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October 1, 2020

মহামারীর ঝুঁকি ও ক্ষুদ্র অর্থায়ন প্রতিষ্ঠানের সক্ষমতা

ড. ফারহানা নার্গিস
সেপ্টেম্বর ২৯, ২০২০
অতীতকাল থেকেই বাংলাদেশের ক্ষুদ্র অর্থায়ন প্রতিষ্ঠানগুলো (এমএফআই) স্থানীয় ও জাতীয় পর্যায়ে প্রাকৃতিক দুর্যোগ ও অন্যান্য জরুরি অবস্থা মোকাবেলায় অসামান্য সক্ষমতা দেখিয়ে আসছে। কভিড-১৯-এর প্রাদুর্ভাবের ফলে বাংলাদেশের অর্থনীতি মারাত্মকভাবে ক্ষতিগ্রস্ত হয়েছে। এটা অনস্বীকার্য যে সবচেয়ে বেশি ক্ষতিগ্রস্ত হয়েছে দিনমজুর ও ক্ষুদ্র ব্যবসায়ীগোষ্ঠী, যারা দৈনিক আয়ের ওপর নির্ভরশীল। অর্থনৈতিক কর্মকাণ্ডে বাধার কারণে দেশের বেশির ভাগ পরিবারের আয় কমে গেছে, বিশেষত দরিদ্র পরিবারগুলোর যারা অপ্রাতিষ্ঠানিক অকৃষিকাজের (যেমন নির্মাণকাজ ও গ্রামীণ অকৃষি খাত) ওপর নির্ভরশীল। এই পরিবারগুলোর বেশির ভাগই তাদের অর্থনৈতিক কর্মকাণ্ডের জন্য এমএফআইগুলোর ঋণ ও অন্যান্য কর্মসূচি থেকে সহায়তা লাভ করে।

বর্তমান পরিস্থিতিতে এমএফআইগুলোর জন্য একটি বড় সমস্যা হচ্ছে ভবিষ্যৎ কার্যক্রম নির্ধারণ করা। কারণ আগামী দিনগুলোয় ঠিক কত সময়, কত শক্তিশালীভাবে কভিড-১৯-এর সংকট অব্যাহত থাকবে, তা অনেকটাই অজানা। সুতরাং এ পরিস্থিতিতে কভিড-১৯-এর প্রভাব থেকে উত্তরণের জন্য এমএফআইগুলো বেশ কয়েকটি বিষয় বিবেচনা করতে পারে।

এমএফআইগুলোর জন্য নগদ অর্থপ্রবাহের অন্যতম নির্ভরযোগ্য উৎস হচ্ছে ঋণ পরিশোধ (repayment of loan)। এর পরই রয়েছে ঋণগ্রহীতার সঞ্চয়, ব্যাংক ও আর্থিক প্রতিষ্ঠান থেকে ঋণ। অন্যদিকে অর্থের প্রধান প্রধান ব্যয়ের খাত হচ্ছে ঋণ বিতরণ, ঋণদাতার ঋণ পরিশোধ, কর্মীদের বেতন প্রদান এবং অফিস ও অন্যান্য ব্যয়। কিন্তু বর্তমান সময়ে ঋণ পরিশোধের মতো গুরুত্বপূর্ণ উৎসটি সবচেয়ে ঝুঁকির মধ্যে রয়েছে। ব্যাংকগুলোও এমএফআইগুলোকে ঋণ দেয়ার ক্ষেত্রে একটা ‘wait and watch mode’-এ রয়েছে বলে প্রতীয়মান হয়। অতীতে ক্ষুদ্র অর্থায়ন প্রতিষ্ঠানগুলো প্রাকৃতিক দুর্যোগের সময় ঋণ পরিশোধের হার তুলনামূলকভাবে দ্রুতগতিতে (কয়েক মাসের মধ্যে) পুনরুদ্ধার করতে পেরেছিল। বর্তমানেও এটা করা সম্ভব হতে পারে, যেমন ক্ষুদ্র অর্থায়ন ঋণ আরো ভালোভাবে তদারক করা, বিশেষ করে অর্থায়নের পর উৎপাদনশীল কার্যক্রম শুরু হওয়ার মধ্যবর্তী সময়ে। এক্ষেত্রে কয়েক মাসের জন্য নতুন ঋণ বিতরণ কার্যক্রম যথাসম্ভব সীমিত করে তহবিল সীমাবদ্ধতা কাটিয়ে ওঠার প্রচেষ্টা নেয়া যেতে পারে, যা এমএফআইগুলোর নগদ অর্থপ্রবাহ সঠিকভাবে পরিচালনা করার ক্ষেত্রে সহায়তা করবে।

অন্যদিকে এমএফআইগুলোকে কর্মীদের বেতন, অফিস ব্যয়, ঋণদাতাদের ঋণের কিস্তি এবং অন্যান্য নিয়মিত ব্যয় বহন করতে হচ্ছে। যদিও বড় এমএফআইগুলোর জন্য এটি কোনো বড় সমস্যা না-ও হতে পারে। তবে ছোট ও মাঝারি এমএফআইগুলোর টিকে থাকার জন্য এটি বড় চ্যালেঞ্জ। এক্ষেত্রে আরো ব্যয়সাশ্রয়ী কীভাবে হওয়া যায়, সে বিষয়গুলো বিবেচনা করে বাস্তবসম্মত ব্যবস্থা নেয়া জরুরি হয়ে পড়েছে এমএফআইগুলোর জন্য।

