The recently launched Ehsaas Programme by the PTI government is a positive step towards realising the importance of social protection in a developing country like Pakistan.
It is important to acknowledge that in spite of making substantial progress in reducing poverty over the years, the country continues to remain within strong grips of acute poverty and this could be addressed through a robust, ambitious and holistic initiative like Ehsaas.
Pakistan should be applauded for moving up the issue of social protection on the development agenda. However, the question remains: Are the government, the state institutions and civil society equipped to implement such a vast social security programme across the country, ensuring it reaches all the beneficiaries and leaves no one behind?
The policy statement of the Prime Minster around this social protection programme mentions conditional cash transfers to six million women under the Kafalat scheme and funds for education to at least 50% of the women. This article will explore whether cash transfers alone will help in ameliorating poverty, or more needs to be done.
In my opinion, cash transfers play a role in a smooth flow of consumption and sustaining existing living standards, but in the long run, they do not help the poor in escaping the poverty trap. It only allows the poor endure poverty or deal with it to an extent. Despite the fact that cash transfers have positive socio-economic impacts, such transfers alone are not adequate in achieving long-term second-order impacts pertaining to nutrition and learning outcomes.
There is a need to complement cash with supplementary inputs, services and linkages to external markets in order to achieve the desired results and to ensure the sustainability of cash transfers. Besides, cash transfer per se is not a catalyst for behavioural change that can lead to profound impacts in areas of health, nutrition and education.
Cash alone can never achieve positive and concrete long-term results when its beneficiaries do not have full access to state institutions, and face discrimination and exclusion from quality educational and medical facilities. Hence, the scope of cash transfers under Ehsaas must be enlarged and not limited to providing financial help to the needy and deserving.
Maybe the government should consider introducing a ‘cash plus’ programme that not only provides financial assistance, but also addresses the issues around structural inequalities and barriers to inclusion. For example, if the government is transferring cash to a deserving family for the education of their children, the amount will certainly help in taking the first step to enroll the children in school.
These transfers are widely acknowledged for improving the enrolment rates in some countries in Latin America, but tend to have a limited effect on learning outcomes.
Moreover, in the case of child nutrition, studies suggest that barriers (other than inadequate cash) including lack of understanding of feeding practices and poor access to clean drinking water have detrimental effects on health.
In South Africa, adolescents in cash transfer households who were visited by a home-based care-provider, reported fewer HIV cases in comparison to households receiving only cash.
The government has claimed that the institutional body that would be responsible for implementing this social security programme would be the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP).
The BISP, over the years, has been providing loans to women and its underlying claim is that the loans are meant to empower women and lift their households out of extreme poverty. It is argued that targeting women leads to their empowerment.
However, it should not be readily accepted that a $50 is going to ensure gender equality and lead to women empowerment in the present world we live in. A cursory glance at the literature on cash transfers reveals that cash transfer programmes target women in the belief that such households will gain more as men are irresponsible with money.
Gender equality can only be achieved if both men and women are included in such programmes. Programmes that only target women can alienate or disempower men or challenge their ability to spend money effectively. When men are completely ignored in undertaking activities around cash transfers, it is implied they have no responsibility towards their families.
Hence the BISP should consider integrating men under the Ehsaas Programme to encourage them in thinking they have additional roles to play in the family than just being a breadwinner.
Since the Ehsaas programme appears to be a very elaborate proposal in terms of improving social security mechanisms in Pakistan, it should ensure that special attention is given to households that suffered from more than 50% crop failure, households headed by females, elderly, and orphans with no means of supporting themselves, along with all the underprivileged households that are either excluded or have no access to state institutions.
Moreover, the PTI’s regime must ensure there are no cash diversions by local elites and the money set aside for the purpose of poverty eradication is transported, stored and spent safely.
It is crucial the under the ‘cash plus’ programme, the BISP not only focuses on transferring monies but also provides facilities beyond that. The BISP must look into providing lessons for behavioural change, trainings to earning a livelihood, and access to savings and productive assets along with the cash transfers.
It should introduce a two-pronged programme where cash transfers are made to primarily support the poor, along with the provision of psycho-social support and explicit linkages to services. An example of a success story of ‘cash plus’ programmes is Targeting the Ultra Poor Programme (TUP) initiated by BRAC in Bangladesh.
The reason for citing this programme as an example is the evidence suggesting TUP has been effective across various low-income strata. Under the BRAC model, women received livestock and two years training (two-week intensive classroom trainings followed by visits on a weekly basis) to help them earn their livelihood through livestock.
Although the BISP has the institutional credibility to undertake such a pioneering social security programme, it is contended whether it has the management capacity needed to reach out to the vast majority of the poor across Pakistan.
A matter of concern for those responsible for implementing the cash transfer component of the Ehsaas programme is taking into consideration the additional personnel needed as a result of the programme.
Moreover, it must be questioned if they possess the right experience and to what extent are they equipped with working with the rural communities.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 20th, 2019.
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