How sustainable is the BISP?

Published: April 27, 2012

The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne [email protected]

As the time for general elections approaches, all sorts of political activities are expected to pick up pace including, of course, attempts by the incumbents to remind the populace of their government’s accomplishments. One example of this latter effort is the Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) claim of taking a major step towards the creation of a welfare state through its flagship social safety initiative, the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). The president has attempted to validate this assertion by awarding the PPP minister heading the BISP programme with the Hilal-e-Imtiaz.

When it was launched in 2008, the BISP had a fairly straightforward objective of providing monthly stipends of Rs1,000 to the poorest households across the country. Given the graft and nepotism associated with earlier cash transfer programmes –– including allegations that only supporters of the party in power receive such funds –– many feared the BISP would also go the same way.

Compared with other similar schemes in Pakistan, the BISP has evolved significantly since it commenced. For example, parliamentarians were initially asked to choose the beneficiaries of the scheme and the money was distributed through the postal system. However, due to donor pressure, incidents of people missing out on the money and fears of local politicians trying to direct its distribution, the government surveyed millions of households nationwide two years ago using a ‘poverty scorecard’ to establish who qualified for the help. They provided them debit cards to replace the use of postal workers. However, delayed disbursements and effective targeting of beneficiaries remain a major challenge.

Approximately 5.9 million beneficiaries qualified for the monthly cash grant based on the poverty scorecard survey but the BISP has been providing the grant to only 3.6 million families due to resource constraints and incomplete data from grant beneficiaries. The Ministry of Finance recently turned down the BISP’s budgetary request for the next year on the premise that it lacks the administrative capacity to extend its existing coverage. The World Bank, however, has signed a $150 million loan agreement for strengthening and expanding the BISP to cover 5.5 million families in order to ensure that beneficiary families are able to send their children to schools.

Recognising that giving money does not address underlying causes of poverty, many other cash transfer schemes around the world place conditions on recipients, such as sending at least one child to school or getting them vaccinated. The scheme is now trying to branch out into other areas including microfinance, skill training and provision of health and life insurance. The BISP chairperson said that the BISP is already providing life insurance coverage to a majority of its beneficiaries and a pilot project is underway in Faisalabad to add health insurance services as well. However, one wonders why the BISP took such a long time to adopt the supplemental measures.

International endorsement of the BISP has played a useful role in compelling the present government to target beneficiaries more effectively and broaden the scope of the scheme’s potential benefits. The BISP officials are even claiming that donor support for the BISP is an undisputed sign of its transparency and efficiency. Yet, some would argue that donors themselves help fund such social safety nets to sugar-coat the anti-poor impacts of their broader policy prescriptions. Putting aside analysis on this assertion for now, one can at least caution the PPP not to mistake donor involvement in the BISP as a sign of infallibility. After all, the donor community had also fully supported the devolution plan launched by the Pervez Musharraf government and lent the country a lot of money to promote it until the PPP-led democratic government came in and decided to disband the entire system.

Naming the BISP after Benazir Bhutto and having her image associated prominently with the programme, is viewed with suspicion by the opposition, which considers this initiative as primarily a vote-winning ploy by the PPP. This lingering perception will jeopardise the future of this scheme if the PPP loses power in the coming general elections.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 27th, 2012.

Reader Comments (5)

  • Maryam
    Apr 27, 2012 - 3:59AM

    BISP is an Act of Parliament and I think any government which comes next cannot reverse it without two-third majority while PPP is still having the majority in the Senate. And I also think that the recent victories in NA, AJK, bye-elections and today’s win on a Multan provincial seat from a 30 year old strong-hold of PMLN is an indication that PPP is coming again in the Govt for a next 5-year term. These beneficiaries will try to bring back PPP to keep the program promises alive for them. And one more thing, any Party rolling back this program will be suicidal for their political future as we all know that it is only Poor who vote in Pakistan, not me and You,

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  • Zubia
    Apr 27, 2012 - 8:53AM

    My two bit from an ethnographic research who saw in-depth who the real beneficiaries of BISP are. In a village in Chakwal – where there was no PPP patronage, just local village politics- of the 14 beneficiaries, 7 were well-off and another 5 did not really deserve it. The really poor – those who had NOTHING, NOTHING -the Kammis, the Mussalis – did not get the benefit. They did not expect to get it either, although they had tried. They know, from millenia of experience, that the state’s resources are not for them. They are for the already well-off – like the retired fauji who had registered his old mother, his wife and two daughters-in-law as women with incomes less than 5000 rs. It was true; they were housewives, but far from poor. This is called twisting the facts. Another thing: receiving BISP money is stigmatizing. The identities of the reasonably well-off who received BISP money was a well-kept secret. Only probing researchers managed to identify them…no government appointed enumerator given Rs 20 to fill one form is going to bother going into such depth.

    Good luck Pakistan.

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  • Adeel
    Apr 27, 2012 - 10:04AM

    If we go through the BISP benefeceries list, we will great a clear indication that this is programme is totally supporting the political agenda, the sacmmed unearthed so far are evidence that this programme badly lacks the checks & controlls, deliveries being made through PO that too at the doorsteps of PPP union council office bearers reflects the PPP biasness in this project.
    Distribution of money is usless, we need to convert this programme in microfianacing & make a sincere effort to convert the poor self sustainable, rather being dependant on such political bribes.
    There is no doubt that this programme lacks the basic spirit of Nationalism.

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  • CAT
    Apr 27, 2012 - 10:32AM

    Rome was not built in a day! Given the socio-institutional context of Pakistan, BISP is an outstanding achievement. Who remembers billions spent on ‘saste roti’? As regards local politics, I dont think that Rs 1,000 a month is going to convince people whom to vote for; there are so many other localised social relationships that determine voting, particularly in the rural areas. If

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  • CAT
    Apr 27, 2012 - 8:03PM

    @Adeel:
    Micro finance has one important assumption – that 100% are entrepreneuria. I bet that over 90% of ET readers are employees and non-entrepreneurial!

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