এমএফআইগুলোর জন্য সবচেয়ে বড় চ্যালেঞ্জ হলো মহামারীর পরে তাদের কার্যক্রমের টেকসইতা সুরক্ষা করা। তবে বর্তমান নভেল করোনাভাইরাস সংকটের জন্য, সংকটের পরিমাণ এবং সময়কালের ওপর নির্ভর করে স্বাভাবিক অবস্থায় ফিরে আসার জন্য ১২ থেকে ১৮ মাস সময় হয়তো লাগতে পারে; যা পুরোটাই কিন্তু অনিশ্চিত। সংক্রমণের তীব্রতা কমে গেলে এবং এমএফআইয়ের মাঠকর্মীরা অবাধে চলাচল করতে পারলে দ্রততার সঙ্গে স্বাভাবিক অবস্থা ফিরে পাওয়ার জন্য এখনই কৌশল নির্ধারণ করতে হবে।

অতীত অভিজ্ঞতা থেকে দেখা যায় যে ক্ষুদ্র অর্থায়ন গ্রহীতারা সাধারণত তাদের অর্থনৈতিক ক্রিয়াকলাপ পুনরুদ্ধারে বেশ দ্রুত অগ্রসর হতে পারে। এমএফআইগুলোর ঝুঁকিপূর্ণ পোর্টফোলিও সাধারণত পুরোপুরি কার্যক্রম শুরু হওয়ার পরে দুই-তিন কোয়ার্টারের মধ্যে হ্রাস পায়। যদিও বর্তমান পরিস্থিতিতে হয়তো এমএফআইগুলোকে কিছু কুঋণের মুখোমুখি হতে হবে, ঋণের চাহিদা বেড়ে গেলে (যেহেতু গ্রাহকদের তাদের ব্যবসা পুনঃস্থাপনের জন্য তারল্যের প্রয়োজন) এই লোকসানের ক্ষতিপূরণ করা খুব একটা কষ্টকর হবে না।

কিছু ঋণগ্রহীতার অবশ্য ঋণ পরিশোধের জন্য অতিরিক্ত সময়ের প্রয়োজন হতে পারে, যার জন্য ঋণ পরিশোধের সময়কাল কিছুটা বাড়ানো প্রয়োজন হতে পারে। এজন্য কিস্তিগুলো কিছুটা নমনীয় করা যেতে পারে। তবে অতীতের অভিজ্ঞতা থেকে এটা বলা যায় যে বেশির ভাগ বকেয়া ঋণ এমএফআইগুলোয় ফিরে আসবে। এমএফআইগুলো এরই মধ্যে গ্রাহকদের আর্থিক তারল্যের চাপের সঙ্গে মোকাবেলার কার্যকর অভিজ্ঞতা অর্জন করেছে, যা বর্তমান পরিস্থিতিতে নিঃসন্দেহে তাদের কৌশল নির্ধারণ করতে সহায়তা করবে।

নভেল করোনাভাইরাস থেকে সংক্রমণের আশঙ্কা নিঃসন্দেহে এমএফআইগুলোর মাঠ পর্যায়ের কর্মীদের মনোবল ও কাজের দক্ষতায় বেশ প্রভাব ফেলেছে। এই মানসিক শঙ্কা দূর করার জন্য এমএফআইগুলোকে কর্মীদের নিরাপত্তা নিশ্চিত করার প্রয়োজনীয় ব্যবস্থা যেমন স্বাস্থ্যনিরাপত্তা উপকরণ সরবরাহ করা, স্বাস্থ্য বীমা অথবা অন্যান্য সহায়তা প্রদানের ব্যবস্থা নেয়া উচিত হবে।

মাঠকর্মীদেরও তাদের নিজ নিজ কর্ম এলাকায় মহামারীটির অবস্থান সম্পর্কে সচেতন হতে হবে এবং সেই অনুযায়ী ব্যবস্থা নিতে হবে। সিনিয়রদের মাঠের কর্মীদের গাইড করতে হবে এবং তাদের সঙ্গে অবিচ্ছিন্ন যোগাযোগ নিশ্চিত করতে হবে। এক্ষেত্রে সাংগঠনিক কার্যক্রমের জন্য উপযুক্ত ব্যবস্থা কৌশল নির্ধারণের জন্য মাঠ স্তর থেকে প্রতিক্রিয়াগুলো সংশ্লিষ্ট কর্তৃপক্ষের কাছে দ্রুততার সঙ্গে আদান-প্রদানের ব্যবস্থা যথেষ্ট কার্যকর হবে। মাঠকর্মীদের কভিড-১৯ পরবর্তী সময়ে স্বাস্থ্য ও স্বাস্থ্যবিধি সম্পর্কে কার্যকর যোগাযোগকারী এবং তাদের সদস্যদের কাছে রোল মডেল হিসেবে গণ্য করার ব্যবস্থা গ্রহণ যথেষ্ট সুফল আনতে পারে। কর্মীদের নিজের সুরক্ষার পাশাপাশি গ্রাহকদের কাছে সর্বোত্তম অনুশীলনগুলো তুলে ধরার ব্যবস্থা মাঠ পর্যায়ে অধিক ভূমিকা রাখবে।

