Six suggestions to strengthen public spending in Bangladesh

August 29, 2023
August 29, 2023

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Bangladesh is tackling multiple challenges at the moment – recovery from COVID-19, international instability, rapidly multiplying climatic impacts, an upcoming election – as well as meeting fiscal conditions imposed by global bodies such as the International Monetary Fund. What insights from the ground could help to ensure the effectiveness of national spending, especially for those who need it the most?

As Bangladesh has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, people’s expectations of civic services have kept pace. To match that expectation, we need to ensure public spending is returning the maximum benefit to citizens. A few key changes – inclusive design, looking for key pain points, adding a resilience lens to poverty programming, focusing on poverty pockets and investing in healthcare and investing in impact analysis – could help to ensure that the benefit of public investments gets to the people who need it the most:

Firstly, public projects must keep the people they are aiming to reach at the centre of the design.

Did you know that there is a dedicated government scholarship for the children of migrant workers? Don’t feel bad if the answer is no – the people it is designed for barely know it exists.

When BRAC’s migration programme found out about the scholarship, our staff quickly started working to support a child to avail it. The application was ultimately successful, but the process involved months of bureaucratic hurdles.

Initiatives must be designed so that they are accessible and simple to access for the people they are designed to support. The family we supported to access the scholarship would never have had the resources or the patience to see the process through themselves – even though they were the exact type of family the scholarship was designed for. If they had been included in the design process however,  hundreds of children could be supported through their studies by now.

Second, key pain points to reaching national goals must be identified. These are often hiding in plain sight, and can be uncovered through some simple, honest discussions at the community level.

Despite strict measures by the authorities, child marriage continues to be a persistent problem in many corners of Bangladesh. ©BRAC 2023

As an example, I recently went to a village where child marriage is endemic. I arranged a few discussions with different individuals and groups, asking a few different questions, all centred around one question – ‘Why is child marriage still prevelant here?’

Most people said that they, and others they knew in the village, were aware about the ills of child marriage – but that there were some Kazis (wedding officiants) who continued to allow child marriages.

I met some of these Kazis and imams (religious leaders) and asked them the same question. At first, they denied that children were married in the village. We talked for some time, and, after a while, they shared a bit more. They told me that they only receive BDT 4,500 (USD 45) as a monthly salary from the government – so they made ends meet with tips from every wedding. Child marriage to many is a social issue, but for them, it’s a question of livelihood. Small investments at key pain points like these could provide effective solutions – we just need to identify and target the core barriers and frictions.

Third, we need to accept that poverty has moved to urban areas and start thinking about creating interventions from the perspective of vulnerability, rather than just income poverty. COVID-19 exposed how fragile the incomes of many people living in cities are, and how they can exhaust their savings in a matter of weeks and be plunged into poverty.

If we look at the data from BRAC’s field offices across Bangladesh, people living in rural areas are now better off than their urban counterparts. This is largely due to the higher resilience of socioeconomic systems in rural Bangladesh.

To tackle inequality in cities, we need to design tailored initiatives to support people to improve resilience – and break the misplaced notion that efforts to alleviate inequality in cities will attract more people to urban areas. Moving to a city is an aspirational decision for many, and investing in people’s aspirations is crucial for the sustained growth of any nation.

Fourth, we need to recognise that the grounds of the fight against poverty are changing, and we need to give a renewed push to reach those who have been left behind, particularly in poverty pockets. Development has been far from uniform in Bangladesh, and the state of poverty is still striking in areas like the Barind region, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, some coastal regions and haor (wetlands) areas. Budget allocation must reflect this reality. More public spending should go to the regions most lagging in social indicators, rather than depending on the size of the influence of the local politician. We must invest in holistic and integrated initiatives to give these regions the big push they need.

