To stop the mass looting of food relief, the PM must bring the middle class into the fight
The cricketer Rubel has asked, “If the government can distribute voter slips door to door, why can’t it do the same with its economic stimulus?” In this article, I will answer Rubel’s question and use the answer to suggest how we can tackle the relief lootings that has embarrassed the government recently.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought even the most powerful governments to their knees. Whilst we should certainly question Bangladesh’s muddled and astoundingly delayed response, it is fair to say we are not alone. The best we can do now is avert breathtaking human misery and catastrophic economic collapse in the next two years. The World Bank projects our GDP growth will crash from 8% to a disastrous 2-3%, all by the end of June. We haven’t seen frightening numbers like these since the 1980s. Without adequate social protection for all, the future is very dark indeed.
Social protection in Bangladesh is usually targeted to the poor. The logic is they can’t meet their basic needs by competing in the market, so the government should provide a safety net for them. The challenge, however, is finding out who the poor are.
We don’t know who or where the poor are
This is where we begin to answer Rubel’s question – why can’t the government go door to door with aid like it does with voter slips? The government can do it with voter slips because there is a voter list, so the government knows which doors to knock on. In contrast, there is no comprehensive poverty list, so the government doesn’t know which doors to knock on today.
For years, the government, along with development partners, have spent lots of money trying to create poverty databases. Whilst sincere in at least their intent, they failed because a perfect or even a passable poverty database is not possible to make in a country with high informality.
There is a mistaken view that poor people are a static group – this is incorrect. People on the margins fall into and out of poverty regularly. A father has a sudden health shock, and suddenly the family is destitute. His neighbour gets a garments job, and suddenly she isn’t destitute any more. “Poor people” are a dynamic group, so any database is necessarily obsolete about a week after you finalise it. The government is now discussing plans to use six years old data to try to get cash to slum dwellers and the floating population. You can imagine how stupendously wrong this list will be.
Why do we target?
During my PhD fieldwork, I found most stakeholders know making poverty databases is pointless but they still keep trying. There are three reasons why.
Firstly, we do it because we’ve always done it like this. Path dependence has meant there are institutional costs to moving away from poverty-targeting that nobody wants to absorb.
Secondly, we do it because our development partners, especially the World Bank, have forced us to do it. Poverty targeting is a mantra the World Bank preaches religiously. When the government was discussing the 2015National Social Security Strategy, the World Bank sent written comments criticising any attempts to remove targeting. “The World Bank was at one point arguing UNDP was destroying all their work in Bangladesh by advocating for universalism [the opposite of targeting],” said one of my interviewees in 2017. Given the World Bank was on the verge of funding a new $500m safety nets programme targeted to the poorest 30%, the government prudently retained targeting so it wouldn’t lose that money.
Thirdly, we target because we believe we should target. Money is finite. If we find the right people to give to, we can give them more money than if we spread our money over a wide group who don’t need it.
On this topic, Bangladeshis actually have more benevolent beliefs than the rest of the world. Like the rest of the world, we believe we should give social protection to “deserving” people. But who are they? The rest of the world thinks we should target so the “undeserving poor” don’t get it, like those who are lazy or have other moral failings. In contrast, we target so the “undeserving rich” don’t get it. We want to find who the poor are and just give to them.
Which brings us back to our original problem – you can’t systematically and accurately “target” poor people because it’s a practical dead end. Errors in the popular proxy means test based targeting range from 50-93%, ie they get their target wrong most of the time! This means we’re giving to the “undeserving” anyway but wasting resources trying to find who the deserving are.
How has this problem played out in the pandemic?
Without proper lists, the government is struggling to figure out who to give relief to. It has sent the notorious sacks of rice around the country, leaving the local political leader as the final arbiter who decides where the rice will go. Inevitably, it’s going to the favoured few.
Between April 1 to 12, the police uncovered 22 separate incidents of egregious stealing, involving 1,50,000kgs of rice. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Even as Awami League’s top leadership ineffectually urges its lower ranks to cease and desist, the local police play a game of whack a mole – catching one thief whilst a hundred escape. Citizens have begun looting food trucks. Anarchy is near.