অতীতে বাংলাদেশের এমএফআইগুলো অনেক চ্যালেঞ্জ ও সংকটের সম্মুখীন হয়েছে। পরবর্তী সময়ে এমএফআইগুলো কিন্তু আরো শক্তিশালী হয়ে তাদের কার্যক্রম বাস্তবায়ন করেছে। কোনো সন্দেহ নেই যে কভিড-১৯ ক্ষুদ্র অর্থায়ন খাতের জন্য একটি গুরুতর সংকট। তবে অতীতের অভিজ্ঞতা প্রমাণ করে এই খাত সফলতার সঙ্গে সংকটের মুখোমুখি হওয়ার ক্ষমতা ও দক্ষতা অর্জন করেছে। নিঃসন্দেহে ক্ষুদ্র অর্থায়ন প্রতিষ্ঠানগুলো করোনা-পরবর্তী সময়ে আরো দক্ষতার সঙ্গে সারা বাংলাদেশে তাদের লাখ লাখ দরিদ্র ও সুবিধাবঞ্চিত সদস্যের প্রয়োজনীয় এই সেবা প্রদানের অতীত সাফল্যকে আরো উজ্জ্বলতর করতে সক্ষম হবে।

ড. ফারহানা নার্গিস: রিসার্চ ফেলো

ইনস্টিটিউট ফর ইনক্লুসিভ ফিন্যান্স অ্যান্ড ডেভেলপমেন্ট (আইএনএম)

 

 

August 20, 2020

Saving informal sector workers from pandemic shock

 Mustafa K Mujeri | Published:  August 20, 2020 23:31:04 |


Saving informal sector workers from pandemic shock
Throughout the world, Covid-19 has emerged as more than a health problem; it has also created devastating social, economic and other crises that are leaving deep scars in society and the economy. In particular, the world of work has been impacted severely by the imposition of lockdown measures. The closure of workplaces and implementation of other containment measures, combined with the rapid deterioration of business conditions, has led to massive losses in jobs and incomes across all countries including Bangladesh. The challenge for Bangladesh is to ensure that the responses are comprehensive as well as equitable and inclusive such that no one is left out; and the country can continue to make progress in achieving the SDGs.

No doubt, the severe fallout of the coronavirus has been grim for Bangladesh; and according to government estimates, GDP growth rate has fallen to 5.24 percent in FY 2019-20 from 8.2 percent in the previous fiscal year. The pandemic has also exposed the health vulnerabilities facing Bangladesh, especially for the informal sector participants. The informal economy is quite large in Bangladesh; nearly 52 million (13 million in urban areas and 39 million in rural areas) of the 61 million employed persons are employed in the informal economy which contributes more than 40 percent to GDP. Further, in both rural and urban areas, females and youths aged 15-29 are more likely to be in informal employment compared with their male counterparts.  The informal economy thrives mostly on daily work and daily cash, with little provisions of employment protection. As a result, the present crisis has exposed millions of informal workers, who are mostly the poor and marginalised, along with their families to starvation and hunger, and very bleak future prospects.  

A significant proportion of the informal workers are engaged in non-agricultural occupations, such as street vendors, waste pickers, home-based workers (often subcontracted by both formal and informal enterprises), and domestic workers. These workers are subject to an unpredictable and irregular employer-worker relationship, not defined by conventional forms of workplace and labour regulations. Many formal businesses also hire informal workers; and the formal sector accounts for nearly 5 percent of all informal employment in the country. Only a fraction of the 15 percent workers who are involved in the formal sector can switch to ‘work from home’ mode in this pandemic. But, for the informal workers, it is mostly a daily hand-to-mouth existence.

The occupational structure of the informal workers is quite varied; but most of the urban informal workers are concentrated in the highly susceptible occupations including salespersons in small shops and petty trade; labourers in construction, manufacturing and transport; domestic helpers, housekeeping, street vendors, garbage collectors, small restaurant workers, and market and stall salespersons. Obviously, these workers have been the worse hit during the crisis and consequently their families.

Moreover, domestic migrant workers make up a major share of the informal workers in Bangladesh. Although there is no firm estimate of such workers including seasonal migrants in the informal sector, these workers are in great distress. The exodus of migrant workers from the metropolitan cities has been a manifestation of loss of livelihoods. Those jobless migrants who returned to their villages find it increasingly difficult to survive with their dependents in the absence of any welfare programmes targeted to these distressed groups. The Covid-19 crisis has hit the household income of informal households in all sectors– agriculture, industry and services–in both rural and urban areas. Available evidence shows that there has been a steep rise in the proportions of households reporting ‘fall in income’ after the crisis started.

One important aspect of the Covid-19 crisis is that although during previous economic slowdowns, the informal economy (comprising of both small businesses and individual workers) could perform without encountering any major disruption, they find it extremely challenging to sustain survival in the face of the current pandemic. A range of workers, including salaried MSME workers, small/daily wage earners, home-based (including gig) workers, and migrant labourers have been undergoing serious hardships.

Restrictions in movement have disrupted the supply chains for food, agricultural products, essential services, and reliable access to markets. A large number of MSMEs, which rely largely on informal workers, now face a reduction in domestic demand and are at risk of permanently shutting down their operations. Those who rely on the cash-based sector are struggling to earn the essentials to survive. Workers associated with the informal retail, wholesale, hospitality, and transport sectors are hit hardest by the containment measures.

