The emergence of the ‘new poor’ during the Covid-19 crisis has not been limited to Bangladesh. Speakers at the regional policy webinar organized by Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) on 24 June identified this as a common policy challenge both regionally and globally. The webinar titled Covid-19 Crisis and Social Protection Challenges: Urban and the New Poor was addressed by Dr. Shamsul Alam, Member, GED (Senior Secretary), Planning Commission, Ugo Gentilini, World Bank’s Global Lead on Social Assistance, Usha Mishra, Chief of Social Policy, UNICEF, Nepal, Qazi Azmat Isa, CEO of Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund and Asif Saleh, Executive Director, BRAC Bangladesh. The webinar was moderated by PPRC Executive Chairman Hossain Zillur Rahman.
Much of the impact of the Covid-19 crisis has been in urban settings. Historically, the urban share of social assistance has been distinctly lower with the rural-urban gap on average in South Asia being 9.8% (in Bangladesh it is 15%). The Covid-19 impact has thrust the need for urban social protection into the spotlight. PPRC-BIGD study identified four urban vulnerabilities: earnings uncertainty of informal occupations, rising non-food expenditure burdens (98% rise between March 2020 and March 2021), eroded financial coping capacity (debt as % of annual income doubled from 13% to 26% over 1 year), and the unaddressed ‘new poor’.
Asif Saleh pointed out the ‘new poor’ is not a homogeneous category and the ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work. He described BRAC’s response focusing on specific categories of ‘new poor’ such as returned migrants, urban families forced to relocate to other urban or rural areas without any livelihood strategy. Usha Mishra stressed that Nepal’s Covid-19 response had a distinct urban slant prioritizing affected sectors such as tourism and highlighted the push for a universal child grant. She also posed the dilemma between increasing benefit size and increasing coverage. Qazi Azmat Isa, describing Pakistan’s response pointed to their success of quick roll-out of Covid response social assistance program due to their prior investment in updating databases and using innovative new digitally verifiable eligibility criteria such as phone usage time. In particular, the flagship EHSAAS program was re-purposed with additional components to cover the ‘new poor’. Ugo Gentilini noted a range of operational innovations in social protection programs around the world and argued that Covid-19 has created conditions for a big push on a new generation of social protection programs. Dr. Shamsul Alam stressed that no amount of planning could have anticipated the massive disruptive impact of the Covid-19 crisis. It was important to adopt a learning approach. He welcomed the rethinking of urban social protection and opined the importance of engaging established and credible NGOs in the official response to the urban social protection agenda.
Hossain Zillur Rahman pointed out that the evidence on Covid-19 impact calls for a major rethinking of poverty alleviation approaches building on existing achievements. Summarizing the discussion, he identified three new priorities – urban social protection, addressing the ‘new poor’, and a new policy look at the informal economy. He noted that 55% of Bangladesh’s GDP comes from the service sector and much of this sector is constituted of various informal enterprises and activities. Yet policy attention has systematically been more on the ‘big players’ and less on the millions of ‘small players’ of the ‘meso-economy’. The webinar ended with the PPRC-BIGD research publication Livelihoods, Coping and Recovery during Covid-19 Crisis jointly launched by Hossain Zillur Rahman, Executive Chairman, PPRC, and Imran Matin, Executive Director, BIGD.
The publication on ‘Livelihoods, Coping and Recovery during COVID-19 Crisis’ can be found on the PPRC website at the following link: https://www.pprc-bd.org/books/