Every cloud has a silver lining and so has the Covid-19 pandemic. It saved the government and taxpayers around Tk 2,500 crore since March last year.
In the 2020-21 fiscal year, the government had allocated Tk 2,200 crore as expenses for foreign tours of its officials; this figure was around Tk 70 crore more than the allocation made in the previous fiscal year.
But as the pandemic prompted suspension or postponement of global events like meetings, seminars, trainings and workshops amid cancellations of international flights since early January last year, more than Tk 2,000 crore of last fiscal year’s allocation remained unspent, according to finance ministry officials.
In the 2019-20 fiscal year, around Tk 500 crore of the allocation was unspent, they said.
The allocation for foreign tours, made under the revenue and development budget, has been on the rise every year due to growing keenness among officials to travel. But the pandemic led to a significant dip in spending on foreign trips.
Bangladesh reported the first cases of Covid-19 on March 8 last year.
On Thursday, the finance ministry issued a circular, suspending 50 percent of this fiscal year’s allocation and asking for abandoning of all routine tours.
The money can only be spent for emergency purposes and considering unavoidable circumstances, stated the circular.
In another austerity measure in the aftermath of the pandemic, the finance ministry issued another circular on Thursday, limiting ministries and departments’ expenses on purchasing cars by 50 percent of the allocation.
Officials of different ministries and projects make foreign trips every year to take part in trainings, meetings, and seminars on taxpayers’ money. Ministers are also keen on making trips abroad.
In some cases, project implementing agencies create provisions for foreign tours and include officials from ministries and departments who have nothing to do with the projects.
There has been criticism over such frequent foreign tours of government officials as many such trips at public expense yield no results. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also spoke against such frequent trips earlier.
The pandemic was able to rein in expenses for such trips over the last year.
Overseas travels of public servants started declining in January last year and virtually came to a halt in March, when the country reported the first cases of Covid-19. These trips remain suspended till date.
“Excepting one or two ministries, there was virtually no expense this time,” said an official of the finance ministry, regarding foreign tours.
The official said the finance minister did not receive files on foreign tours by ministry officials since March last year.
Usually, files on foreign tours by ministry officials up to the level of joint secretary are signed by the minister concerned. Files for anyone above that rank require the prime minister’s signature.
Only a couple of files were sent to the finance minister on visits to India by a few government bank officials for treatment on their own funds, after the neighbouring country resumed medical visa services in October last year, said the official.
Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal said he did not have to sign files on foreign tours, except one made by the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“I went abroad for treatment three times. But I bore all my expenses,” he also said.
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen also travelled abroad one or two times.
A planning ministry official said government officials are now unwilling to embark on foreign tours because of the hassle of doing Covid-19 tests and additional expenses for mandatory quarantine on reaching the destination country.
However, there is a possibility of some foreign tours, especially to the US, by government high-ups this year with regard to Bangladesh’s upgradation from LDC (Least Developed Country) status, he said.
The official added that he believes government officials need to attend programmes overseas so that they can acquire knowledge about best practices abroad.
Due to the pandemic, both the annual and spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank last year were held virtually. The meetings bring central bankers, finance ministers and others worldwide together twice a year.
Meetings of different ministries in the country itself were also held virtually all year around.
The Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) in a report on implementation of the 2019-20 budget also highlighted the matter of allocation for foreign tours.
It said several ministries, divisions and departments including the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education, Cabinet Division, Planning Division, Bank and Financial Institutions Division, Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Division, and the Science and Technology Division spent less of its respective allocations for foreign tours.
One of the major reasons was the cancellation of prescheduled trainings, workshops, and seminars abroad, said the report submitted in the National Economic Council meeting last week.
To provide travel expenses, destination countries are divided into three categories and government high-ups and officials get allowances with respect to their designations.
Group one includes countries from North and South America and Europe, group two includes Middle Eastern and African countries, while group three constitutes Asian countries.
According to a finance division circular issued last year, officials with “special status” including speaker of the parliament, ministers, secretaries, lawmakers, and ambassadors in Bangladeshi missions are provided daily hotel allowances ranging from $230 to $560, as per their designations.
They also get an allowance for food, tips, and conveyance between $87 and $127 per day.
Officials of general status get daily hotel allowances ranging from $116 to $280 and get another allowance between $64 and $101.
Cabinet ministers can spend $700 on entertainment purposes, state and deputy ministers $600, while the cabinet secretary, chief secretary, senior secretary, secretary, and armed forces’ officers with equivalent positions are allowed to spend $500.