Solution: think politically, build alliances
In her speech announcing the agriculture industry stimulus, the prime minister warned of the escalating threat to food security. If even food relief is misappropriated, we are ever closer to the historical errors of the 70s. In this scenario, my proposal is we stop the thin pretence of poverty targeting and announce universal food relief as a practical strategy to build political pressure to stop leakage. Here’s my rationale.
Amartya Sen said, “Benefits meant exclusively for the poor often end up being poor benefits.” There’s a political reason for this. Poor people are often the most disenfranchised in a community. Most do not know if they are on any list at all. Even if they are, they do not have the clout to wrestle their share away from the powerful party leaders stealing them. Currently, they have only two options: a) silently bear the injustice and be grateful on the rare occasions they get anything; and b) when completely desperate, attack the food trucks, sowing anarchy.
In comparison, the rich and the middle class are far more capable of demanding their rights. Think of the treatment you get at government offices versus the treatment your maid gets. If the prime minister were to announce the food relief was for everyone, not just the amorphous poor, she will have suddenly given the middle class and the rich a stake in the smooth running of the system, as opposed to just the poor. Alongside, she can encourage us to demand our share from our representatives, giving political cover to our attempts when we do so.
Should she do this, the rich won’t care either way—they have ample savings—but the middle class, who are battered by the sudden economic shock of Covid-19, will care. Worldwide, universal social protection programs fare better than targeted programs because of the political alliances universal programs can forge between the poor and the middle class.
In our case, the newfound alliance can potentially be powerful enough to forcefully stem the leakage of rice at the local level. It will, at least, be better than now where the ineffective local police guard the people’s food, whilst the middle class stand by as mere spectators. Taking entitlements away from the poor is easy; it’s harder to do so from the middle class.
Why will this work?
I can imagine three objections to my proposal: a) What’s the guarantee the middle class will bother? b) We don’t have enough food for everyone; and c) The rich will take all of it if we let them. I answer each below.
Firstly, the middle class will bother because Covid-19 hits all socioeconomic classes. The economic shutdown will devastate the middle class. If the PM uses the language of “rights” as opposed to “hand-outs”, she can spur them on to engage at a time when the pangs of hunger is hitting them too. Call it rations, if relief is too stigmatised – Bangladesh has a long institutional memory of rations.
Secondly, we do have enough food for everyone. We have a healthy food stock at the moment and boro harvest will start at the end of April. By releasing these food stocks now, and buying paddy directly from farmers to replenish the go-downs next month, the government will achieve four policy objectives at one go.
They will meet the immediate need to quell hunger. They will free up their food storage facilities for new stock to enter. They will bypass the hoarders and speculators in the food market—who sabotaged the government in 1974 and continue to do so today—to directly buy from the farmers. They will also inject much-needed cash and stability into the rural economy. It’s a substantive win for all. As a precaution, the prime minister can announce this as a temporary emergency measure for 2-3 months to give the program an automatic end date subject to review.
Finally, the rich won’t take it all because the rich do not stand in line to collect relief. They will self-exclude. Instead, by leaving it to the party leaders to choose relief recipients, a small minority of the politically powerful rich are already siphoning off the relief. The government may also geographically target by excluding areas where the rich live in greater concentrations (like some urban areas), deploying alternative solutions for them. It will still be better than the free-for-all fiasco being enacted now.
In this article, I have tried to address a peculiar problem facing Awami League wherein the local leaders, emboldened by years of systematic top-down plundering, appear to be turning a deaf ear to even the prime minister’s direct orders.
Solely depending on the police to stop the mass looting is doomed to fail. Instead, if the prime minister disavows her previous errors and empowers the citizens, by creating space for cross-class solidarity to develop now, she has a more realistic chance of succeeding.
Pandemics are once-in-a-century shocks that require us to think innovatively and experiment wisely. Even a temporary move to universal food relief, and away from ineffectual targeting, can achieve far more in this emergency than a thousand directives that everyone ignores.
Nabila Idris is PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, where she researches social protection policymaking in Bangladesh.