THE democratic government more responsive to the needs of the electorate — that includes a sizeable number of the poor — introduced a limited social security net within a year of assuming power.
In 2008, it launched its flagship the Benazir Income Support Programme despite serious financial constraints in the wake of weak economic growth and low resource mobilisation. According to the latest available figures, the total cash grant disbursement was stated to be Rs103 billion.
The government’s focus, experts say, has clearly been on relief and not empowerment of teeming millions. The need to provide the able bodied poor with productive work did not get the attention it deserved, depriving the vulnerable people of the right to earn their living in dignity.
They have been turned into a state liability instead of an asset in an underperforming economy.
Another criticism on the BISP relates to its failure to index cash grant to inflation. During the past four years inflation has been in double digits, at one point hitting disturbingly high 25 per cent. Official data indicates food inflation to be higher than the average price increase. In real terms the value of monthly cash transfer of Rs1000 per family has since been eroded by 30 per cent, if not more.
The initiative, the argument goes, could have yielded better results in terms of the impact on key social indicators had the relief policy been coupled with an empowerment programme for the poor caught in the cycle of extreme poverty. Pakistan is set to miss most Millennium Development Goals related to wellbeing of the people, the last yearly progress monitoring report indicated.
However, the BISP, despite some lapses, has been generally recognised as a success. People associated with the initiative attribute its positive outcomes to the development of fairly efficient modern systems of identification of deserving families and dispersal of cash grants through modern electronical channels.
The BISP team recognised the value of input of the World Bank’s technical and financial support. The utilisation of the data base of National Database Registration Authority (Nadra) facilitated the project to improve its efficiency, transparency and creditability.
In a latest report titled ‘Reaching the poorest through effective social security nets’, the World Bank recounted its achievements.
It specially noted the transfer of grant to the female representatives of 3.5 million beneficiary families. The policy to encourage women to register with NADRA led to 40 per cent spike in females’ registration of computerised national identity cards.
In this context, it is hard to argue that a poor woman holding identity card stands a better chance of socio-economic survival in a society where her contribution to the economy is under-reported.
The World Bank report commends the usage of poverty scorecard data base as a paradigm shift from parliamentarian-based beneficiary identification. This system, it is believed, can run independent of political influence.
“A recent evaluation confirmed that more than 98 per cent of the beneficiaries received their payments on time through Pakistan Post”. The usage of smart cards and mobile phones has been termed ‘impressive’ paving the way towards financial literacy and financial inclusion of the poorest.
It also recognised the governance and accounting mechanism as effective also because 50 per cent of the managing board members were civil society representatives working in the non-government sector.
The World Bank brief report hinted at the information void. The interaction with BISP staff has not been enlightening and BISP Chairperson Farzana Raja avoids media for some reason. She did not respond to few questions mailed to her media director Salman Khalid regarding the non development budget of an expanding organisation, sometimes criticised for its ostentatious secretariat set-up and avoidable spending on foreign tours.
A source in Islamabad confirmed reservation of certain members of the country’s economic team about the BISP.
“Sometime back Farzana Raja was called to make presentation in a cabinet meeting. Some members felt that the programme was stretched thin, others saw it as a costly political gimmick. They felt the government should refrain from selling misery to get donors money”, a senior officer in Islamabad told Dawn.
It was reported by Farzana Raja in the said meeting that the BISP board had decided to expand the scope of the project and it had already launched a few more pro-poor initiatives such as Benazir debit card, a Rs3,00,000 interest-free soft loan scheme called Waseela-e-Rozgar, Waseela-e- Haq, Waseela-e-sehat, Waseelae-taleem programme and life insurance worth Rs100,000 for head earner of families covered by the BISP.
A senior member of the PPP team critical of the BISP told Dawn informally: “Give them work not free cash. Pakistan does not need an army of beggars, we already have enough. The distribution of money should follow creation of wealth. Pakistan is too poor to afford some fancy social security net. The need is to generate growth and provide employment opportunities”, he said.
“The BISP is a relief programme that supplements poor families’ budget. At the time of its launch, the idea was to provide some help to cover their nutritional needs. I believe that the thrust has now been on spread rather than its affectivity”, Dr Hafiz Pasha, who said to have fathered the project four years back, told this scribe over telephone from Lahore.
“I believe the poor cannot wait for the economy to gather steam. They need food today to see another day. It is good that the PPP government has introduced the social security net like all civilised states to save the poor from free fall. It needs to expand and deepen the system to ensure no one dies of hunger in this country ”, another economist from Islamabad commented.