Social protection is a policy mechanism which aims to address poverty, protect the vulnerable and make the marginalised more productive members of the economy. It is a particularly favourite strategy of entities like the World Bank, which often fund social protection measures in the attempt to sugar-coat negative impacts of restricting public expenditure and pursuing market-based reforms.
Whether social protection is a transformative mechanism which can help the poor break out of the cycle of deprivation, however, is a contested topic. It is particularly hard to believe that social protection schemes have this potential if deeper structural flaws are seen to be the underlying cause of poverty.
Let us use a concrete example to further discuss this issue. Besides the social welfare department and religiously inspired state entities such as the Zakat and Baitul Maal departments, different governments in our country have introduced varied adhoc social support measures over the past decades. The most recent of these is the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) initiated in 2008.
The BISP has been providing monthly cash payments of Rs1,000 to women of around 3.5 million poor households. Recent additions to the BISP include conditional cash transfers under the Waseela-e-Taleem, Waseela-e-Sehat and Waseela-e-Rozgar components of the programme. These conditional transfers are meant to incentivise poorer households to improve their literacy and health status, as well as their skill levels, rather than remaining dependent on state handouts. While the idea itself makes sense, these conditional programmes are much more modest in size, and they will require creating effective linkages with other distressed sectors, to actually empower poor people.
Its opponents discredit the BISP as a patronage scheme by the PPP government to win votes. While the BISP management itself rejects such suggestions, with elections around the corner and its outcome uncertain, the fate of the BISP remains unclear as well.
Given this tenuous situation, the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) recently held a dialogue on the design, institutional and financing challenges of effectively managing social protection programmes like the BISP.
Besides the need for more coordination between the federal and provincial governments to avoid duplication and ensure continuity of efforts, another suggestion emerging from this dialogue concerned the need for increasing the amount of cash transfers to poor households due to persistent inflation. It was argued that additional resources for this purpose could be raised through increasing taxes and reducing subsidies on food or energy.
It is true that many large subsidies in Pakistan, such as the wheat subsidy, are untargeted. However, while provision of a social protection like the BISP may be a much more targeted form of subsidy, it does not address the underlying causes of disparity. Rather than just trying to increase the amount of handouts being provided by the BISP, there is a need to use this social protection mechanism for asset-transfers rather than cash-transfers alone.
In the rural context, this can happen by allowing poor and landless farmers the chance to purchase their own land on instalments, for instance, rather than being hooked onto a measly monthly stipend.
Instead of funding social protection schemes like the BISP to help the rural poor make ends meet, while simultaneously compelling developing countries to pry open their agricultural markets, donor agencies like the Word Bank would also do well to compel rich European countries or the US to stop subsidising agriculture and placing tariffs on agri-imports, which are much more significant reasons for driving poor farmers to the point of despair.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 25th, 2013.