The politics of distributing social protection in Bangladesh: Insights from the Primary Education Stipends Project (Phase 3)
Working paper 164
In 2016, a conditional cash transfer programme that had been assisting targeted poor children since the 1990s was reformed to reach all children attending government schools in Bangladesh. Since the reforms, the cash has been disbursed through mobile money technology and a digital database. It is unchanged in key respects: it is still routed through students’ mothers, and its aims still include improving the attendance and performance of students in public schools. Based on research into the political interests and actors behind the reform of the scheme and involved in its implementation, this paper examines how the state’s capacity to achieve its aims in society through the stipend scheme (or its ‘infrastructural power’) interacted with local politics in the implementation of the reformed programme. The research found that the expansionary reform of the Primary Education Stipend Project (PESP) was motivated by the growing dominance of the ruling party in the political settlement, and how that increased its need for popular legitimacy and channels through which to reach citizens. The government and ruling party value the PESP not because it protects people from poverty or crisis, but because it enables the government to reach 10 million mothers with messages as well as money, while also raising educational standards. However, the research found no evidence that the growing dominance of the ruling party had strengthened its capacity to discipline its agents to enforce its policies. Instead, the government had responded to criticisms of the contention and alleged corruption in the programme by redesigning it to minimise the role of local actors. The research was undertaken a year and a half after the reform was implemented, and so it is likely that it picked up some of the teething problems likely to afflict any new or redesigned programme. However, now that the funds are transferred directly from Dhaka to mothers’ mobile phones, the teachers, bureaucrats, and local elites who previously provided information or a conduit for complaints no longer have such a role in the system. The scheme connects government directly to the people, but lacks the infrastructure for information flows, monitoring, and grievance redressal through which citizens may hold government accountable.