On social support in Uzbekistan during the COVID-19 pandemic - Dilmurad Yusupov
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On social support in Uzbekistan during the COVID-19 pandemic

Illustration by Eldos Fazylbekov / Gazeta.uz

In Uzbekistan, vulnerable groups of the population affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and strict quarantine measures are being included in the so-called ‘iron notebook’ (in Uzbek ‘temir daftar’) to receive financial assistance from the state through the mahallas (local community and neighbourhoods). I reflected on this in a recent op-ed at Gazeta.uz and tried to suggest ways on how to improve the quality of social support by eliminating the subjective approach and corruptogenic factors.

The period of the pandemic has been very challenging for social protection systems in many countries. During the period of loss of jobs and livelihoods, the need for social assistance and services has increased for many people. Moreover, the mechanisms of their provision have undergone changes in conditions of social physical distancing and other precautions taken to contain the spread of the infection.

In Uzbekistan, large-scale one-time social assistance to low-income and vulnerable people is provided from the Anti-Crisis Fund, formed in March, whose expenditures on the social sphere amounted to 2.56 trillion soums as of August 11, of which 489 billion were used for social benefits.

To provide assistance to socially vulnerable families in Uzbekistan, a list “temir daftar” (“iron notebook”) was introduced, where information about those in need is entered. The list is formed by chairpersons of the mahalla committees together with the heads of the sectors. Officials enter information into the “iron notebook” in electronic form on the site sakhovat.argos.uz using an electronic signature key.

Five categories of needy families have been identified when maintaining the “iron notebook”:

  1. families with disabled and chronically ill family members;
  2. families consisting of lonely elderly people, widows and low-income people, people in need of care;
  3. families with five or more children;
  4. citizens who have lost their jobs and sources of income as a result of quarantine measures, including returned migrants;
  5. families below the poverty line in need of help and financial support.

 

Why “iron notebook”?

In modern Uzbekistan, the phrase “iron notebook” is firmly entrenched in popular use in the context of accounting for debt obligations. The need for “iron” accounting of debtors arose more in rural areas when people temporarily did not have funds, and they borrowed food in the local store. The seller wrote down in an “iron notebook” exactly what goods and for what total amount were borrowed, and after harvesting or in more favourable periods, the villagers returned it back to the seller. After the debt was returned, the seller wrote off the debt from the “iron notebook”.

Perhaps, following the history of the “iron notebook” as a debt book, the title of this list refers to the fact that the financial assistance provided to vulnerable families now will become a tax burden on taxpayers in the future?

“Open your fridge! We are coming to you…”

The manifestation of the human factor in means-testing of families by mahalla committees to assign benefits and one-off payments during the COVID-19 pandemic raises doubts about the effectiveness and uniformity of this approach. The main factor for the fair distribution of material assistance is the criteria of need.

Including in the ‘iron’ list means that the family is eligible to receive a one-time cash aid during the quarantine period. But it remains completely unclear what specific criteria mahalla employees and sector leaders are using to identify eligible low-income families through household visits in order to include them in the “iron notebook”.

Recently, it was reported by some residents of Tashkent that representatives of the mahalla are conducting door-to-door checks of the contents of fridges to determine the needs of the family.

And yet – what is the difference between a low-income family and a family in need of social protection? Are there uniform, clear criteria for defining poverty and need for including in the list and what are the guarantees that they are applied in all cases in the same way? Obviously, it is also possible for the household visitors to subjectively interpret such “criteria of need” as the presence of fridges and their contents, a TV set and others.

Intrusion into private life?

Does the inspection of the contents of the fridge, for which you need to enter the house, infringe upon the honour and dignity of a person? Does this mean that if a person refuses to let representatives of the mahalla into the house, especially during a pandemic, the degree of his need will not be established and he will be denied help, even if he really needs it? It is important to remember that the private life of citizens and the inviolability of the private life are protected by Article 27 of the Constitution of Uzbekistan.

Is it correct to “proclaim” some list of the poor and those in need of social protection and to post the list in the mahalla committee?

Of course, it is obvious that this is done for reasons of transparency so that the residents of the mahalla could get acquainted with who was really included in the list and who did not, and who received what type of help. This desire for transparency seems well-founded. But it must be remembered that the “iron notebook” published out of good intentions to secure transparency in some cases can cause stigmatization of socially vulnerable families, causing shame in the recipient, and envy or other bad feelings among others, as well as violate the confidentiality of personal data.

