By NEIL HARTNELL Tribune Business Editor LESS than 17 per cent of poor Bahamian households are receiving social security benefits, an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) report highlighting a dysfunctional welfare system that is failing to reach those most in need, and where the potential for fraud and abuse is rampant. The IDB report, which has been obtained by Tribune Business, also reveals that just 45 per cent of the Food Stamps issued by the Department of Social Services go to the poorest 20 per cent of Bahamian households, raising immediate questions of whether the system is being abused by wealthier persons and those with the right 'connections'. Noting that there was no 'means testing' of applicants for social security benefit payments in the Bahamas, the IDB report said government officials found difficulty in accessing even the most basic information on welfare programmes, such as how may people were benefiting from them. Evaluations of the Government's various social security initiatives, to determine whether they were functioning efficiently and reaching their targets, were described as "virtually non-existent". The IDB report is part of an initiative to Strengthen Social Protection Programmes in the Bahamas, which is seeking to consolidate the various welfare benefits into a more streamlined package targeting the most vulnerable in Bahamian society. It is also targeting waste, fraud and inefficiency in the system, in a bid to reduce the burden social security spending places on the Government's finances. "The Bahamas has a range of non-contributory social protection programmes. However, there is considerable scope for consolidating, redesigning and strengthening programmes so that the safety net is better positioned to protect the poor and promote their human capital development," the IDB report said. "The Ministry of Labour and Social Development implements over 10 cash-in-kind programmes, and households could potentially benefit from all of these." These initiatives included the Food and Financial Assistance Programmes; the School Uniform and Footwear Programme; School Feeding Programme; Rent Programme; Water Programme; Electricity Programme; Disability Allowance; Emergency Assistance; Medical Care Assistance; and Residential and Non-residential Social Care Services. Yet the IDB report warned: "Multiple small programmes are administratively burdensome, and increase possibilities for abuse. At the same time, gaps in coverage are present, with only 16.7 per cent of poor households in receipt of safety net benefits. This suggests that the Bahamas' social security/welfare system is failing abysmally where it is most needed, in providing help to the poorest in society. The IDB report said all the Government's benefits "rely on inefficient targeting mechanisms", with both those under the Ministry and the National Insurance Board (NIB) involving different applications and targeting procedures. "Each programme has its own criteria for approval," the report added. "Applications for assistance to the Ministry of Labour and Social Development go through a labour intensive seven-step review process. "Even with this multi-tiered approval process, only 45 per cent of Food Coupon benefits go to households in the poorest quintile, and this is despite the fact that the programme is ostensibly targeted to the indigent." All of which suggests that the majority of Food Stamps, some 55 per cent, go to those who have no, or minimal need, for them - indicating the system is being abused. "Information and monitoring systems are weak," the IDB report added. "Programme information is not fully computerised, and programme officials have difficulty accessing even basic programme information, such as how many programme beneficiaries there are, or beneficiaries' geographic and demographic composition. "Programme evaluations are virtually non-existent. As a result, we do not know which programmes are achieving their objectives, and if they are efficient and cost-effective." The IDB said the Government wanted to "improve the efficiency and effectiveness" of its social security spending. As a result, the project aimed "to help lessen, in the medium term, the fiscal burden of the welfare system by reducing leakages of transfers to non-eligible beneficiaries". Administration was also targeted for improvement, and rationalising the Government's various benefit programmes "to avoid duplication, and restructuring to enhance efficiency and impact, is needed". Consolidation was a priority, along with expanding social security coverage "to a greater share of the poor". "The consolidated programme should focus on protecting the most vulnerable and on promoting human capital development among children, including promoting healthy nutrition and keeping adolescents in school," the IDB report said. Means testing, to ensure those actually needing social security support, are set to be introduced. The welfare programmes to be consolidated are the Food and Financial Assistance (rent, water and electricity) programmes; the School Uniform and Footwear programme; School Lunch programme; and Disability Allowance. The IDB report acknowledged that the programme could be "politically sensitive" given the upcoming election, but the Government is moving to counter this by appointing a broad-based social protection reform working group.