The most widespread impact of the economic slowdown has been a loss of income for the majority of the 52 million informal workers.  Most of the poor households in Bangladesh are engaged in non-farm informal activity, such as construction work. This type of work has been significantly affected by the lockdown. For many, the loss of livelihood could be long-term. Even a temporary loss in income can have devastating consequences for those whose livelihoods are based on subsistence, without any savings or assets to fall back on. Further, the overall burden of any illness, accident, or disability tends to be high for the informal workers, given the nature of their work and the place where it takes place.

Even the few who could continue to work during the current pandemic face high exposure to the virus itself. They often live in slums or congested housing compounds without access to adequate sanitation or clean drinking water. Informal workers are often unable to access social safety nets and labour rights as they are not officially acknowledged as workers. They seldom have secure employment contracts in place and are therefore excluded from the protection of conventional labour laws.

It is true that Covid-19 has posed serious challenges for the vast majority of the labour force working in Bangladesh’s informal economy–both in terms of health hazards and economic survival. Due to continuing uncertainties, measuring the full impact of the crisis is also difficult to predict at present. Nonetheless, identifying the right policy responses is urgently required for these highly disadvantaged informal sector participants.

In Bangladesh, direct cash/food transfers typically and predominantly target the extreme-poor populations. Due to exclusion errors, informal workers are mostly left out. An adverse income shock could be distinct from their baseline wealth/asset scores often employed to determine enrolment into the existing social protection programmes. In the absence of any coping mechanism to counter economic shocks, the migrant workers residing in big cities (like Dhaka and Chittagong) are left with no choice but to rush back to their villages. In the face of limited access to savings and contingency funds, these households are likely to resort to negative coping strategies, such as selling assets, borrowing from informal moneylenders, or engaging in child labour.

A major constraint in rolling out targeted assistance programmes for the informal workers is the lack of information. While technology can be used to fill critical information gaps, one needs to be realistic in expectations regarding reliance on spatial data and mobile phones to gather geo-tagged data. Using digital technology to make mobile payments may not be as effective in places where access to such technologies is limited.

Tax relief and wage subsidies are usually offered to formal enterprises and these do not reach informal enterprises where the bulk of the workforce is employed. Determining mechanisms to quickly deploy economic support to informal businesses and individuals, and establishing methods to target them effectively, is especially challenging. In the absence of functioning markets and supply chains, one may need to consider food/in-kind transfers as well.

Recognising the contribution of informal workers to the national economy, the government will have to proceed with what already exists along with working out new and better options. A universal self-targeting welfare programme may be effective covering a universal basic income and national-level employment guarantee scheme along the lines of the food/cash for works programme. The key will be to devise mechanisms to extend the coverage of existing social protection programmes to informal workers to enable them to survive the immediate impact of the pandemic. Where existing registries or databases exist, quick assessments can be made on their relevance for the scale-up of social protection interventions. The government also needs to introduce reforms to stabilise the long-term impacts of the economic shock on informal workers and find innovative and sustainable ways to identify and reach those who need assistance.

Possibilities may also be explored for designing social protection interventions based on self-targeting. For example, potential beneficiaries may be verified using machine learning algorithms equipped to differentiate a poor locality from a rich one. Similarly, background verification using electricity bills can be explored, especially at a time when means/asset testing may not be practical. Similarly, it is important for Bangladesh to protect the economic sectors that rely extensively on informal workers which can put food security at risk, such as the agriculture and food industries. Restoring disruptions in the food supply chain and strengthening market linkages for local producers can benefit informal workers and ensure the provision of essential services and products. Examples may include vans delivering vegetables to citizen’s doorsteps and provision of required groceries to make nutritious meals for children, women and the elderly.

 The writer is Executive Director, Institute for Inclusive Finance and Development (InM).

mujeri48@gmail.com

 

 

August 7, 2020

Helping MFIs to serve pandemic-hit poor

 Mustafa K Mujeri   | Published:  August 07, 2020 22:54:22 


Helping MFIs to serve pandemic-hit poor  
 

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is felt not just by the national economy, but also by the household economy of millions of Bangladeshis, especially the low income ones. Daily wage earners have already been badly hit; many have nothing to live on now and are unable to buy food for their families. The average household in Bangladesh has around five members, and usually includes three generations. It is hardly possible to separate the old and the young, especially, to separate the productive adults from those whose age makes them more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Practicing the social distancing norms to reduce transmission is also proving to be culturally unacceptable in most cases. Therefore, ways have to be worked out to keep people safe, while at the same time, protect their livelihoods as well. If they must stay home, they need to be given food and/or emergency cash transfers.

As the Covid-19 crisis continues to unfold in Bangladesh, it is apparent that the informal workers remain exceptionally vulnerable to the economic and labour market shocks due to the pandemic. Many of these workers have lost their jobs and face extreme poverty and food insecurity as the disease intensifies in the country. The absence of regulatory, policy, and legislative structure to reach informal workers also makes it more challenging for the government to give assistance and take measures to restore their basic livelihoods at this time of emergency.

While the coronavirus pandemic is especially weakening the Bangladesh economy, the microfinance institutions (MFIs) are working to support the activities of their customers, who belong to the most vulnerable segments in society.

The most widespread impact of the economic slowdown has been a loss of income for most households in the country. In particular, since most of the poor households are engaged in non-farm informal activity, such as construction work and rural nonfarm activities supported by the microfinance sector, this type of work has been significantly affected by the lockdown. For many, the loss of livelihood could be long-term. Even a temporary loss in income can have devastating consequences for those whose livelihoods are based on subsistence, without any savings or assets to fall back on.

