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May 31, 2020

Reaching the vulnerable through Digital Bangladesh’s mobile financing system in the pandemic

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It has been more than two months since the stay-at-home order to help prevent the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was in place, many countries have eased the lockdown period; Bangladesh has also followed suit from 31st May 2020. The Government of Bangladesh (GoB) order came just after the biggest religious festival of Eid ul Fitr on 25th May 2020, where GoB declared that lockdown will relax and businesses and offices will open up in limited function to boost the economy and pave ways for the poor to earn income. This was one of the steps that GoB took for the aid of the poor and extreme poor of the country.

During the two months of lockdown, many incentives and relief were provided by the GoB. To complement and aid the development and relief work of the GoB, SHOUHARDO III allocated 2.83 M USD of its funding for COVID-19 response since March 2020. Among many initiatives of this response, cash support for the extreme poor was one of the key support provided by SHOUHARDO III to aid the lives of 18,975 program participants over four months’ period. This cash support was solely based on the concurrent challenges of the lack of earning sources and money of the extreme poor households due to the restrictions on movement, business, mass gathering and many more to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The cash transfers were made through bKash, the leading mobile financing service in Bangladesh, in two instalments, each worth 6,000 BDT (120 USD). A text message was sent first to the participants to notify them of the cash support in April and May 2020. All of the first instalments were completed until first week of June (delays due to skeletal workforce of bKash and holidays in-between). The next round of cash support is planned to be completed by July 2020.

The participants praised highly of bKash as a cash transfer system as there is minimal hassle of handling the money from different sources, which they got directly on their mobile phones. SHOUHARDO III’s cash support initiative certainly gave them a lifeline. The money they received was spent on buying food and medicine for family, buying goods for own grocery shops that were allowed to stay open, buying cows, goat and fish for farming, buying a boat for fishing, buying clothes for children and wife for Eid and in many more ways.

Most of the day-labourer participants couldn’t find work during the lockdown and now opting to earn very minimal amount, certainly lower than the wage they would get during the normal time, after the lockdown has been lifted. This is still less income from pre-lockdown time as they fear they will find less work because people are still scared of going outside and start working. Md. Khorshed Alom (49 years old participant from Khas Kaulia Madhya Jotpara village, Khas Kaulia Union, Chauhali Upazila, Sirajganj) shared, “Since the lockdown started, there was no work at all. I had no money at hand and less food at home; passed the days amidst great hardship with little assistance and relief. I have started working since end of May and earning 200-300 BDT per day. However, the working opportunity will become less soon because people are concerned.”

The other participants who had livestock or shops were continuing their business and livelihood as pre-lockdown time. Nevertheless, they expressed that they need more cash support for their livelihood and businesses to sustain further into the future. A few participants saved some money from the first round of cash transfers for future expenditure. Sujit Talukdar (aged 46 from Hayatepur village, Nagar union, Khaliajhuri Upazila, Netrokona) shared, “I have bought clothes and food for my children and family for Eid…I am saving the rest of 4,000 BDT for future family expenditure.” Only a few of them had VSLA accounts, however, didn’t take any refund from it and plan to continue it. Rofikul Islam (aged 50, from Badarpur village, Char Rajibpur union, Char Rajibpur, Kurigram) shared, “My wife is the member of the savings group (VSLA)…I know the amount of savings. I wish my wife to continue the saving as she wants to purchase more goats.”

Life during the lockdown for these participants was filled with uncertainty and challenges, as many couldn’t go out for an income. Many borrowed money from their relatives. Ruhul Amin (39 years old from Jalsuka Village, Jalsuka union, Ajmiriganj Upazila, Habiganj) shared, “We needed to adjust with limited food…we ate less in the first few days…depended on the help from one of my sisters. Things were very frightening and devastating. We had only seven days’ worth food for everyone in the family when the lockdown was declared… as I operated a tea stall, it had to be closed as the lockdown was declared. I felt helpless…how all the necessary food and other necessary things would be managed. I panicked and contacted one of my sisters and urged for help so that we can survive and she replied very positively. She sent 100 kg of rice and some money and we had to manage with that support for two months.”

Some fled to Dhaka to earn money for their families back home. Anar Ali (aged 36 from Alir Para village, Bagar Char union, Bakshiganj Upazila, Jamalpur) shared, “I earned 15,000 BDT by working in Dhaka for two months during the lockdown, I used that money for my family’s expenditure. But it ran out within two weeks…nowadays I have to go out to work to feed my family.”

SHOUHARDO III’s initiative has surely given these participants the monetary support they most direly required during the lockdown period. However, cash support is a temporary measure to aid in reducing the hardship of these families. To reduce the overall hardship, the number of infections need to reduce so life in these areas can go back to normal or form a new normal. It is the individual’s responsibility to follow health guidelines in order to curb the total infection number on a larger scale- which matters the most for the overall economy of the country.

 

Written by Sairana Ahsan, Reporting and Documentation Manager of SHOUHARDO III, CARE Bangladesh.