A perspective on Benazir Income Support Programme — by Syed Mohammad Ali

The politics of poverty alleviation

The programme seeks to provide direct assistance, specifically to women. Thus, besides empowering them economically, it encourages them to seek national identity cards as a precondition to obtain disbursals, which it considers crucial for them to exercise their other rights such as voting

The Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) is the main social safety net in Pakistan initiated by the present government. Its proponents claim that BISP is presently the largest pro-poor programme being implemented in South Asia, which is all the more reason to scrutinise its implementation on the ground closely.

Initiated in 2008, BISP was designed to offset the impact of inflation amongst the poorest segments of Pakistani society. A cash grant of Rs 2,000 each is disbursed every alternate month to each of the selected BISP beneficiaries. At present, BISP is providing monthly stipends to 2.2 million people across the country. From the next financial year, the programme aims to cover about five million people and another two million are to be added in the next two years. The programme seeks to provide direct assistance, specifically to women. Thus, besides empowering them economically, it encourages them to seek national identity cards as a precondition to obtain disbursals, which it considers crucial for them to exercise their other rights such as voting.

Apart from giving cash assistance, the government also aims to gradually provide health insurance, capacity building and credit facilities to the identified beneficiaries of this scheme. Under its Wassela-e-Haq initiative, interest-free loans are also supposed to be provided to selected BISP beneficiaries for the establishment of small businesses aimed at generating income for their families. This loan will not be in the form of cash but in the format of a business scheme handed over to the poor, and the loan itself would be returnable in 15 years without any mark-up. This initiative is a good one so that the poor people do not remain dependent on subsidies forever, and are instead provided an opportunity to become more productive. Under the health insurance scheme, deserving women registered for BISP assistance would be entitled to Rs 25,000 medical treatment in case of any serious illness.

Whether the government will have enough funds to continue to provide all these planned services to the intended BISP beneficiaries remains a challenge however. Already owing to the mounting pressure of price-hike and economic compulsions, more and more people are opting for BISP despite the fact that Rs 1,000 per month can make little difference in their circumstances. BISP beneficiaries had in fact been demanding that the government should raise the amount of aid to Rs 2,500 per month instead.

Prominent donor organisations have shown interest in providing aid in order to make the programme successful. The US government has recently decided to extend financial assistance to BISP, whereby approximately 600,000 eligible families across Pakistan will receive assistance due to USAID’s contribution.

However, the process of selecting BISP beneficiaries is not easy. Last year, for instance, 3.5 million applications were received out of which 2.24 million were verified by NADRA and the remaining applicants were thus not able to secure access to BISP.

The BISP management claims that it is totally transparent. But the process of selecting candidates has run into problems. Application forms for BISP beneficiaries were being issued to the parliamentarians belonging to both treasury and opposition benches, which evoked fears of political patronage. Numerous deserving families could not apply due to the non-availability of a computerised national identity card. The disbursal system was also criticised due to alleged commissions being extorted by intermediaries at post offices, which were given the responsibility for providing cash grants to the selected beneficiaries.

In order to make the BISP functioning more transparent, the government decided to reform the targeting process to minimise the inclusion and exclusion errors. Therefore, beneficiary identification through parliamentarians was stopped on April 30, 2009.

However, it is said that the IMF has asked the government to select deserving families for BISP by adopting a method devised by the World Bank. The change in selection procedures for BISP was supposedly one of the IMF’s conditions for its $ 7.6 billion loan to Pakistan.

Thus compelled, the government took on a $ 60 million World Bank loan for conducting a survey using ‘Poverty Scorecard’ to identify the poor families. This scorecard compiles relevant data regarding poor persons, including the number of rooms in their houses, number of school-going children, number of earning hands, etc. A total of 100 points are allocated based on responses to such questions. Those families who score under 16 points are to be given priority, as they are categorised to be in a critical condition. In 15 districts, this survey has already been completed. A similar survey will be kicked off in another 20 districts and completed before June this year.

The ongoing BISP poverty survey underway is said to be full of flaws according to recent news reports quoting undisclosed official sources. On the basis of this planned census, about five to seven million persons will now be included in BISP. The survey methodology adopted by BISP is being criticised due to which at least 37 percent beneficiaries of the scheme are suspected to be non-poor. Some of the criticism is based on the fear that respondents would give incorrect information to survey conductors in order to secure benefits under BISP. Another, more serious methodological flaw being pointed out is that this survey is using a 1994 database of targeted areas, which is 16 years old, and will cause many inaccuracies, besides leaving out many impoverished areas which have since been created due to population increase. Moreover, notables and elected representatives are again being involved to assist survey teams in the collection of data from various households in their respective areas, which may politicise the process of beneficiary selection yet again.

One wonders why the government approved the political approach of using legislators to select the deserving families in the first place. It has since justified this act as an interim arrangement, but what about those who have been selected inaccurately during the initial phase? Surely there needs to be a self-correcting mechanism within BISP whereby undeserving beneficiaries can be disqualified, and deserving candidates can be easily provided access to this available social safety net.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at ali@policy.hu

Source: Daily Times