Dr Sania Nishtar aims to make Pakistan a better place for all its citizens, particularly the disadvantaged people who lack resources or strength to secure a decent living standard on their own.
The talented health activist — who has earned global recognition for her work and authored several books that identify and analyse problems and suggest solutions — is vested with the huge responsibility to reform the system and make it responsive to the needs of the poor and the needy.
Unlike others who scramble for projection, Dr Nishtar’s business card describes her only as chairperson of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). However, she commands the status of a senior federal minister in her capacity as an adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan on the social sector.
She also heads the PTI’s flagship poverty alleviation initiative, the Ehsaas programme. The adviser was hopeful that the ranking of Pakistan on global indices will improve with the implementation of policy recommendations and evidence-based decision-making system. She has activated and strengthened a digitised data collection system in her ministry for mapping district-wise information about marginalised households for precision social spending.
Talking about the upcoming participation of Pakistan’s delegation in the UN general Assembly session, she admitted that with the gridlock on Kashmir the diplomatic dimensions will be more pronounced in the country’s presentations.
She did not hide her discomfort at the state of the economy, but finds the roots of economic problems in the bad governance of the self-serving past regimes. She did not pretend to be an expert to comment on the choices made by the economic team. She said she trusted its good intentions and hoped for better outcomes.
The political innocence of an otherwise perfectly enlightened person was a little puzzling. She politely refused to comment on anything outside her domain while sitting at the head of a conference table with an open laptop to pull out relevant material in support of her position, sipping lime water enriched with mint leaves.
In an exclusive interview with Dawn in her office in Islamabad, she responded to pointed questions and shared a copy of the Ehsaas strategy that she said would soon be launched. Later, she forwarded the written response to the questions raised. Below are the extracts from the interview.
Q. The PTI government claimed compassion for the needy citizen when it launched Ehsaas. Why were SDGs dropped from the development discussion? Was it a conscious decision? Or was the focus on inventing a new brand name for the PTI’s development efforts for political capital?
A. The Ehsaas strategy is aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). On page 13, the Ehsaas strategy states: “Ehsaas is in alignment with the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030. Eleven out of the 17 goals are in alignment with the SDG framework. Especially relevant goals include SDG 1 (elimination of all forms of poverty — its targets, inter alia, include implementing nationally appropriate social protection systems and achievement of substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable); SDG 2 (zero hunger); SDG 3 (good health and well-being); SDG 4 (quality education); SDG 5 (women’s empowerment and gender equality); SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation); SDG 8 (full and productive work); SDG 9 (innovation); SDG 13 (climate action); SDG 10 (reducing inequality); SDG 17 (partnerships).”
In addition, during this year’s United Nations General Assembly, there is a high-level event at the SDG Action Zone focused exclusively on Ehsaas (https://sdgaction.zone). Also, Pakistan has been invited to feature Ehsaas at an event hosted by the president of Costa Rica on “Multidimensional poverty indexes to guide innovative policies”. So clearly, there is recognition of the importance of Ehsaas as a new and novel approach, even this early on in the process.
The multi-sectoral dimension of Ehsaas is what is really novel.
Q. Over the past one year, Pakistan slipped multiple steps on the UN Index ranking. How do you explain this?
A. The population-based metrics (data) which factor into the composite index you are referring to were gathered at least two years ago. That is the case with every composite index of such nature, which means that if the ranking is released today, it will be reflective of performance two years ago.
Q. How closely is the federal government been working with the provinces to forward the agenda?
A. There are at least six federal-provincial streams of engagement across Ehsaas. First, several Ehsaas federal programmes have a provincial footprint (Kifalat, Tahafuz, interest free loans, graduation initiatives, Ehsaas TV, One-Window Ehsaas resources, portal to pool all free government online resources, District Development Portal to facilitate data-driven decision-making). Second, in other programmes, cost-sharing arrangements are in place (e.g., Insaf card). Third, the normative and policy work that the federal Ehsaas did will be available to the provinces as well (new policy for the differently abled, new policy for orphanages, commitments policy to harness civil society and the private sector’s role, new system of schools for marginalised children, new institutional window of support for the most marginalised, the new policy to bring the informal sector into the social security net, the solutions innovation challenge policy). In the fourth place, we are harmonising policy with the provinces so that the provincial Ehsaas plans can factor into the existing quantifiable goals, which have been stipulated in the strategy document. Fifth, the national socio-economic database that is being developed will be available to the provinces free of cost for them to base their work on. Sixth, the Ehsaas app will be accessible country-wide. Finally, the Ehsaas framework under its governance section has a set of asks of the provinces to make the government pro-poor.
These days I am making presentations to provincial cabinets and I stress on all six presentations.
Q. Why is the level of awareness on SDGs so low amongst the public and parliamentarians?
A. The SDGs call for a change in the way the government works — from silos to multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approaches, and that has implications for planning, resource allocation, measurements, incentives structures and accountability. Part of what we are trying to do with Ehsaas is to create those frameworks, and in that sense Ehsaas is very pioneering. And yes, you are right this has an awareness dimension too.
Q. The private sector is comparatively more engaged in SDGs compared to MDGs. Has the government been able to leverage their greater commitment to community welfare in a meaningful way?
A. We’re actively working with all stakeholders, especially the private sector, to ensure that Ehsaas is a success. The chains of poverty need to be broken and the private sector is key in terms of financial resources, providing training and apprenticeships and catalyzing innovation. And this is not just rhetoric. On the Ehsaas website, we have a “pledge to Ehsaas” portal where the private sector has started making commitments. —AS
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 23rd, 2019