Further, the overall burden of any illness, accident, or disability tends to be high for the informal workers, given the nature of their work and where it takes place. Those who could continue to work during the current pandemic face high exposure to the virus itself. They often live in slums or congested housing compounds without access to adequate sanitation or clean drinking water. Informal workers are often unable to access social safety nets and labour rights as they are not officially acknowledged as workers. They seldom have secure employment contracts in place and are therefore excluded from the protection of conventional labour laws.

Bangladesh has already adopted stimulus packages to provide support to the most economically vulnerable, including emergency funding/relief for businesses and individuals. These packages are relatively modest and reflect the country’s limited financial resources. However, they do include some form of relief to the needy, mostly in the form of rations and/or cash transfers.

Although these economic support packages may be well-designed, but these are not large enough to address the urgent challenges of the informal workers, as the government is fiscally constrained. Options for creating additional fiscal space will have to cover multiple areas – ranging from the restructuring of debt, to official assistance, to altering domestic fiscal policy.

However, recognising the contribution of informal workers to the national economy, the government will have to work with what already exists along with working out new and better options. The key will be to devise mechanisms to extend the coverage of existing social protection programmes to informal workers to enable them to survive the immediate impact of the pandemic. Where existing registries or databases exist, quick assessments can be made about their relevance for the scale-up of social protection interventions. The government also needs to introduce reforms to stabilise the long-term impacts of the economic shock on informal workers and find innovative and sustainable ways to identify and reach those who need assistance.

The microfinance sector in Bangladesh has travelled a long way since the country’s independence in 1971 along with significant transformations from group-based limited-scale microcredit operations to individual microenterprise operations in order to create more widespread and sustainable development impacts. Throughout these years, microcredit has graduated from its mainstream activity of supporting basic needs of the poor people to nurturing broader farm and nonfarm activities and microenterprises of the graduating microcredit borrowers and microentrepreneurs.

The focus on ‘appropriate’ finance–along with working in the remote areas; mobilising the poor for promoting social development; creating awareness on health, education and women empowerment; providing access to technologies and income earning opportunities-has provided the MFIs a unique opportunity to emerge as important partners of development in Bangladesh, especially during difficult times such as the present pandemic. 

In Bangladesh, many poor people and micro-entrepreneurs rely on various financial services offered by the MFIs including credit, savings, remittance transfer, loan insurance etc. There are about 30 million microfinance recipients across the country; most of whom were financially excluded prior to their involvement in the microfinance sector.

During any crisis (e.g. natural or other disasters), the MFIs also offer the borrowers a margin of flexibility to deal with predicaments in the form of loan repayment flexibility or access to emergency loans. As a matter of fact, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how much the microfinance programmes have reshaped the rural economy and how desperately the rural people need financial services to sustain their livelihoods.   

However, as the vast majority of the MFI borrowers have become vulnerable due to the pandemic, this has also created a serious threat to the day-to-day activities of the MFIs and also on their sustainability. The pandemic has affected the workplace and earnings of their borrowers which have seriously weakened their repayment capacity. As a result, loan default possibilities have become higher, administrative costs have risen and the MFIs’ own debt obligations (e.g. loans taken from the commercial banks or other sources) and liquidity have been facing increasing challenges creating heightened concerns for the sustainability of their operations. 

This is a huge challenge for the MFIs. Indeed, given the nature of their portfolios and the activities of their members, MFIs in general have been seriously affected by the ongoing crisis. The portfolios of MFIs usually have a significant share of the informal sector, a predominance of trading activities and vulnerable borrowers who have few resources to cushion the impacts of the crisis. These population groups generally save little and invest all their resources in their economic activity. Many of these microentrepreneurs rely on this daily source of income for their basic needs. The lockdown can therefore actually mean that they cannot afford to pay for food, housing, healthcare, etc.

Now, more than ever before, it is essential to support and assist front line players such as the MFIs during the present pandemic. These institutions provide savings and credit services to more than 30 million low income people in the country. Further, around 80 percent of these customers are women, and more than 65 percent live in the rural areas. They are among the poorest and most vulnerable segments in society. Microfinance allows these people excluded from the traditional banking sector to access financial services tailored to their needs (microcredit, microinsurance, microsavings, means of payment and transfer etc.).

These institutions in particular finance the income-generating activities of the micro entrepreneurs. Yet, the response to the health crisis has meant that many of these micro entrepreneurs are forced to temporarily close their businesses or reduce their activity and the supply chain has been affected for others. Some MFIs had to close their branches, change the way they work and reduce their contact with the customers. The MFIs, like their customers, are thus directly affected by the crisis. The large MFIs have taken measures to avoid a liquidity crisis, but the smaller ones face difficult challenges.

The MFIs in Bangladesh have already shown extraordinary resilience and commitment to support their customers and ensure the stability of their income-generating activities through all available means at their disposal such as deferring the repayment of loan maturities, credit refinancing and setting up specific support mechanisms. Many MFIs have set up awareness-raising campaigns on the basic protective measures for employees and customers. They are also promoting digital transfer systems which limit contacts and allowing teleworking to enable the staff to continue their essential operations.

The MFIs have their presence at the grassroots level with a good track record of working closely with the government during natural calamities and other difficult times. These institutions can be effectively involved, along with local government institutions (LGIs), to monitor and provide assistance and in implementing activities at the grassroots to tackle the Covid-19 impacts along with ensuring a stronger health system in the rural areas. NGOs like BRAC are working with several big businesses to assist in relief and rehabilitation operations in combating the Covid-19 crisis and its fallout. But the sector has a huge yet-to-be-used collective capacity across the entire country–particularly in places where the reach of other organisations is limited–to work for the poor who are the hardest hit by Covid-19.   

