BY most accounts, the roll-out of the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Transfer programme has been highly impressive in both its speed and the quantum of resources being devoted to it. While the amount may not seem as high to some observers, it is worth mentioning that there is little precedence for this form of expansive relief provision that draws on the government’s own resources, and till 2010, for a large-scale social protection instrument in the country.

The academic and policy literature on social welfare during times of emergency points to a number of long-term legacies of such interventions. Provisions once extended are hard to roll back because of the existence of positive feedback loops and the creation of supportive constituencies. The expansion of the welfare state in health and social insurance in Europe after World War II, the creation of pensions for military families at the end of the American civil war, and the institutionalisation of food support programmes after the 1974 famine in Bangladesh are testament to the fruitful continuity of interventions beyond their original rationale.

The Covid-specific cash transfer mechanism opens up the same potential opportunity for the Pakistani state. Apart from the welfare gains that an expanded cash transfer programme can provide, there are clear-cut political advantages to continuing with such social welfare initiatives as well: even if not all recipients link the provision of welfare to the political government, a sizable segment will do so. That allows for the creation of an accountability relationship whereby voters reward the government for undertaking a popular, welfare-enhancing step. This also functions as an expansion of political capital with segments of the population — the urban and rural poor — that can prove to be the most useful from both a narrow voting perspective, as well as from a democratic accountability perspective.

At the same time, however, a number of issues have been identified with the roll-out of this intervention that require corrective attention. In the immediate environment, where a second wave potentially precipitates another round of economic hardship, the option of a fresh disbursal of cash support should be actively considered. In terms of sequencing, rolling it out prior to any drastic public health measures being taken would be ideal as it would allow low-income families to prepare in advance, and additionally would also provide some much-needed support to consumer demand for the economy.

A number of issues have been identified with the cash-transfer intervention.

From a public health perspective, during the first roll-out there were many accounts of issues of mismanagement where little or no social distancing was observed at various cash distribution points. Many people waited in poorly managed lines for hours only to be turned away on technicalities. There is thus a need for a greater amount of trained personnel to manage the influx of applications and potential beneficiaries.

One other frequent obstacle for beneficiaries was biometric failures. Citizens struggled to get their fingerprints identified from Nadra and faced delays. Biometric verification is compulsory for all those eligible for cash aid, but perhaps moving forward this requirement can be done away with or Nadra can make the process quicker for all those struggling. This should be addressed keeping in mind that labourers after years of hard extensive labour in particular face the problem of diminished fingerprints, as do the elderly.

Additionally, one other aspect of the intervention that deserves scrutiny and independent evaluation is the degree to which it takes into account gender gaps in financial and digital inclusion. As per a note by the Centre for Global Development, while poverty statistics are alarming for women in Pakistan, with 7.53 per cent of women living in extreme poverty, they still do not accurately portray their plight as even within households women are most acutely disadvantaged.

In the same vein, from a digital inclusion perspective, when women were asked to rate how comfortable they felt sending and receiving text messages, women in poverty gave themselves an average rating of 1.89 (roughly “a little ability”), while men in poverty gave themselves an average 2.84 (roughly “some ability”). This has implications for how many women would actually be able to follow the step-by-step process prescribed for becoming an Ehsaas cash transfer beneficiary.

Moreover, another major concern moving forward is identification of beneficiaries and catering to exclusion errors. This is because a large section of the lowest-income population in urban areas, in particular, belongs to the informal sector, and identifying and targeting relief for this demographic poses considerable obstacles. Issues of seasonality, temporary migration, the lack of perpetual residence in urban areas, and ad-hoc policies of the district administration with regard to informal-sector workers make targeting even more difficult. This is one area where a considerable degree of creative thinking is required, and one where the coercive policies of the past cast a long shadow on the present. If in the past, cities had developed participatory governing and regulatory platforms for managing informal work (such as street vending and hawking), this issue would not be as acute as it is now.

Lastly, some initial evaluation work by HelpAge identifies the elderly as one such group, while also mentioning how the trans community is disadvantaged because often they do not have formal documentation and thus don’t fall into any the ambit of any extant protection measures. The same is the case for Afghan refugees who make up roughly 2.5 million people in Pakistan, who because of being undocumented are left in abject poverty in the presence of such schemes.

A review of these gaps, of which several are likely already on the radar of public authorities, can only lead to an improvement in the programme’s current effectiveness. But also of importance is that rectifying these issues can provide a strong foundation for the expanded programme to continue as a social-protection intervention well beyond the duration of a pandemic.

Iman Khan is a researcher based at Lums. Umair Javed teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2020

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