Zahida Bibi feared for her family's survival when she lost her job as a housekeeper in Islamabad during the COVID-19 outbreak. Bibi's four children depend on her income – and so does her husband, a cancer patient.
Pakistan's Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program provided Bibi with a fast, digital lifeline she could access through a mobile phone. "This program is a ray of hope for poor families," she said.
The Ehsaas program is a great example of how safety net systems, enhanced through digital connectivity, can reach the poorest and the most vulnerable in times of crisis. Those in need use a text message and their national identification number to apply for Ehsaas help. Biometrics verify an applicant's identity before payments are issued. The system is data-driven, automated, and politically neutral.
As a response to COVID-19, the World Bank Group and the Asian Development Bank are coordinating more than $15.4 billion in wide-ranging lending programs in South Asia. One of the priority areas of support has been providing technical expertise to enhance the digital infrastructures delivering safety net programs.
Robust platforms with reliable data not only help countries distribute pandemic assistance now, but will also help them manage responses to natural disasters and climate change impacts in the future. Data collected can also provide valuable insights to guide future planning.
Let's take a closer look at two examples from the region.
A digital ID system
Since the pandemic began in March, more than 800 million Indians have received government-subsidized wheat, rice, or other kinds of food. Many have also received cash payments. Sources of assistance include the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) program, which offered cash payments, cylinders of cooking gas, and wheat rations to the poor.
The World Bank helped scale up the PMGKY program early in the pandemic and is now working to ensure benefits are portable and include internal migrant workers and informal workers in cities.
ADB is helping to strengthen monitoring and evaluation for technology platforms and digital systems. The $1.5 billion ADB support for India's COVID-19 response complements the World Bank's overall $2.75 billion emergency support, including $1.15 billion assistance to expand cash transfers and food benefits, especially for migrants and other vulnerable groups.
Emergency Cash Transfer Program
Pakistan's government quickly responded to the pandemic by nearly tripling its cash transfer program for poor women to 15 million beneficiaries. This was possible because the country has invested in programs like Benazir Income Support Program and Ehsaas Kafalat. These programs are one of South Asia's largest social safety net system. The Ehsaas Kafalat program relies on the National Socio-Economic Registry, a database covering 85 percent of the population.
While great results were achieved through this support, there's room for further improvement.
A move towards a dynamic system for updating the National Socio-Economic Registry (NSER) and integration among social program databases will help keep targeting data current and ensure a two-way flow of information. Besides avoiding duplication of effort, a centralized and integrated social registry would also provide data for informed decisions regarding socio-economic policies and initiatives.
A World Bank project currently under preparation will help the social registry evolve to reflect the changing circumstances of the poor, including a localized automated system for people to easily and frequently update their data and allow that data to flow into support programs. Mobile technology and big data analytics will assess needs and determine eligibility. The outcome will be a more dynamic registry that remains up to date and ready to respond to crises.
ADB is also setting up a policy research unit that will use evidence-based information to continue fine-tuning and improving social protection systems. ADB supported the Ehsaas program through its $300 million emergency assistance project and $500 million COVID-19 Active Response and Expenditure Support (CARES) Program, both coordinated closely with World Bank's budget support to Pakistan. Under a new country partnership strategy for Pakistan for 2021-2025, ADB aims to continue to support the Ehsaas program to break the intergenerational transmission of poverty through conditional cash transfers to improve education, health, and nutrition outcomes.
WB, ADB committed
The World Bank and ADB organized their coronavirus crisis response in three overlapping stages: relief, restructuring, and recovery. The relief stage focused on treating and containing COVID-19 and getting cash to people in need. As economies reopened, the restructuring stage began helping businesses create sustainable jobs and strengthening health care systems.
The third stage is recovery. Both banks are committed to help South Asian countries "build back better" with more resilience. For example, the recovery stage is an ideal time to revisit import tariffs and trade barriers that impede the development of value chains. Economic recovery can be hastened by prioritizing transport corridors, modern logistics, and intraregional trade.
Our COVID-19 collaboration reflects shared goals: to save lives, protect the most vulnerable, shore up economies and foster greater regional integration and cooperation. Longer term, we are helping countries build resilience to withstand future shocks from severe weather, rising seas, and blistering heat. The pandemic has provided a glimpse of the severe disruptions likely to accompany climate change in the region.
The needs of South Asia far exceed the resources of its governments and any one multilateral bank. The World Bank and the ADB are committed to working together to help the region recover from the impact of COVID-19 and build a stronger South Asia with less poverty and more prosperity for all.
The writers are senior World Bank and ADB officials