It is also important to remember that people in need of help may choose not to make their financial condition public, and this is their right.

Risks of embezzlement and corruption

There is a corruption moment when relatively wealthy families are included in the lists, while there can be other less wealthy families living in the same mahalla who have not yet received any assistance.

And the facts confirm this: during the quarantine period, the activities of the mahalla did not become freer from cases of violations by the chairpersons and employees of mahalla committees in the form of embezzlement of benefits for low-income families, funds of the unemployed, funds from the charitable foundations “Mahalla” and “Saxovat va Ko’mak” (Kindness and Support).

In addition, it is obvious that during the pandemic, household visits can significantly increase the risk of contracting the coronavirus by the aksakals (chairpersons) of mahallas themselves, as well as lonely elderly people, disabled people or those with pre-existing chronic diseases. This is the argument that was used by Elmira Basitkhanova (at that time Deputy Minister for Support of Mahalla and Family) to suspend the work of independent volunteer groups from April 1.

Underestimated criterion of need

Before the introduction of the “iron book”, some families had access to benefits for caring for a child under 2 years old, for children under 14 years old and benefits for low-income families. To qualify for such assistance, the average monthly total income for each family member over the past three months must not exceed 1.5 times the average monthly minimum wage, or 358 thousand soums (less than $35).

If the income for each family member is more than 358 thousand soums, then the application for inclusion is automatically rejected in the Unified Social Register.

However, the applied poverty threshold in the amount of 358 thousand soums is an underestimated criterion of the need of families. Since 2015, the World Bank has defined extreme poverty as living on less than $ 1.9 a day, which accounts for an income per person per month of $57, or more than 580,000 soums (at current exchange rates), is the threshold of extreme poverty.

As a result, the established criterion of income for payment through the Unified Social Register in Uzbekistan is 1.62 times less than the global poverty line, which significantly reduces the coverage of social benefits in the country. We limit ourselves to helping only families in total poverty, if, of course, they can go through all the bureaucratic procedures in mahalla committees and provide a bunch of papers.

A recent UNICEF report in Uzbekistan showed that material assistance to low-income families is a very small program, reaching only 61.5 thousand families throughout the country. UNICEF analysis revealed that 98% of households, even those that meet the significantly underestimated criterion of need, are not covered by this program. Moreover, according to UNICEF data from 2012, families received childcare allowance for an average of 6.7 months and family allowance for 4.7 months.

Mahalla committees are also responsible for assigning benefits to low-income families. The UNICEF study notes that due to a lack of funding and a large number of low-income families, many, even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of strict quarantine measures, had to wait for their turn to receive social benefits in the mahallas, although they fully met the existing low eligibility criteria.

Take a family with two minor children under 14 years old, where the mother does not work, and the salary of the father, the sole breadwinner, is an average monthly wage of 2.3 million soums. This income just might allow a family to remain in extreme poverty of about $ 1.9 a day per person, and at the same time, the family does not meet the income criteria and will not receive child benefits.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that in Uzbekistan the size of the consumer basket and the minimum living wage have not yet been officially approved. According to preliminary estimates, for the summer of last year, in the Tashkent and Fergana regions, the consumer basket amounted to 650 thousand soums, and the minimum subsistence – 800 thousand soums.

Who can be left behind without social support?

The press secretary of the Ministry of Support of the Mahalla and Family, Saodat Boimirzaeva, answering questions from citizens, noted that families in the list of needy and already receiving social benefits and material assistance are entitled to receive only one type of benefit or material assistance in accordance with the resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers from February 15, 2013. In other words, they cannot count on being included in the “iron notebook”.

It also remains unclear whether the risks that people in dire need will not be included in these lists for some reason are completely excluded. For example, at the time of the pandemic, they may be living not in the mahalla where they are registered, or live for less than six months, or they may have lost their registration and identity documents altogether. Similar situations happened earlier when the granting of child benefits was denied on the grounds that the family had been living in a dormitory for less than six months.

Let’s look at another possible situation. Let’s say a single mother works as a cleaner for a salary of 700 thousand soums a month. She has a disabled child who receives a disability allowance from childhood in the amount of 466 thousand soums. As a result, the total income of this small family is 1 million 116 thousand soums, and 583 thousand soums are accounted for each family member.