Covid-19 is no doubt an eye opener for Bangladesh since it shows how fragile can be the country’s hard earned success in poverty reduction over the past decades to external and internal shocks. The need is to put further emphasis on developing the resilience and inherent capacity of the people to withstand shocks and put in place well-designed social protection measures to help them in times of crisis.  

In the above context, the awareness  about and understanding of the local communities by the MFIs make them probably an important channel for serving various highly affected population groups with financial and other services including relief payments, government to person transfers and other assistance packages.

In practice, the MFIs are already on the front line in  response to the impacts of the pandemic. The great virtue of the MFIs is that they have demonstrated that it is not only possible for them to implement services tailored to the poorest, they also have the ability to ensure sustainable operations. Today, faced with the devastating impacts of Covid-19, microfinance players are taking action to safeguard the survival and financial empowerment of these populations excluded from the traditional financial system. And they need all out support necessary for successfully meeting the challenges of this pandemic. 

Dr Mustafa K Mujeri is Executive

Director, Institute for Inclusive Finance and Development (InM).

mujeri48@gmail.com

 

 

July 10, 2020

Monetary policy geared to post-pandemic financial stability

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 Mustafa K. Mujeri |  July 10, 2020 00:00:00


Within a period of less than four months of the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic in Bangladesh, the economy has seriously been affected by a sharp decline in external demand, shocks in supply due to disruptions in global and domestic value chains, impact of lockdown and large scale job losses on domestic demand, stress on consumer and business environments, and deepening inequality and high incidence of economic and social uncertainties. So far, the impact has been all-encompassing and unprecedented, but its degree is still uncertain since the intensity of the pandemic is yet to be fully felt in the country.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is felt not just by the national economy, but by the household economy of millions of Bangladeshis, especially the low income ones. Daily wage earners and informal workers have already been badly hit; many have nothing to live on now and are unable to buy adequate food for their families. Hunger, malnutrition, and other problems that have always plagued Bangladesh in the past are poised to intensify as a result of the pandemic.

The economic impact has mainly been felt through three major channels: (i) sharp decline in domestic economic activity after the shutdown announced on March 26, 2020 which is now gradually being lifted; (ii) unprecedented decline in exports of RMGs, which represent more than 80.0 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports; and (iii) rapid fall (from US$ 1.64 billion in January 2020 to USD 1.09 billion in April2020) in remittances from Bangladeshis working mostly in the Middle East who are affected not by the pandemic alone but also by the decline in oil prices.

Within a few weeks of the outbreak of Covid-19, Bangladesh instituted stringent measures to limit its spread through imposing a national lockdown in which air, bus, and train travel was suspended. As a result of these measures and Covid-19 related impacts, supply chains especially of essential commodities were disrupted and access to food staples became limited. Meanwhile, Bangladesh is still under limited lockdown and has launched the largest social welfare efforts in its history.

The government reacted promptly and allocated about US$29.0 million to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to fund the Covid-19 preparedness and response plan. To start with, a stimulus package of $588.0 million for export-oriented industries was announced. So far, the government has announced a total of 19 stimulus packages amounting to Tk 1,031.17 billion (3.70 per cent of GDP) to support the country’s economic recovery.

It appears that if recovery is fast (the so-called V-shaped recovery), economic activities may start to rebound by the end of 2020. However, the critical factor is the recovery of the domestic economy in all its dimensions which is still shrouded in many uncertainties with regard to both timing and the precision of the recovery’s speed or the extent.

Against this background, the country’s monetary policy needs to target the recovery of the economy from the disaster of Covid-19 and rehabilitation of the production capacity of the economy as its major goals along with restoration of the livelihoods of the people especially of the vulnerable groups who are the most severely affected by the pandemic.

We must also recognise that empirical evidence shows that the relationship between the monetary policy aggregates (e.g. money supply) and inflation (price level) is becoming increasingly ineffective in Bangladesh so that price stability as the dominant strategic target of Bangladesh Bank’s monetary policy is losing its credibility and guidance. The impact of money supply on inflation is becoming increasingly non-linear and asymmetric with long and variable lags; while globalisation, technological change and frequent supply shocks cause structural changes in the behaviour of inflation. This will probably be more so during Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath in Bangladesh. As such, Bangladesh needs to explicitly consider these changes and formulate the monetary policy accordingly.

KEY ASPECTS OF TWO-PHASED MONETARY POLICY: The key consideration for the country’s monetary policy would be to adopt a medium to long term anti-Covid-19 strategy that goes beyond the already adopted one-shot policy measures by the Bangladesh Bank (e.g. changes in CRR; changes in interest rate on loans provided by Bangladesh Bank to scheduled banks and financial institutions under REPO facility; changes in ADR and IDR; new refinancing facilities with low interest rates to facilitate the implementation of incentive packages and support important sectors like agriculture, export-oriented industries and CMSMEs; etc.) to overcome the adverse effects of Covid-19 on the Bangladesh economy.

The strategy, moreover, should take note of past lessons, avoid past mistakes, minimise risks to financial instability, and facilitate the rapid movement to a ‘new normalcy’ through fixing the Covid-19 damages. Obviously, the focus should be on Covid-19 crisis management.

