Originally published in The Dhaka Tribune.
Bangladesh is widely recognised as a Millennium Development Goals success story with a strong track record of growth and socio-economic development. We are now embracing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which will drive our development efforts in the coming decade.
Together with the world, Bangladesh is stepping into the SDG era with new promises for children, and the budget for FY2016-17 marks our first steps on that path. It is of utmost importance that these steps be founded on solid ground, for we have decided to “leave no one behind.” In a much anticipated step in FY2015-16, the government introduced child-focused reporting on the budget to facilitate tracking of our investment in children. The government has followed this up in FY2016-17, by again introducing a “child budget,” a framework which reports on children’s share in the allocations of seven ministries or implementing agencies.
According to the Child Budget Report FY2016-17, in the coming fiscal year, 14.6% of the national budget (2.5% of GDP) will be spent for children. Allocations for the education sector alone will constitute about 80% of the child budget, the rest going for health and social protection and welfare of the children. We will be spending 28% more on children compared to last year, a significant increase by any measure and one for which the government should be congratulated.
The child budget for FY2016-17 holds new promises for children, proper implementation of which can give us a head start in our SDG run. Likewise, the Child Budget Report itself is a promising step towards implementation tracking of SDGs for children by the public and private sectors.
While allocation is important for our children, even more so is its utilisation. Looking back at the FY 2015-16, only 42.4% of the allocations for children made through the Annual Development Program (ADP) was utilised during the first nine months of the fiscal year. The cost of this non-implementation could be huge and will let down those children most in need of support.
Looking to the education budget, projecting forward we might end up with about 80% utilisation of the education allocations for children made last year, which will deprive our children of an education investment worth about Tk153,000 lakh. This amount is equivalent to the construction cost of 2,500 schools (excluding land cost). A projection effort also suggests that we might end up spending only 83% of the health allocations made last year for the children. That is, about Tk24,000 lakh may remain unused, which is the cost of establishing about 195 community health facilities with delivery services, with which we could have achieved about 2,000 more assisted births each month across the country.
Additionally, looking forward to FY2016-17, have we prioritised our children enough in our distribution of national resources? Arguably not. As the new child budget reveals, Tk7,857 for every child will be spent next year, representing only about one-third of the per capita national budget (Tk21,038) for the year. This falls short of the prioritisation that we promised to our children in the seventh five year plan, and in the constitution of the country where the state is actually encouraged to positively discriminate in favour of children.
Moreover, a few aspects of the child budget need attention. First, unlike the first child budget report, the report for FY2016-17 does not reveal individual projects or the cost heads that have been included in the estimates. Only aggregate allocations at the ministry level are reported. As the guidelines for the new child budget format now include indirect allocations for children, it is ever more important to reveal the list of projects/cost heads to ensure transparency in the reporting. Second, in Bangladesh, where a child is born or where he or she lives defines his or her life opportunities in many ways. If born in hard-to-reach areas like chars, haors, or hilly regions, geographic isolation may deprive a child from accessing vital health, education, or other services. If living in urban slums, despite the physical proximity to those services, he or she may be excluded deliberately by the system, given the legitimacy of the settlement.
This geographic factor of children’s well-being necessitates targeted and differential investments and programming. Unfortunately, the national budget and the child budget report do not include geographic disaggregation of resource allocations. Leaving no children behind will require reaching out to every last child deprived of essential services living in the most difficult corners of the country. It is thus imperative to have a geographic reporting of the budget to better address geographic inequities.
Third, and most importantly, from the targeted investment point of view, it is of critical importance that the child budget gradually evolves to be a forward looking lens for equity and inclusion, and not just remain as a reporting format for allocations and spending.
The “child budget” reporting is indeed an important step towards bringing children into the resource planning process. At this critical juncture, when we are incorporating SDGs into our local policy priorities, it is important that this “child budget” report overcomes its current limitations, and further evolves as an effective tool in tracking SDGs for children.