Since May, old-age pensions for grandparents living with children and grandchildren, as well as disability and survivor benefits are not included in calculating the total family income. Thanks to this decision, a single mother with a disabled child, who really has a very small income, can receive material assistance through the mahalla and can be included in the list of low-income families.

What is the best mechanism if not through the mahalla?

On August 8, Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov criticised the chairpersons of citizens’ gatherings for delaying the process of providing one-time financial assistance to families in need. Indeed, door-to-door household visits and identification of seven categories of families according to unapproved and subjective criteria can take much more time and effort, which is also influenced by the efficiency and preparedness of the representatives of mahalla committees with limited staff.

It is possible that the chairpersons of mahallas and their assistants are aware of what is happening in the mahalla, they may have organisational skills, life experience and have authority among the population. However, they will not replace professional social workers with skills in case management and social support for socially vulnerable children and adults. Therefore, it is more expedient to refuse mediation of the mahalla in this matter.

In the new system of the Unified Register of Social Protection (operates in test mode in the Syrdarya region since October 1, 2019, by the end of the year it should be introduced throughout Uzbekistan), citizens will have the opportunity to register using a personal identification number of an individual (PINFL) and apply for social benefits.

Digitalization of this process will allow avoiding paperwork and will provide an opportunity to objectively assess the degree of need of low-income families with the ability to track the level of wealth, wages and other closed personal data.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to revise the greatly underestimated poverty threshold of 358 thousand soums to comply with international standards for defining poverty.

According to a representative of the Ministry of Finance, in the new system of the Unified Register of Social Protection, the function of the mahalla committee is preserved to assure the composition of the family and collect documents from citizens for their subsequent transfer to the Pension Fund. Thus, at the initial stages of the registration process in the register of social protection, the human factor is not excluded, and filing an application will still require direct contact with representatives of the mahalla.

It remains unclear whether the persons included in the “iron notebook” as a result of house-to-house visits will be included in the register. Even if they dropped out of the “iron notebook” for some reason, perhaps their economic position could be still very vulnerable in the near future.

When forming the register, it is important to remember that almost every government agency in Uzbekistan has different lists of vulnerable and needy segments of the population – the mahalla, the ministries of public education and health, and Medical Labour Expert Commissions (VTEK) have their own lists. It seems that all of them should be integrated into the Unified Register of Social Protection.

One-time assistance to families affected by the socio-economic crisis as a result of the pandemic will allow them to hold out for a period. At the same time, representatives of the mahalla and sectors will obviously assist these people in finding jobs after strict quarantine measures, but the positive impact on the total family income may be insignificant due to low salaries from low-skilled and public works.

What has COVID-19 taught us?

The coronavirus pandemic has shown that we are all vulnerable both in terms of health and socio-economic status. The self-employed and workers in the rather large informal sector have become particularly vulnerable.

Initially, social protection of the population meant assistance to socially vulnerable segments of the population, which served as an argument for our state in the transition from a universal system of social benefits to the introduction of methods of targeted assistance to low-income families – poverty targeting.

However, even before the pandemic, the significantly lowered poverty threshold and bureaucratic obstacles to receiving social benefits left many vulnerable children and adults without adequate social protection from the state.

At the beginning of the year, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in his address to the Parliament noted that, based on various estimates, 12-15% of the population of Uzbekistan, or 4-5 million citizens, are living below the poverty line. In the context of the current crisis, this figure could grow significantly. In this situation, the use of poverty targeting becomes meaningless because many groups of the population are affected in one way or another and may need social assistance.

Keeping “iron notebooks” for those in need is based on non-standardized, subjective criteria for assessing the well-being of families. Considering that during household visits, employees of the mahalla committee and sector leaders assess the material condition based on the property (vehicles, real estate, etc.) accumulated over several years, they may not pay due attention to the lost income of families during the crisis.

It seems very important to think in detail how in the future the information about families in need of social protection, collected in the “iron notebook”, can be saved and used to create a truly republican register, which will reflect the life histories of recipients of social assistance. Ultimately, assessing stories and the effectiveness of the support provided to people will serve to develop the country’s social protection system in general.

The original article was published in Russian at Gazeta.uz on 14 August 2020.

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