The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) has announced a new category to allow people with various mental conditions to open bank accounts with the help of court-appointed managers. It is a historic first for those with mental health problems, especially people who, with proper treatment, are capable of working and earning. In the long run, access to bank accounts will also be critical for distributing income support or other welfare payments to people with mental conditions.
While the bank itself did not refer to welfare payments in its announcement, it can easily be assumed to be part of the long-term plan since the new accounts were born in a meeting attended by SBP Governor Reza Baqir, President Arif Alvi, and Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Dr Sania Nishtar, among others. The central bank also said it would soon unveil a comprehensive financial inclusion policy for other persons with disabilities (PWD). This will be on top of recent initiatives such as the increased hiring of PWDs by the bank and the installation of ramps and other accessibility features at its branches. The bank is also providing subsidised financial facilities and credit guarantee schemes for PWDs as it pushes to expand financial inclusion.
While some of the offerings are simply a matter of catching up to global norms, a few facilities, such as loans with interest rates as low as five per cent, are genuine examples of investing in the marginalised. At the same time, the SBP and courts would be wise to ensure that the system is not misused. It is an unfortunate truth that many people with mental health problems are manipulated or abused by family members. Adding access to their funds can further complicate the situation. At present, the SBP has only confirmed that the appointed manager would have to meet due diligence requirements relating to anti-money laundering and terror financing laws. Perhaps it would make sense to involve ministries and non-governmental organisations that work with PWDs in further discussions on accounts and other financial inclusion initiatives, if only to ensure that policymaking is as holistic as possible.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 11h, 2021.