The above monetary policy strategy could be implemented within a phased approach. For the initial period (e.g. next six months), efforts could be devoted more towards further strengthening and consolidating (and adopting new measures as necessary for deeply affected sectors/enterprises)the immediate measures taken by Bangladesh Bank for meeting the Covid-19 shock; while starting to implement the medium to long term measures of the second phase adopting right sequencing.

In both phases, the anti-COVID-19 monetary policies should take into account the main reasons behind adopting the monetary strategies to address the challenges. The reasons could be multiple, but preparing a comprehensive list could help prioritise the policies and identify their short and medium term implications and synergies. One key aspect would be to introduce a system of regular monitoring to conduct strategic reviews and redesign the policy framework based on changing realities.

The main task of the monetary policy, especially during the next six months, will be to ensure adequate liquidity in the economy; which has been affected by a sudden and unexpected supply shock – large-scale disruption in all production sectors caused by health precautions and lockdown. This has also triggered a severe demand shock which has interrupted cash flows and the payments system. In order to revive the enterprises and restore employment, Bangladesh Bank should further push the commercial banks to especially lend to the enterprises where the cash-flow process is more disrupted.

This would require, for the Bangladesh Bank, to provide the framework of monetary measures, including interest rate incentives for the banks, to further expand the credit support especially to the CMSMEs. There should also be coordination with prudential measures and fiscal policy decisions. Special provision should be made on prudential ground regarding the treatment of bad loans that is probably inevitable (to a certain extent)in the case of these loans. Fiscal policy support should also be soughtfrom the government to guarantee a part of these loans. Bangladesh Bank should also be prepared to undertake purchases of bonds and commercial papers as necessary to ensure liquidity in the financial market needed for controlling COVID-19 consequences and avoiding financial meltdown.

Moreover, Bangladesh Bank should remain aware that wrong and/or inadequate action during this period would lengthen/deepen the short term crisis, trigger/escalate the crisis, and make the follow-up phase of recovery more complex and difficult. The Covid-19 shock has not only affected the already bad health of the financial (including the banking) sector of the country but also all aspects of the real and other sectors of the economy. The risk of a disastrous outcome from the combined impact of this all-encompassing crisis is therefore real; moreover, Bangladesh also faces a more unfavourable global economy with disrupted trade and capital flows.

At the end of the first phase, the expectation is that the health crisis of the pandemic will be substantially controlled; production and trade will start to resume normal speed; and the financial sector will come to terms, at least partially, with the deep scars of the crisis. However, the serious wounds will continue to persist in both the real and financial sector of the economy-high uncertainties will continue to affect investments (particularly private investment); aggregate consumption will remain depressed due to loss in employment/income; and overall economic activities and growth prospects will remain below their normal trajectories.

The medium and longer term measures will sequentially start, depending on the realities in the second half of the time frame, to cure the wounds, ensure sustained recovery, and re-launch normal economic activities and growth. As expected, some measures may be long term in nature and may have to be extended to a longer time horizon. One key aspect of these policies will be to ensure a close coordination between monetary and fiscal policies where fiscal policies will play the lead role while monetary policy will take the supportive role. Bangladesh Bank will have to ensure the coordination with fiscal authorities and provide technical and financial support as feasible to policy implementation. Relying on monetary expansion alone to fix the problems would more likely to be ineffective and unsustainable. Excessive money and credit supply along with fiscal expansion and the continuing negative supply shocks from Covid-19 could fuel inflationary pressures.

The fiscal policies of the medium phase would have to cover both redistributive measures and increased public expenditures, transfers and tax reliefs for individuals/enterprises which are more likely to be debt-financed. However, one must also realise that the quality of the fiscal measures and their implementation is probably more important than their size. The resulting increase in public debt would partly substitute unsustainable private debts helping enterprises and households to regenerate their capital destroyed by Covid-19 and its economic impacts.

The role of the monetary policy will be to effectively structure the newly accumulated public debt, monitor the liquidity situation of the banks, keep the interest rates low, and address any destructive speculative developments and contain interest rate spreads within limits. This is necessary to avoid any undesirable changes in risk premium that would limit the financial sector’s efficiency in resource allocation. A major concern of the monetary policy framework should be to ensure financial stability and its sustainability especially in the post-Covid-19 period when there will be rapid increases in public debt and widespread restructuring of private enterprises and their financial portfolio.

For the external sector, the policies should favour stable exchange rates. The policies should recognise that, although Covid-19 shocks may be similar, their economic consequences have been highly asymmetric across countries in terms of timing, nature of socioeconomic impact, reactions and combating strategy for health and economic impacts, and, above all, their financial and structural weaknesses and capacities to combat the crisis. Moreover, global spill over effects will continue for long creating differential effects on individual countries including Bangladesh.

For Bangladesh, monetary and prudential policies will have to act together where the main preoccupation will be restoring normalcy in the economy without jeopardising financial stability. The policies should also remain cautious of the fact that the degree of indebtedness of the economy will significantly increase as a result of the policies for addressing Covid-19 challenges. Financial fragilities may gradually emerge as a dominant theme in the financial sector. Bangladesh Bank should therefore adopt a work plan and announce the framework well in advance in coordination with fiscal and other macro policies. This will help anchor expectations and reassure all stakeholders on the existence of a coordinating procedure to cope with the Covid-19 crisis. In the post-Covid period, the Bangladesh Bank should consider widening the mandate of monetary policy to cover macro-financial stability, not price stability alone, along with economic growth.

