'When people should matter' — In conversation with Qazi Azmat Isa

September 10, 2019

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Qazi Azmat Isa. — Photo provided by author
Qazi Azmat Isa. — Photo provided by author

Qazi Azmat Isa is the chief executive of the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund since 2011 and has been in the development sector now for 30 years. He has worked tirelessly to transform society, empower the poor and give them a voice. And through these years if there is one valuable lesson he has picked up it is to learn from the people.

His organisation supports the government's social protection programme and contributes to achieving Vision 2025. It uses the poverty scorecard data to assist ultra-poor households to access opportunities that can lift them out of poverty.

Isa spoke to Dawn on the sidelines of the Social Protection Week 2019: Securing the Future of the Region, organised by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) at its headquarters in Manila, Philippines.

1. How do you define social protection in Pakistan's context?

In Pakistan’s context, social protection means providing a safety net to the poorest households, those that earn less than Rs10,000 per month. The BISP beneficiaries are determined through a poverty scorecard. The safety net can take the form of pure cash transfers (unconditional cash transfers) or cash with a caveat that it be spent on certain goods/services (such as health and education). Social protection can also extend to providing benefits such as vouchers that provide access to medical treatment or health insurance.

Related: Do cash transfers help the poor? Word is out it does

2. What makes for a good social protection programme?

Inclusion and correct targeting makes for a good social protection programme. Inclusion of the poorest households especially those which may not be easily identified (women-headed households, minorities, persons with disabilities) and are usually not visible in the mainstream. Providing such households with cash and/or benefits has substantial impact on their ability to survive.

3. What social protection issues should governments be monitoring?

A government should monitor poverty trends and figures and set a national poverty line using robust models to identify who the poorest groups are and monitor their wellbeing. The government should also look at education/literacy and health statistics and design programmes that support inclusion and wellbeing of poorest households through quality access to such public goods. Specifically, in Pakistan, the government needs to create a system that can track progress of BISP households – a dynamic registry – so that it effectively targets the poorest and stops providing stipends to those who no longer need it.

4. In your opinion, what's missing in the global social protection debate that needs to be brought to the fore, now more than ever? Why?

The link between social protection and poverty reduction needs to be further highlighted. Social protection is a basic requirement to provide some safety net to the poorest members of a population. Whereas poverty reduction focuses on providing the opportunities and support to poorest and poor households in order to help them move out of poverty. Governments are finding it more and more difficult to afford large social protection programmes in continuity. This is why evidence as to what works in helping households graduate out of poverty is extremely important. Building that evidence is what PPAF does.

5. Despite so many programmes (BISP, health insurance in KP come to mind, for instance), why are so many people poor in our country? Do you have figures to show how many people are covered by social protection net? Where are we going wrong?

Structural inequalities and macro-economic trends impact strongly on poverty. By structural inequalities I mean the existing land distribution system, social norms, caste and class differentials. These are replicated within government and it then becomes difficult to break these invisible power structures.

The government covers 5.7 million households under the BISP programme. The BISP stipend, however, provides a little extra to these households for their consumption support, i.e. more food, sometimes education and health. They are not able to utilise the funds for economic activities. The graduation approach provides evidence that supporting many of these families through asset transfers and vocational trainings, and linking them up to markets and value chains within their areas, helps them move up the poverty ladder sustainably. We need to be thinking along the lines of creating economic opportunities and access for such households – I believe at least 70 per cent of BISP households could be helped to become economically productive and move out of needing the BISP stipend. It is very encouraging to see that the government has made graduation integral to its Ehsaas programme.

The poor are not a single uniform group — a large number of households who need social safety nets have some inherent potential which, if properly identified and addressed, can help them get out of poverty. Some of the poor will, however, always require support. Graduation is about enabling the extremely poor to escape poverty. With the right kind of responsive and flexible support, a number of ultra and poor families can be graduated to the next level of wellbeing where they have opportunities to link up with other sources of assistance and market-based solutions including microfinance. Social protection/poverty alleviation interventions like cash transfers alone do not provide a holistic solution to the complex nature of rural poverty.

As the bulk of the poor graduate out of poverty, the nature of social protection evolves to encompass labour market interventions, worker protection and provision of insurance to mitigate risks associated with injury, disability and disaster. At the same time social assistance in cash or kind to the most vulnerable individuals or households with no other means of adequate support, including single parents, the homeless, or the physically or mentally challenged will continue.

6. What is the most important issue and most talked about globally vis-à-vis universal social protection? Is it also Pakistan's?

More and more the world is looking at equity. Oxfam reported that the world’s 26 richest individuals own as much as 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population. Capitalism in its current form can be said to have failed. Capitalism creates poverty and unless well regulated it allows for extreme poverty. The big debate globally is that of curbing the excesses of current capitalism and moving towards more egalitarian societies. Social protection offers both well off and poorer countries the opportunity to help those most in need. However, how it does this differs from country to country. Taxation is one way – the Scandinavian countries have income taxes exceeding 50pc, and that money is utilised to support a very high standard of living for all of their populations.