The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
In my previous article, ‘Inclusive social protection policy’ which was published in these pages on September14, 2020, I tried to outline a roadmap for the policy and practice of integrated and inclusive social protection programs. In this article, I will discuss the key challenges of social protection programming, legacy issues and government response towards integrated policy.
Traditionally social protection programs in Pakistan have been executed through federal ministries, provincial departments and various autonomous and semi-autonomous institutions. Given the parochial political interests of successive governments, social protection initiatives remained transient, whimsical and ineffective in their fundamental function of smoothening the pathways to prosperity. While social protection is not the only contributing factor in tackling multidimensional poverty, it is nonetheless an important instrument to improve resilience against economic shocks.
The Asian Development Bank published a report, ‘Social Protection Index: Assessing Results for Asia and Pacific’, which reveals that Pakistan’s total spending on Social Protection remained less than three percent of its GDP till 2018. The country’s score of Social Protection Index (SPI) is 0.047, which is lower than South Asian countries average (SPI) score – 0.061. In the past, the complex procedure to qualify for social assistance made it more difficult for destitute people to access health, education and unemployment benefits – particularly workers and women who are employed in the informal sector.
The government of Pakistan has significantly increased spending on social protection with the creation of BISP in 2008 and the recent Ehsaas initiative but the distribution mechanism needs drastic reforms. Poverty targeting is still a major challenge with bureaucratic delays in the National Socio-Economic Registry (NSER) survey. There is great optimism that the NSER team under the leadership of Dr Sania Nishtar will be able to complete the survey before the end of this year so that all 134 Ehsaas programs are designed on the basis of smart poverty targeting with the availability of GIS-based updated PMT household scores.
I had the opportunity to develop the revised NSER model voluntarily with the support of the BISP-NSER team which is now being rolled out across the country. The revised model envisages a fast-track approach to complete the survey in collaboration with provincial and district-level education departments with technical support from BISP and the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS).
The next important step is the integration of social protection programs under the umbrella of the Ehsaas program. In this regard, a comprehensive Ehsaas strategy has already been developed which outlines the institutional arrangements and reforms agenda for the integration of social protection initiatives. In the past, these programs were fragmented, compartmentalized and hence were insufficiently managed with higher risks of political manipulation.
There are many legacy issues and reasons of inefficiency in these social protection programs; one of them has been corruption and embezzlement. Some other important issues have also been pointed out in different programs for instance, many organizations or institutions lacked professional capacity to effectively carry out social protection activities and functions. Moreover, these programs lacked proper targeting; particularly Zakat and Bait-ul-Maal distribution schemes have not been able to come up with a transparent and accountable targeting method. In reality, the main objective of these programs is to target the needy and deserving but these programs never used targeting tools such as PMT score before.
According to World Bank reports, “during the last two decades, around 27 percent of Guzara Allowance (monthly cash allowance) beneficiaries and 37 percent of those receiving rehabilitation grants were not poor. The report also witnessed that corruption and favoritism was rampant in Zakat distribution system. The selection criterion of beneficiaries was not transparent and mostly the Zakat amount was distributed to influential persons or to those who offered bribes.
In the absence of institutionalized and documented distribution mechanisms of Zakat funds, most often the selection of beneficiaries remained dependent on the relationship with local authorities and politicians. Likewise, Bait-ul-Maal did not have a particular distribution criterion especially for food support programs. Both social assistance (Zakat and Bait-ul-Maal) programs have had severe problems in their outreach and targeting the deserved persons.
BISP introduced multiple schemes (Conditional and Unconditional Cash Transfers) to assist poor and vulnerable through a huge amount of budgetary allocation. But these schemes were criticized to be biased that the forms and funds were distributed to get political mileage and electoral gains. Under the Ehsaas strategy, there is a roadmap to bring about institutional reforms, dislodge elite capture and build institutional synergies for the effective use of social protection funding.
The Ehsaas strategy also envisages quality assurance and accountability mechanisms with a defined methodology to evaluate the existing social protection instruments and to build on them. The social protection programs should be appraised on performance-based criteria such as extent of programs, degree of access to such programs, targeting efficiency, allocation of funds and equal distribution of opportunities etc.
With the enactment of the 18th Amendment to the constitution in 2010, 47 subjects of the Concurrent Legislative List (CLL) including labour were devolved to the provinces. The amendment is considered to be the historic political development which brings decentralization of power to the provinces for the improvement of common people’s life. However, many labour categories remain out of labour legislation such as home based workers, women workers, agricultural workers, daily wage workers, family workers, part timers, and contract based employees and internees.
Another challenge of effective and long-term social protection programming is the vulnerability of Pakistan to natural and human-induced disasters. In the past two decades, Pakistan has experienced large-scale earthquakes, floods, droughts and complex emergencies. Its humanitarian preparedness and response capacity has developed tremendously in that time. Pakistan already has significant experience of major humanitarian cash transfer programs including the cash transfers under the newly formed EHSAS initiative.
The World Humanitarian Summit’s Grand Bargain (United Nations, 2016) stressed the need to “work together efficiently, transparently and harmoniously with new and existing partners” to move to a more “demand-driven model i.e. more responsive to the people we are assisting”. While not a panacea suitable in all responses, cash assistance or Cash for Work (CFW) programs do help deliver greater choice and empowerment to affected people.
Pakistan’s experience of implementing humanitarian cash transfer and CFW programs date back to the 2005 earthquake in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and AJK. Cash was later used as a relief instrument during the displacement crises in Malakand and Swat between 2008 and 2010, when approximately three million people received cash assistance. The mega-floods of 2010 led to the establishment of the Citizen’s Damage Compensation Program (CDCP) which provided cash for relief and shelter/housing reconstruction to well over one and a half million households through the Watan card.
Having said that, the impact of these wonderful initiatives was neutralized because they were not inclusive and integrated and there was not an overarching social protection strategy. With the launch of the Ehsaas strategy one can hope that the challenges and limitations of the past will be overcome soon.