The BISP and the coming election

Published: February 3, 2012
The writer, a former chief economist of the Planning Commission, is at present based at Cambridge in the UK

The writer, a former chief economist of the Planning Commission, is at present based at Cambridge in the UK [email protected]

Chided by an anchor for ignoring the Bhutto promise of roti, kapra aur makan, Mr Zardari retorted by referring to the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). With election rallies beginning to catch the public mood, he followed it up with a public statement at the inauguration of a BISP initiative in Sindh by declaring that the PPP was delivering, while others only talked. Such faith in this potential vote-winner may not just be for its name.

Conceptually, the BISP is a programme of cash transfers for the bottom 25 per cent of the population below the poverty line. It does not offer any makan, but the recipient gets a monthly income supplement of a thousand rupees, considered enough to two to three weeks of atta for a family of five and perhaps, some kapra. Despite rising fiscal deficits, budget allocations have been generous and have exceeded the capacity to spend. In the first year, 2008-09, Rs13.3 billion was spent against an allocation of Rs34 billion to reach out to 3.5 million families. Undeterred, the allocation in the following year was more than doubled to Rs70 billion to reach five million families — a sizeable number of voters. Actual spending was Rs32 billion. Again in 2010-11, expenditure against an allocation of Rs50 billion was Rs35 billion. The budget for 2011-12 has the same allocation as that of the previous year.

There has been more support than opposition. In the beginning, when parliamentarians were involved in beneficiary identification, some political opposition was witnessed. Engaging NADRA to verify the 4.3 million forms warded it off. Only 2.3 million families were found to be eligible. The electronic media ran stories of bogus forms. This was as misinformed as the description of the registered voters not verified by NADRA as bogus. Not being in NADRA’s record does not necessarily mean that the person does not exist. The authority still does not have full coverage; more so in the case of the BISP, as the target here are women heads of the family — only 73 per cent have CNICs.

Economists oppose subsidies, but only those kinds that are not targeted, such as cheaper wheat or fuel which distort prices. A subsidy on wheat, available to the rich and the poor alike, is roughly the same as the total allocation for BISP, a programme of targeted cash transfers. There is some debate whether these transfers should be unconditional or conditional, as the former tend to promote dependency rather than exit from poverty. At present, the main BISP initiative makes unconditional grants but conditional transfers like the self-employment scheme called ‘wasila-e-haq’ are also beginning to take shape. These attributes have bought in donor support. The World Bank funded a door to door survey of the entire population, in order to identify eligible women on the basis of a poverty scorecard, as has been drawn in the Asian Development Bank, USAID and Britain’s Department for International Development.

Except for petty corruption of postmen delivering cash, one has not heard of a major corruption scandal. There are, however, features that protect the PPP votebank. There is a rural bias in the poverty scorecard. The ultimate aim though, is to cover all districts. The immediate coverage is of rural Sindh and southern Punjab. No provincial break-up is available for the number of beneficiaries and the money disbursed. A World Bank working paper shows that increased decision-making power for women affects family expenditure patterns. Should such shifts not affect voting patterns?

Published in The Express Tribune, February 3rd, 2012.

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Reader Comments (9)

  • John B
    Feb 3, 2012 - 4:22AM

    I am always ambivalent about such schemes. While the intensions are good, it is difficult to wean the society of such dependence and there will come a time the expenditure on this column will be more than the direct investment benefits. And no political party will have the guts to repeal them.

    In Kenya such subsides are tied to sending their children to school, and the money was distributed in response to school attendance.

    In the US, the welfare program is linked to back to work philosophy, and has mixed benefits, and I am not sure if the same can be applied in PAK.

    The targeted subsidy should benefit the society infrastructure rather than the individual. Among all the models out there, I liked the Kenyan model as it is an investment in a nation’s future with immediate relief to an individual. I am sure PAK can find its own model besides the employment model, as it is prone to corruption, affected by swing in employment index, natural calamity etc. and does not empower the nation.


  • meekal ahmed
    Feb 3, 2012 - 8:03AM


    I am amongst those who was highly sceptical of this scheme but I stand to be corrected. Although a performance audit would be nice, i believe it has worked well and without the stench of corruption.

    As you do well to remind us, no economist (not even the IMF) will object to a subsidy provided it is well targeted and well financed.


  • Mirza
    Feb 3, 2012 - 10:36AM

    @meekal ahmed:
    I agree with you 100%. Thanks for saving me from some typing. Great Op Ed, Sir.


  • Ahmed
    Feb 3, 2012 - 2:00PM

    This program is a total rip-off…a private firm doing a study on this programs success was able to find a lot of people who had the BISP cards, but none who had actually received any money…


  • Saleem
    Feb 3, 2012 - 4:55PM

    Being a researcher and doing research on BISP, I found my results on-line with that of the author. Comparing to the targeted programs worldwide, BISP is one of the good program and is the best so far in the Pakistan’s experiences with targeted program for the poorest of the poor. The thing which is more fascinating is that the program authorities have learned a lot of lessons during its implementation and the program evolve finer and finer with the passage of time. Good effort of the PPP government to cater for the poorest of the poor. Good luck.


  • CAT
    Feb 3, 2012 - 5:32PM

    BISP is one of the success stories of Pakistan, and as such we should all be proud of it. With time, BISP has introduced various other interventions for the targetted households. Soon BISP will make payments conditional to beneficiaries households sending children to school. I am proud that my tax money is used for BISP. My hard earned tax money should not be used to subsidise loss making, corruption enhancing state enterprises.


  • Topak Khan
    Feb 3, 2012 - 5:39PM

    As economist I am not against the Idea of CCT, event simple CT like BISP is a good start. But I have seen in my own village that targeting has not been very good. There is political interference at local level, there is certainly room for improvement. One way forward for improvement is to open BSIP to researchers not just third party hired evaluators.


  • Hussian Bux Mallah
    Feb 6, 2012 - 3:00PM

    Being a field worker in social science in Pakistan and participant in an international conference over social protection, citizenship and gender i found BISP as a successful model for developing countries. Women being only beneficiaries of this programme are now moving towards citizenship and gender empowerment through getting registered as voter and a citizen with NADRA. Women’s mobility has increased.
    Dr. Pervez Tahir being an economist has done well by writing this piece.

    BTW all (above 18) women of a beneficiary household are eligible for BISP and it is not necessary that household must be headed by a woman. Wasila-e-Rozgar is also part of it which is for young children of a beneficiary household meets poverty score.



  • g.sarwar
    Feb 13, 2012 - 7:58PM

    BISP A good scheme.But sir Very sorry SCHEME FORM distiubate is not fair.90% Athrized person Form fill self family & relitive familes, poor,s family wait possible next to next list.if you want proof make inquary cammeti we provide proof our area U.C.Rehri JUMMA HIMMAYATI GOTH BIN QASIM TOWN KARACHI .2ND Servay Door to Door not servay .all detail fill a room .servay time same person guide team and provide detail in form mention dectation of same athrized person. this scheme D,NT Finissally hewlm poor faimly but time of born jobless person (scheme head athrized person ) make of onwer car/& 2 RCC Room onwer obove room paid union concil BY TENDER INSITUTE OF GIRL,S MARKAZ SALAHIE & KARAHI .Present time obove 2 room,s Residence of PPP.local leader .our leader,s self wife brother,s faimles and swister,s is all MUSTAAQ OF Banazer ISP & ATHER ALL SCHEMES, Provaty bases 1st mention athrized person familes,By GOD,S this REAL Story of our village BISProgrames.


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