A key concern would be to act quickly and decisively to provide liquidity to prevent financial instability from leading to further deterioration of the real economy. Along with this, for ensuring long-run growth necessary to restore economic well-being, Bangladesh Bank would have to adapt to new realities for using financial markets to ensure required liquidity, not through manipulating interest rates to finance government deficit and providing cheap credit to CMSMEs and other priority activities.

For the medium term, Bangladesh Bank should also step up providing credit for green investment and employment stimulus, as the lockdown measures are gradually relaxed and withdrawn. What matters most is the enhanced role of monetary policy to create employment and reconnect the supply chains and assist in the transition to higher growth and sustainability.

Dr Mustafa K. Mujeri is Executive Director, Institute for Inclusive Finance and Development (InM).

mujeri48@gmail.com

 

 

April 18, 2020

Covid-19 pandemic in Bangladesh: Are we the next Italy?

Published at 04:48 pm April 18th, 2020

 Farah Muneer and Abdul Monem Khan

After week 6, Italy had an average cumulative death rate of 6.29%, compared to 6.70% in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is crossing its 6th week of the coronavirus pandemic and things have dramatically changed since the first month. 

Observing the world trend it was quite expected that the infection rate would go up exponentially at some point of time and coping up with it would be a great challenge for a country like Bangladesh. Even though the country is currently under lockdown along with complete movement restriction after 6pm, the infection rate as a percentage of total tested has gone up almost three times higher since the 4th week. 

 

Fig 1: Average Cumulative Death Rate, Week 1-Week 6, shown in percentage of the infected population

Fig 2: Recovery rate as of Week 6, shown in percentage of the infected population

Source: Data from Bangladesh Directorate of Health Service and  Worldometer

As of April 17, 2020 the infection rate as a percentage of total tests conducted is around 9.58%. Furthermore, Bangladesh has been observing higher death count than recovery count for the past four days. The number of tests conducted is still very low compared to the other countries, probably the lowest if some Sub-Saharan African countries are not taken into account. On an average only 117 people in a million are tested for Covid-19 in Bangladesh. On the other hand, in India the figure is more than double. In Pakistan it is 383 in 1 million. So, how is Bangladesh performing compared to other countries?

The first figure compared the average cumulative death rate of Bangladesh with some of the most infected countries and some of our neighbouring countries from week 1 to week 6 of the corona pandemic.

In Bangladesh for every one hundred Covid-19 infected persons, the average cumulative death rate is 6.70% as per the latest data, which is very alarming. It is important to observe that after week 6, Italy had an average cumulative death rate of 6.29%, which implies that Bangladesh has surpassed Italy. 

Italy has just got past its 8th week of the pandemic and is currently experiencing the highest death rate  — 13.12 in every 100 infected persons — which means the coming weeks can be the most crucial for Bangladesh. 

It is also important to note that the neighbouring countries are doing much better than Bangladesh. What is surprising is that India and Pakistan, on week 6 had an average death rate of less than 1%. The second figure shows the recovery rate as of week 6 of the pandemic. In terms of recovery rate, Bangladesh has yet to go a long way when compared to India and Pakistan or even with Italy. 

The recovery incidence in Bangladesh is around 3 in every 100 infected persons. Even though the situation is better than that of the United Kingdom and the United States, it is far below than the world average which is around 25% as of April 17.

The figures above indicate quite an alarming scenario ahead for Bangladesh. It seems that Bangladesh might face very high death rates in the coming weeks like Italy if proper intervention is not initiated. Coupled with a high death rate, Bangladesh might experience one of the lowest recovery rates in the world if the current trend continues, which makes the scenario even worse than Italy. 

It is, therefore, high time to make some policy changes to combat this pandemic in Bangladesh. As the healthcare system of Bangladesh is yet to cope with the challenges of the outbreak, it seems defensive strategy is the best solution for Bangladesh to control the Covid-19 incidences. 

Italy has already spent more than a month of strict lockdown and decided to extend it till May 3 with some exceptions with regards to businesses such as timber companies, bookshops and stores selling children’s supplies. 

India has also extended the lockdown till May 3. It took China nearly two months to come out of lockdown. These examples indicate the importance of lockdown only to ‘flatten the curve’ so that the country can strengthen its capacity, especially the healthcare sector to fight the Covid-19 war.

Comparing the lockdown status with other countries, Bangladesh should extend the strict lockdown at least for a few more weeks after April 25. The decision to reopen the garment factories could be catastrophic in terms of spreading the outbreak. While this lockdown is affecting the livelihood of millions of peoples, considering the current status of healthcare facilities and the lack of training of healthcare professionals, Bangladesh may need to trade off its economic health by prioritising its public health in order to avoid a catastrophe. 

This might be expensive but it is the best solution the country might go for to fight the pandemic. The prime minister has already declared a Tk100,000cr stimulus package to recover from the economic cost of the lockdown. While implementing an effective lockdown, the government should also focus on distributing the stimulus package to the right people in an efficient manner.  

If these two measures – effective lockdown and proper distribution of the stimulus package is implemented properly, Bangladesh may be able to flatten what is now a rising curve and increase its economic resilience while fighting the battle against Covid-19. 

Farah Muneer is Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Inclusive Finance and Development (InM).

Abdul Monem Khan is Senior Legal Counsel with a multinational company.

 

 

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