Which governance channels do people whose livelihoods and incomes were severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic navigate while attempting to bounce back? Through a joint IDS and BIGD research project we aim to answer this question by exploring the trajectories of recovery, coping strategies, and lived experience of governance of the new poor households in Bangladesh.
We are particularly interested in what some have described as ‘the new poor’ i.e. households who previously had secure, stable livelihoods and were doing okay before the pandemic but have since faced significant economic loss and are now struggling to recover. We know something of how poor individual households respond to sudden changes in income or unexpected expenditure. But the Covid-19 context is different because these changes – or shocks – are collective shocks, including lockdowns, reverse migration, and complete loss of livelihoods. The usual coping strategies where, for example, people turn to their families, wider informal social networks and government resources, were inadequate, as these support structures were themselves severely strained.
Hard times ahead for the new poor
During our initial scoping visits to villages and towns in Khulna division, we spoke to those now living in these new poor households and we learnt about their coping strategies. We found that they are caught in debt-traps and experiencing multiple crises (health, economic, social, and emotional).
For instance, we met Jorimon*, an entrepreneurial widow with a long history of taking loans and repaying them successfully to keep her family afloat. She has a precarious existence now, caught in cycle of debt after the pandemic and struggling to bounce back.
We also met Kuber, previously a successful fish vendor whose business was badly hit during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. Kuber has good connections with local authorities and helps them select poor households for the VGD card list (state social welfare programme beneficiaries), but he is ashamed to claim any form of social assistance himself. Instead, he took a loan out from a microcredit agency and is struggling to repay it. As a ‘middle-class’ person he does not know where else to turn for help: not only does his middle-class status inhibits him emotionally to reach out for help, but his official status as ‘not poor enough’ also makes his family ineligible for most social protection.
We spoke to Nurul Din, a retired jute mill worker with a pension, who owns some agricultural land. Nurul Din found himself at a loss after multiple crises hit the family. His shop had to stay shut for a month, his family were affected by an accident and his daughter got divorced in 2021. He felt that he had to bribe the police in order to get them to work on her case and ensure her in-laws paid her the required compensation.
We also met Mahmudul, a return overseas migrant worker. He had to shut down his business of selling quails during the first lockdown due to speculation around his birds carrying the virus. He found work abroad in Saudi Arabia, but when he arrived, the second wave of Covid19 hit and he lost his job. On top of that, he was imprisoned for being an illegal immigrant. He managed to return to Bangladesh and has since taken multiple loans from informal networks to start another business – but he is struggling to repay the loans.
These are some of the stories we’re encountering that reveal people’s resilience, struggles and experiences of collective shocks. We are hopeful that our work will provide insights into how people living in new poor households are coping, including understanding their networks of assistance and their interactions with varied sources of public authority and support.
How are we doing this? An innovative new method using qualitative panel data
Over the next nine months we are following the lives and strategies of these new poor households using the Governance Diaries method, which, for the purposes of this project we’ve re-named Durdin-er (Hard Times) Diaries.
The method brings together the strengths of ethnographic, longitudinal, and comparative work to study changes in complex behaviour. It uses qualitative panel data that identifies lived experiences of governance and service provision, and how that plays out over time in relation to unfolding events or processes – such as the effects of a pandemic. We originally developed this methodology at IDS for a four-year study of how poor and marginalised people solve their governance problems in conflict-affected areas of Mozambique, Myanmar, and Pakistan.
Conducting monthly visits to new poor households to complete these ‘diaries’, we also plan to go up the governance chain, through repeat interviews with formal and informal local public authorities in these locations.
By exploring new poor’s experiences across urban, peri-urban, and rural locations in Khulna, we will be able to compare and reflect on the differences in availability and practices of social protection and other assistance across diverse locations and explore their relations within different governance systems.
In all three locations, we are also interviewing others who play a role in households meeting their governance needs, providing community leadership, or service provision – from government officials to informal intermediaries, private sector actors, local politicians, and service-providing NGOs. This will help us triangulate household-level findings, allowing different perspectives on the same issues to surface. It should also reveal how the views and experiences of those in positions of authority or with service provision responsibility align or not with those of households.
Going the last mile in service delivery chain
We hope to get in-depth evidence over time of people’s experiences in resolving problems that government and policymakers have a direct interest in. More broadly, we hope to identify factors that have supported people’s recovery from the Covid-19 shocks, and the barriers they face in those recoveries, which could inform policy interventions.
We aim to provide policy-relevant findings particularly in relation to how far government support packages and reforms have been able to reach the new poor households, especially those that have experienced the greatest shocks as a result of the pandemic. This will be particularly relevant for policymakers, donors, and NGOs who play a role in making policies, programmes, and services more effectively targeted and accessible. In other words, those policy actors who want to improve the ‘last mile’ of the governance and service delivery chain.
Sign up to the CLEAR newsletter to get updates over the coming year and learn more from these chronicles of hard times.
*Names of the respondents have been pseudonymised in line with data protection rules