Monday October 03, 2022

Building on the Ehsaas debate

September 24, 2019

On September 17, 2019 the Government of Pakistan disseminated its Ehsaas Strategy to seek input and feedback from a wide range of stakeholders including government officials and the public at large. Ehssas is considered to be one of the key social policy initiatives of the current government, which has otherwise faced criticism for its lack of competence in development policy and planning.

The notion of Ehsaas draws upon the welfare state’s concept of empathy for the less privileged and the marginalized segments of society. The programme envisages a long-term socioeconomic transformation agenda through a set of social protection and poverty alleviation initiatives under its institutional framework. The success of this initiative hinges upon drastic reforms in the institutional structure of BISP, Baital Maal, Zakat and other social protection entities in the first place.

The opinion piece by Dr Sania Nishtar 'The Ehsaas Strategy’ which appeared on September 17, 2019 in these pages provides some interesting insights about the overarching reforms agenda of the Ehsaas initiative. Dr Sania presents three key reasons which, according to her, make the Ehsaas programme a unique and ‘ambitious' initiative undertaken for ‘social protection and poverty alleviation' in Pakistan.

The first reason is the incorporation of a vast range of ‘policies and programme’ components under the ambit of the Ehsaas initiative. From the perspective of programmatic integration and institutional collaboration, this initiative seems to be a promising one. At the core of this social protection and poverty alleviation framework is the idea of strategic unity for impact-oriented investments in social development. This will reduce double dipping of scarce development resources of the country by bringing the key social development entities under one institutional umbrella.

The second reason offered by Dr Sania’s article is ‘a multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approach' by bringing together the private sector, civil society and the public sector. This will be another important milestone if it is achieved because there are parallel institutional structures doing the same thing without cross learning and information sharing. Dr Sania has rightly highlighted the fragmentation of social protection and poverty alleviation programmes as a key development impediment to be addressed under the Ehsaas initiative. At present there is inter and intra-institutional fragmentation of social protection and poverty alleviation programmes. Even within BISP there are departmental silos with little coordination and information sharing efforts across its various components. There is no collaboration between BISP and other safety net programmes like Baital Maal and Zakat. BISP does not seem to have any meaningful interaction at the institutional level with poverty alleviation entities like the PPAF.

The third reason, according to Dr Sania, is the theory of change which includes action against elite capture, providing safety nets, livelihood and jobs and human capital formation or capacity enhancement with particular focus on lagging areas. Let me try to unpack some of the key concepts of the Ehsaas strategy which call for some cautious reading. I will also give some feedback to build on the debate of institutional reforms under this strategy.

Clichéd notions like institutional coordination and integration are frequently used in our discourse of development policy with little understanding of their inherent complexities in real world. Institutions have inherent tendency of standardization not coordination but even if they have to coordinate for a common objective it is timebound and resource specific. Likewise, institutional integration too is driven by necessity not by an empathic volition to attain a moral virtue. Despite having common development goals, poverty alleviation institutions in Pakistan have competed for resources more than collaborating for outcomes. This competition happens worldwide because institutions are intrinsically rational entities with no moral obligations. This is where the role of leadership matters to steer an institution towards a higher goal; in this case, towards the goal of poverty alleviation.

The vision of Dr Sania Nishtar about institutional reforms under her ministry, as outlined in the Ehsaas strategy, is well articulated and worth pursuing. The successful execution of the Ehsaas initiative will be the litmus test of her leadership qualities. Given her proven track record of academic and professional excellence this gigantic task can be translated into action only if the following preconditions are met.

First, the Ehsaas programme must be equipped with high-calibre development professionals, contrary to the common practice of the past to engage government officials who are deputed on a political basis. Second, the government must continue to invest in the Ehsaas programme for at least 10 years to show impact, and it must not be used as an instrument for political mileage or electoral gains only. Third, entities of social protection and poverty alleviation under the institutional umbrella of Ehsaas must be contractually bound to design a sequential transformative programme. By a sequential transformative programme, I mean a collectively designed programme by all entities with a roadmap and defined milestones for each entity to play its role. The institutional interdependence of all entities under the ambit of Ehsaas can be ensured with conditional allocation of resources from delivering safety nets to graduating the poor out poverty as a single intervention.

Social protection makes more sense if it promotes strategic investments rather than doling out income support funds to the poor. The current model of BISP’s social safety net is consumption oriented which makes the poor parasites of the economic and political system. Under the Kifalat initiative money can be invested as a revolving fund to generate local capital. The process of local capital formation, in turn, helps empower the poor to take charge of their life.

Elite capture is an endemic issue in Pakistan which is rooted in the way our political and economic structures are shaped. It is not only a policy issue or a constitutional matter; it needs structural reforms at a large scale. Land reforms, devolution of power to local bodies, democratic transition and formation of local institutions of the poor are key policy initiatives which will help overcome elite capture. Elites are well organized and hence they control political and economic resources. The poor lack organization and have no collective voice. This is why it is important to invest in creating inclusive institutions at the local level so that the poor have a voice and power to resist elite capture.

While the Ehsaas strategy provides a holistic roadmap of institutional coordination and programmatic integration as key policy drivers of its theory of change, it stops short of analyzing the pitfalls of the growth-oriented development framework. The growth-driven neoliberal framework of IFIs has shaped the social protection and poverty alleviation paradigm in Pakistan as two technical spheres of social policy. When we look back at the Social Action Programs of the 1990s and the Mid Term Development Framework (MTDF) launched in 2005, they ended up serving the interests of highly paid technical experts rather than addressing the structural problems of poverty and underdevelopment. It is vital not only to incorporate the learnings from these social policy initiatives but also to negotiate our development priorities with the IFIs which may be funding part of the Ehsaas programmes.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.


Twitter: @AmirHussain76