Welcome to the collision of Riyasat-e-Medina with 21st century public policy tools. In the largest cash transfer in Pakistan’s history, 15 million Pakistani households received Rs12,000 each during Covid-19 without a whiff of corruption. That’s around 100 million Pakistanis benefiting if you multiply by size of household (roughly half the country’s population). Beneficiaries were identified through data rather than political patronage (with opposition-run Sindh benefiting the most from a PTI government programme). This revolution will not be televised or tweeted because the beneficiaries of Ehsaas don’t have a voice in the public square. But this is a real revolution — a revolution for the people.
And this is only one slice of Ehsaas. Here’s some more flavour: two million underprivileged families with a disabled person will receive Rs2000 stipend a month; 80,000 interest-free loans are being given every month, over four years, half of them reserved for women, to help them start new businesses and graduate out of poverty; and 50,762 undergraduate scholarships have been given to deserving students so far, with the number expected to go up to 200,000 students over four years.
Additionally, let’s talk about an education conditional cash transfer programme that provides stipend to underprivileged families to encourage their children to go to school. Children of poorest families are provided conditional cash grants of Rs1,500 for boy child and Rs2,000 for girl child per quarter on fulfilment of 70% attendance in school. Payments are made biometrically to mothers of children.
Ehsaas Amdan is a programme through which assets are given to the deserving (60% women) to enable them to graduate out of poverty. For the purpose of this programme, assets include livestock (goats, cows, buffaloes and poultry), agricultural inputs, body of Chingchi rickshaws, and inputs for small retail outlets and small enterprises. Amdan is being implemented in 25 of the poorest districts across the four provinces of Pakistan. More than a million people will benefit from this four-year programme.
These are just a few of over 140 interventions being implemented under the umbrella of Ehsaas. The beating heart of Ehsaas is the professional enigma that is Dr Sania Nishtar, who was personally tapped by Prime Minister Imran Khan to bring to life his vision of an Islamic welfare state. When you walk into her office, you’re greeted by a sea of neatly organised, colourful post it notes, brimming with ideas. The buzz in her office feels more like a 40-year-old quietly running a revolutionary start-up versus stuffy, bureaucratic government office.
In her earlier life, Dr Sania was one of Pakistan’s only female cardiologists before her hospital asked her not to open a fresh catheter on a poor patient. She gave up medical practice in that split second of a moment and began her long journey towards public service. I asked Dr Sania what success looks like and she said it’s the day Pakistanis feel they want to give their charity to Ehsaas because they can visibly see the transparency and impact its making. For a nation that refuses to pay its taxes to government, giving charity to the government is setting a very high bar. But Dr Sania is well on her way.
Recently, a glowing report on Ehsaas was published by Sir Michael Barber, who was the Chief Adviser to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair on Delivery, and literally wrote a book titled How to run a government. He is considered one of the world’s leading reformers and here is what the report had to say: “Ehsaas can transform poverty alleviation in Pakistan and perhaps become a globally celebrated example of what can be done with the right combination of ambition and effective delivery.”
Ehsaas is fundamentally re-writing Pakistan’s social contract. Typically, state resources in Pakistan go to the powerful and political patronage is driven by your connections. Ehsaas smashes this elite capture of the Pakistani state and directs resources to those who don’t have a voice in the public square or a seat at the policymaking table. The mainstream media and Twitter elite are entirely missing this story, but I believe Ehsaas will become the revolutionary face of Naya Pakistan just in time for the 2023 elections.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2020.