The pandemic is still continuing, and no one knows when it would end—although, in Bangladesh, people in responsible positions seem to believe that it will either wane by itself or weaken sufficiently by the end of this month. But on the ground, it seems that the present uncertainties are likely to continue for at least another six to nine months, and normal economic activities are unlikely to resume before the middle of 2021. At least that is what came out from a mini-survey of “informed citizens” consisting of representatives of the government, employers, workers and the research community that I did in the first half of August.
Even when the economy gets back on the road to recovery, an important question would be whether that would be sufficiently inclusive so that the frailties that surfaced during the pandemic-induced economic crisis can be overcome. That the impressive pre-pandemic economic growth was not inclusive became apparent when we saw growing inequality in incomes and large numbers of people placed precariously on the edge and falling off the cliff at the first strike of the storm. Do we want to go back to the same growth path, or do we want to see growth of a kind that would build resilience of the economy and its people to withstand such shocks and crises?
It is by now well-known that the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis had a severe adverse effect on the livelihoods of people, especially the poor and low-income ones. When the shutdown came in March, neither the government nor the people were prepared for the economic fallout. My estimate shows that one in five workers were without their source of income during that period. There was hardly any safety net to provide them with necessary support when they needed it most.
Although public life was allowed to resume at the end of May, uncertainties continued as the strategy to fight the virus included localised lockdowns. As a result, economic activities did not start in full swing immediately. Huge numbers of people are still without jobs. Projections I have made indicate that the manufacturing sector may have lost about six lakh jobs,with the ready-made garment (RMG) sector shedding between three and four lakh workers.
Apart from loss of jobs, working people are having to cope with a downward pressure on real wages. During April-June this year, growth of wages in major sectors like construction, fishery, and services has not been able to keep up with the increase in consumer prices, thus indicating a fall in real wages. Meanwhile, a large number of low-income people are returning to their village roots, indicating that reverse migration from urban to rural areas has become a coping mechanism. Likewise, thousands of workers are returning from abroad after having lost their jobs. These pressures on the rural labour market may depress rural wages.
In order to boost economic recovery, the government announced a policy package for economic recovery amounting to Tk 1,03,117 crore, which included schemes to provide low-interest credit to enterprises to aid their recovery as well as social safety nets. The experience with the implementation of that package should bring out interesting and useful lessons.
The sequence in which various measures were announced was wrong and the effectiveness of implementation varies widely. For example, the cash transfer scheme for the poor came very late, was too small in amount, and failed disastrously in its implementation. What should have been in the hands of the poor in April was “inaugurated” in May, and by July, only a small proportion of the target beneficiaries were reached. Credible and effective social safety net measures for those going to be affected by the shutdown should have been put in place right at the beginning, alongside the announcement of shutdown measures.
Not surprisingly, the only component that seems to have been fully implemented is the allocation for export-oriented industries, although not without its share of initial confusions concerning details and uncertainty about the period of coverage and amounts to be paid.
The second scheme in terms of the progress in extending credit support is the one earmarked for large enterprises, with about 73 percent of the allocation disbursed. The schemes dedicated for smaller enterprises and the farm sector are nowhere near this level, with disbursement in the range of 20 to 35 percent of allocations (The Daily Star, September 8, 2020). It is clear that the bigger enterprises have been able to access the stimulus support of the government with greater ease and speed. Not only that, no disbursement has yet been made under the scheme for credit for job creation, although the listed partner agencies—PKSF, Probashi Kallyan Bank, Karmasangsthan Bank, and the Rural Savings Bank—have received part of the allocated resources (Prothom Alo, September 7, 2020).
In sum, the experience with the implementation of the recovery package does not raise much hope for an inclusive economic recovery unless urgent action is taken to reorient the course.
The lessons from the experience are clear. First, preparedness to face a crisis was woefully inadequate. Although the country can boast about its capacity to face natural disasters like floods and cyclone, there is very little capacity and preparedness to face a health and economic crisis as the present one.
On the economic crisis front, the absence of necessary social protection and “automatic stabilisers” that could come into force when the economy and labour market confronted a downturn was laid bare.
Building resilience is an important part of a country’s preparedness to face a crisis; and the present crisis has clearly shown the areas where work needs to be done. A major element of this should be to have a universal and institutionalised system of social protection and social safety net for the poor. Keeping a complete and up-to-date database of the poor and the near-poor—a mechanism for reaching them when needed and creating necessary fiscal space for expanding the coverage of safety nets when needed—should be on the agenda for building resilience.
The private sector also has to build up its own resilience to face crises in the future. All enterprises irrespective of size and market should try to build up their own “crisis management fund”, so that they don’t have to depend solely on government bail-out. Part of their strategy for building resilience should focus on strengthening their competitiveness, and diversifying their product range and markets.
At the level of broad development strategy, the discourse on economic recovery should move beyond an exclusive focus on GDP growth to making growth more inclusive and sustainable. Although we have reasons to be satisfied about the growth experience in recent years, from the point of view of inclusive growth, there were questions even before the pandemic struck. Rather than adopting conventional strategies for recovery and going back to the pre-crisis pattern of growth, there should be specific and stronger focus on making growth more inclusive. That there is clear consensus on this in the society is indicated by the fact that the respondents of my survey of “informed citizens” (mentioned earlier) were almost unanimous in their recommendation for an employment strategy, and completely unanimous on the need for institutionalising social protection.
For making economic recovery and growth inclusive, the following would need particular attention: building resilience and making poverty reduction sustainable through a universal and institutional system of social protection; undertaking concrete steps towards attaining the Sustainable Development Goals of reducing income inequality and achieving full and productive employment for all; providing people of all income classes with accessto quality education; and ensuring access to basic health care for all.
Rizwanul Islam is an economist and former Special Adviser, Employment Sector, International Labour Office, Geneva.