Welfare not equality

April 11, 2019

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The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.
The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.

SOME critical opinions have been offered on the government’s recently launched Ehsas poverty alleviation programme. Afshan Subohi has questions about the sources of funding for such a large-scale programme in a cash-stripped, downward spiralling economy. I.A. Rehman has wondered about the need for a constitutional amendment to enable this policy. An earlier excellent piece by Shahrukh Wani questioned the sustainability of such welfare schemes without a tax plan.

Besides the big questions of how a scheme budgeting Rs80 billion will be financed, sustained or even alleviate poverty is the pressing matter of the vision informing the policy and its proposed delivery mechanism.

Sound policies depend on a clear vision. In less than a year, the prime minister has promised to turn Pakistan into a welfare state based on conceptually diverse models ranging from those of Scandinavia, Britain, Madina and China. Each was motivated by a ‘new’ concern for the poor, homeless, widows, orphans, stunted children and maternal mortality. Neither the controversial issues of population planning, nor civil-political freedoms have featured in these visions.

Lack of knowledge of the obstacles or of clarity of vision influences the methods of delivery and yields contradictory, alarming results. The PTI’s austerity drives, crowdsourcing for dams, unfinished projects in Peshawar, and random shelter schemes have been accompanied by no cuts in the defence budget, no tax regime change, the watering of a 10-billion-tree plantation, and politicised shutting down of hospitals.

Ehsas’s claim doesn’t square with the PTI’s performance.

A selective policy for regularising elite residences and amnesty for capitalist land schemes has coexisted with brutal evictions of slum residents and markets that were the livelihood of the poorest.

Consolidation and digitalisation aside, the content of the Ehsas policy does not seem new. Random distribution of wheelchairs for disabled persons is philanthropy, not policy. The policy’s radical claim to address “elite capture and make the government work to create equality” does not square with the PTI’s ideology or performance. A welfare approach is very different from a rights-based one. Since the PTI is not for revolutionary class, gender or secular equality, what are its indicators for ‘creating equality’?

As an example of when vision, politics and outcome do not line up, consider the stated goal of expanding the Benazir Income Support Programme under the Kafalat programme. The one-woman, one-account, one-window stuff and linking the BISP to nutrition and education are previous government policies. Providing livestock, seeds and kitchen garden initiatives to village women is a dated NGO approach that sustains gender stereotypical development. It is largely unsuccessful because, more than income generation, it is women’s market access that is the biggest obstacle. It seems that social or cultural impediments have not informed the new policy and there is no planned expansion for more creative or nontraditional vocations.

However, the promise to provide 5.7 million women mobile phones is likely to challenge the sociopolitical fabric and gender relations. The consequences may not be anticipated or liked by the PTI government. Even the fiercest critics of the BISP cash transfer programme have acknowledged the empowerment and agency it has afforded women. Reportedly, households spend more on girls’ nutrition and education but women also invest BISP funds to buy mobile phones, especially in remote villages.

Technology facilitates autonomy and mobile apps for LHWs have enabled better service delivery. But here’s the challenge. Repeatedly in cases of violence against women, a key motivation for male violence has been women’s assertion of independence. Bank accounts, CNICs and mobile phones are enablers of women’s autonomy that trigger patriarchal anxiety that wishes to curb such freedoms. Will the government support these women with legal protection when the unintended consequences of their empowerment spill over?

After the 18th Amendment, there has been a time lag on updating policies for almost any sector or department across provinces. The social welfare departments are the weakest and most neglected. The mandate and rules of business of the social sector especially are unclear and there are administrative tussles over ownership of hostels and shelters — which tend to be dysfunctional due to lack of funds. The policies of transfers and postings are unclear because of ad hoc bans and informalised decision-making. Instead of centralising social protection, it is critical to strengthen these policies in the provinces.

Upgrading policies, monitoring the existing schools, Basic Health Units and shelters, and fixing governance issues like paying government employees regularly would be more beneficial than devising yet another grand programme. Fixing purana Pakistan may be closer to Jinnah’s vision and a better idea than the results of the naya welfare non-vision.

The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2019