CLEAR Synthesis: Crisis Coping Strategies and the SDGs: Covid-19 Trajectories of Poverty and Recovery in Bangladesh

UN Women/Fahad Abdullah Kaizer (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

People in Bangladesh, and elsewhere, used a variety of different coping strategies to deal with the multiple economic shocks of the Covid-19 pandemic. These often failed to prevent them from falling into poverty and sometimes had other detrimental impacts on their wellbeing. Together these present a challenge to the advancement of human development. 

The multiple economic shocks during the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in people who were doing ok before the pandemic falling into poverty, and those already in moderate poverty moving into extreme poverty or destitution. In Bangladesh, an estimated 1.6 million people fell into poverty during the pandemic, especially from  urban low-income areas, those those working in the informal sector, women and marginalised groups. Four years on recovery has been slow.

As part of the CLEAR research programme, a series of quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods longitudinal research projects, conducted over the course of the pandemic and its immediate aftermath, document the different coping strategies people used to try to deal with the multiple shocks they faced and how these affected their trajectories of poverty and recovery over time. As well as the immediate and long-term implications for people’s wellbeing, the wider impact of these strategies has contributed to the Covid-19 pandemic’s exacerbation of already faltering progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Cost cutting strategies: reduced spending on food, health, and education

As pandemic measures affected incomes people tried to cope by cutting costs, especially those relating to food, healthcare, and education. They skipped meals and consumed less nutritious food which has affected progress towards SDG 2: Zero hunger, and has implications for children’s long-term development. Skipping or delaying health care and medications, another common strategy, led to a deterioration in people’s health and ability to work and has made progress towards SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being more challenging. Children were also taken out of school to help families cope with the financial shocks they faced, and some were engaging in child labour to support their families. These learning losses can have a long-term impact of children’s life trajectory and impedes progress towards SDG 4: Quality Education.

Financial strategies: depleting saving and depending on loans

Initially people also tried to cope by using their savings and selling assets but as these depleted, they responded to subsequent shocks by taking loans, often with high interest rates. The loss of productive assets makes it harder for them to escape the poverty trap and repay their loans. This left many stuck in debt traps. The number of outstanding loans rose over the course of the pandemic and onwards into the cost-of-living crisis as people struggled to pay off accumulated debts. This makes progress towards SDG 1: No poverty more challenging.

Livelihood strategies: finding alternative (worse) work

The loss of their livelihoods during the pandemic meant people tried to find alternatives. However, those who found work were generally working in less skilled or less secure, more precarious and vulnerable work compared with pre-pandemic. Family members who hadn’t worked previously started to work as part of the family’s coping strategy, and boys were especially at risk of being involved in child labour to support their families. The lack of quality work makes it harder for people to recover and makes progress towards SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth more difficult.

Accessing social protection: patchy and inadequate

Very few people in Bangladesh were able to cope and escape poverty by receiving government social protection. Despite an expansion of its social protection programming, it was patchy, inadequate, and difficult to access, especially for vulnerable people who had not been poor before the pandemic as they were considered ineligible for government social protection during the pandemic shocks. Access to social protection went down between the first and second lockdowns, despite people still needing it. People reported feeling shame around needing social protection, especially if they hadn’t needed support before, and the way in which it was provided (for example having to queue in public) could be stigmatising. Getting access to social protection was also dependent on people’s networks. Having the right local government connections got people on the recipient lists for social protection where otherwise they might be overlooked. The lack of comprehensive social protection affects progress towards SDG 1: No poverty.

Network strategies: dependent on people’s pre-pandemic economic status

People’s networks were an important part of their coping strategies and recovery, especially their immediate and extended family, their neighbours, local elites, local government actors, the ruling party, and NGOs. However, asking for help from family, friends, and community members was very shameful for people. Of course the universal nature of the crisis meant many were facing similar difficulties so were unable to help out as they might have previously. People who had never been poor before the pandemic tended to have wider networks to help them to cope and to recover, than those who had been vulnerable non-poor or marginalised beforehand.

Recovery trajectories: harder to escape poverty with depleted coping strategies

Some people were unable to use their depleting coping strategies to escape poverty, especially with the lack of alternative livelihood opportunities, limited state support, and reduction of support networks among friends and family. Those more likely to have coped better and recovered were those who had started the pandemic in a better position, with more savings and assets, and wider and stronger networks. Many of the new poor who have recovered were left with increased vulnerability, reduced socioeconomic resilience, diminished savings, and accumulated debt.  This leaves them at risk should future crises occur. Trying to cope with crises and being in poverty is hard and causes people stress and poor mental health. These emotional impacts of people’s coping strategies and their impacts can also keep people trapped in poverty.  The inadequacy and immediate and longer-term impacts of people’s coping strategies is a risk towards progress in poverty reduction and human development.

To read more about the synthesis of the different CLEAR research findings relating to coping strategies and their longer term impacts please see the full report.

CLEAR Synthesis report 3: Multiple Crises, Coping Strategies, and their Longer-Term Impacts

See also the original CLEAR reports:

Brigitte Rohwerder
Research Officer
Institute of Development Studies