Fifth, on the healthcare side, we must focus on projects that invest in human capital development and strengthening primary care. We need more public spending in projects that promote community-based preventive primary healthcare. Our healthcare system needs to prioritise prevention over cure. Community clinics must be strengthened and well resourced. Hospitals cannot handle any increase in patients requiring intense healthcare – the current dengue crisis is a good example. As temperatures continue to rise globally, and diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika virus rise in response, budgets must focus on building a workforce and a primary system that is equipped for prevention and ready to respond.

Finally, we need to take accountability at an impact level, and the success of public spending must be measured by how many citizens’ lives were positively impacted, rather than how much of the budget we were able to spend. We need to invest in timely measurement and analysis, and in research to understand impact over the long term, and commit to learning from the findings.

Budgeting is always a challenge, but, as outlined above, improving effectiveness does not have to require huge budget outlays. By changing the way we approach public spending, from designing programmes with the same people those programmes are aiming to reach, to measuring impact through the changes those people see in their lives, the same amount of taka can go a lot further on the ground – and get to the hands of the people who need it the most.

Asif Saleh is the Executive Director, BRAC.

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Mst. Khurshida Bahar
Mst. Khurshida Bahar
5 months ago

If everyone has responsibility then change in society will come one day. But it is seen that each of us sits with huge responsibility, but does not fulfill any responsibility. If there was respect for one’s work, there would be responsibility and accountability. থাকতো।

Rajib Saha
Rajib Saha
5 months ago

The study is very insightful, with a lot of information from ground level. Most importantly, accountability at every step needs to be ensured for the impact. 

Nazbul H Khan
Nazbul H Khan
5 months ago

Precisely written, extremely timely, emanating from the core, pinpointing, and engaging. I am sharing it.

Md.Nuruzzaman
Md.Nuruzzaman
5 months ago

Respected BRAC ED Asif bhai’s contributions are very valuable with respect to current need. But in nation devlopment, our political sustainibility is big factor. Next may be included education also.Childten from Haor,Baor,Bill,Hill tracts,tea gardens, Borders, Urban slums big amount still need special care. Besides this need special care to short course SSC and HSC passed learner. They got short time during and after covid and flood. A significant part will get certificate like 1972 and blocked in 1974 and 1976. Our present SSC HSC boys and girls in future will be faced in quality Crisis. It’s my personal opinion. May… Read more »

Mohammad Sumon
Mohammad Sumon
5 months ago

Discussion about uniform development among citizens are utmost important.
Our consciousness about the mentioned matters is so weak!

Bani Amin Shabuktagin
Bani Amin Shabuktagin
5 months ago

This is a well-written article and there is no reason to differ with the writer’s suggestions to strengthen public spending to ensure benefits for the people who really need it. I just want to draw his attention about the reason of child marriage the people have stated to the writer. There must be more deep-rooted causes of child marriage except the opportunity of increasing the income of Kazi. I don’t know what causes a poor family to marry off their daughters at a young age–it might be to reduce the financial burden on family, social and cultural norms that dictate early marriage to ensure their purity… Read more »

Talha Tasnim
Talha Tasnim
5 months ago

As a next step to these suggestions, can we start advocating with evidence based data at every relevant level of the government BRAC Programmes are working on? Small initiatives from local level can bring changes the suggestions put shade on.

Mohammad Shahadat Hossain
Mohammad Shahadat Hossain
5 months ago

Thank you so much Bhai for your informative and very insightful six areas with a lot of information from the ground level. It will be helping to our next program planning and designing.

Abdullah Al Muyid
Abdullah Al Muyid
5 months ago

Insightful indeed, we also need to take into account that we need to put people at the core of all these grand suggestions and let them act for society. And then let these people with understanding of ground realities to act… Thank you

Kazi Eliza Islam
Kazi Eliza Islam
5 months ago

A very thoughtful, precise and convincing write up with solid arguments and evidences. Can be used s strong advocacy material.

Masuma Billah
Masuma Billah
4 months ago

Very insightful writing, thanks Asif Vai, and yes we need to take accountability at impact level according to our stand and capacity otherwise no development initiative will be sustainable.