Crises, technology and social protection

Updated April 11, 2020

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A Pakistani volunteer checks the body temperature of a passenger to help detect coronavirus, at a railway station in Lahore. — AP/File
A Pakistani volunteer checks the body temperature of a passenger to help detect coronavirus, at a railway station in Lahore. — AP/File

NATURAL disasters or crises expose state fragility, but also present a valuable opportunity for change. They are creative moments to transform governance through testing innovative technical solutions. Today’s ‘Ehsaas’ programme is built on the platform of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), which was established in 2008 but went through a learning curve by incorporating the lessons learnt in the IDP crisis in 2009 and flash floods in 2010. If handled well, Covid-19 could allow us to radically transform and upgrade our social protection regime.

The National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) can play a pivotal role in any such transformation as it has been dealing with disasters in the past. It houses the real and unique sets of biometric as well as biographical data of its 122 million citizens.

Nadra’s inclusive and robust database had proven time and again that it can increase access to critical services and benefits. The authority has been in the technology frontline in all disasters. Identity authentication and credential verification of the victims of disaster, performed by Nadra, are the key steps for any kind of relief or benefit in kind or cash transfer.

The massive flash floods in 2010 affected about 20 million people across the country. There was already a trust deficit between the donors and the previous government, triggered by mismanagement of donor funds for the 2005 earthquake.

Despite bureaucratic resistance, Nadra’s technical team used this moment to pioneer an ID-based solution that devised a secure and accurate way of identifying the affected population and ensuring transparent disbursements. Using the citizens’ database, Nadra teamed up with commercial banks to issue an ATM card, known as the ‘Watan Card’. The cash that was uploaded on these cards could be drawn by the targeted beneficiaries without any hassle.

Previously, a similar solution was rolled out to people internally displaced by the Army operation against terrorists in Swat and Malakand in 2009. This experience strengthened Nadra’s response in the wake of floods because, by this time, we had learnt to implement more stringent validation checks for ensuring the eligibility of targeted beneficiaries.

With the support of World Bank and other donors, an amount of Rs77 billion was distributed among 2.84 million families, an average of over Rs27,000 per family.

Eligible families were given ATM cards loaded with cash that were activated upon registration. The money spent by these families supported the local economy. The benefits even spread to neighbouring districts not directly affected.

There is a key lesson here. The crises enabled Nadra’s technical team to establish a robust platform for disaster management. Importantly, in providing immediate relief in the wake of temporary shocks, Nadra ended up augmenting state capacity.

The experience an organisation builds in times of disaster becomes the crucial building block for service delivery in future.

Perhaps the most relevant example of this is the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). The BISP would not have been possible without the hard experience gained in years when the government was firefighting to deal with the IDP crisis and floods.

The platforms developed for these crises became the crucial learning material for rolling out social protection for the poor. While critics could find flaws with certain aspects of BISP, there is no denying that it is the first rigorous, targeted, and evidence-based scheme for social protection. It offers the basic platform on which all future social protection programmes will be built. Indeed, even the Ehsaas programme has been built on BISP’s platform.

While the BISP and its recent variants have been relatively successful in reaching out to the extremely poor, the present health crisis in the shape of Covid-19 affords us a valuable opportunity to radically upgrade our social protection and extend it to those who live on the thin edge of vulnerability.

These are not the extreme poor but people in rural and urban areas who are most vulnerable to income and health shocks. These are people who eke out a marginal existence on a daily basis and transition in and out of poverty.

Pakistan’s most vulnerable workers, the daily wagers in its 74 percent labour force without a formal contract, are easy to overlook not only in disasters but also in the best of times. According to research conducted by Dr Adnan Haider of IBA, University of Karachi, 19.2 per cent of daily wagers are working on contract, 27.1 per cent are working without any formal contract and 31.4 per cent are working on streets without any contract.

These people are vulnerable even in the best of times. They bear the brunt of escalating food prices, economic slowdowns and sudden health expenses. Surveys have highlighted that this stratum spends a disproportionate amount in out-of-pocket expenditures on health emergencies.

Attending to this vulnerable group in the present lockdown can also set the stage for devising a long-term social protection scheme that improves their ability to deal with routine income and health shocks. Government agencies have the technical wherewithal to do this. The BISP’s updated survey provides a good entry point to identify this segment. Already, income support is being given to those living below the poverty line based on a country wide survey consisting of 100 questions.

Eligible BISP beneficiaries are identified through proxy means testing. Households receiving a score of 16 and below are deemed eligible for the BISP or Ehsaas cash transfer. The same platform can be used to devise a social protection scheme for daily wagers.

The data can be refined further by reconciling it with data analytics from Nadra’s citizen database. The database contains a dedicated field that classifies the profession of ID card holders, which can be used to identify, to the best approximation, the segment of daily wagers. Complimentary databases from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the State Bank and FBR could also be used to define a precise categorisation.

Once such a database has been developed, it can be used to roll out different schemes in future, such as vocational training, health insurance, and the like. In short, while Covid-19 has exposed our unpreparedness for dealing with a health calamity, we have at hand a valuable opportunity to develop a state-of-the-art platform for social service delivery to the most vulnerable and shock-prone segments of our society.

This will be a major step towards fixing the broken social contract between the state and citizens.

The writer is a former chairman of Nadra.

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2020