Few weeks ago when a langar (soup kitchen) was launched under the Ehsaas Program, people started bashing this initiative.
Those people were, in my view, unaware that Ehsaas is a multidimensional poverty alleviation programme which consists of more than 115 policies and programmes which may be expanded further at a later stage.
Ehsaas is driven by a professional like Sania Nishter who has practically worked for poverty alleviation well before taking over the reins of Ehsaas. Given her expertise, she is well suited to serve the purpose and, contrary to some prevailing misperceptions, this initiative has been thought through with foreseeable results in the near future.
A lot of people in Pakistan oppose soup kitchen on the pretext that the government or certain NGOs are promoting the idea of getting food without making a conscious effort to earn money themselves. Without going into the vagaries of this argument, I want to highlight that the National Poverty Graduation Initiative under the Ehsaas Programme is providing opportunities for sustainable livelihoods for people living below the poverty line.
The components of the National Poverty Graduation Initiative (NPGI) are asset transfer, interest-free loans, and vocational and skill training for proper utilization of assets. The interest-free loan component under the NPGI is being implemented by 24 partner organizations of the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund across 100 districts in the country. One of the salient features of this initiative is that 50 percent of the loans are being provided to women. The Ehsaas programme has been developed based on four pillars and the NPGI is part of the fourth pillar – ‘Jobs and livelihoods’.
It is planned that every month 80,000 interest-free loans will be disbursed through more than 1000 loan distribution centres that have been set up in 100 districts which are part of this initiative. In the first three months, 274,903 borrowers have been granted loans worth 9,124 million under the interest-free component of the NPGI. To date, the maximum number of loans has been disbursed in commodity/paddy trading which indicates that the rural population is taking interest in this initiative. It is expected that more than two million people will get benefits under this programme in the next four years.
In the past, many similar initiatives were unable to achieve the desired results because of the paucity of funds. It is heartening to know that the government already made arrangement of the Rs42.65 billion required to run this initiative through its own resources and through international donors like the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) and the Asian Development Bank.
In order to make the borrowers beneficial for the economy, savings accounts will be opened for the six million women currently receiving stipends in the form of cash and they will also be provided with mobile phones under Kifalat. Appropriate financial literacy interventions will enable them to make better use of graduation opportunities, be it interest-free loans or an asset transfer.
The strategy of targeting women is worthwhile as various studies show that when women have control on spending, it is more likely that a big chunk of expenditure will be made on children. Bangladesh’s Nobel Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus, creator of the micro-credit phenomenon, has found that women not only repay loans more often than men, but that when women control finances, their families are more likely to benefit from the income.
A study carried out in the Philippines found that when women have control over a couple’s savings accounts, expenditures shift towards the purchase of family-targeted durable goods, such as washing machines or kitchen appliances.
In Pakistan, unfortunately, large numbers of women are involved in unpaid work; giving them the opportunity to take their destiny in their own hands will benefit the whole society.
The Ehsaas programme so far has been unable to get appreciation in Pakistan but globally this programme is receiving accolades. Bill Gates hailed Prime Minister Imran Khan and Sania Nishtar for developing this programme and also committed to provide $200 million for this programme. A few days ago, the Asian Development Bank also signed a a $200 million loan agreement with the government of Pakistan to provide extra financing to the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), now a part of Ehsaas.
Poverty alleviation is a difficult task. The bulging population is denting the poverty alleviation efforts severely and is quite alarming.
Pakistan’s prime minister regularly quotes China’s example with regard to poverty alleviation. If we look at China, we will find out that they have a strategy for population control which they strictly implemented . We in Pakistan have made many fantastic population control plans but our failure in their implementation is proving costly for the country. That in order to make the Ehsaas programme successful, the government should include special benefits for those who maintain a small family.
The Ehsaas program is an excellent initiative on paper but its proper implementation requires a lot of hard work and consistency. One hopes that for the benefit of the people of the country, the government implements this programme wholeheartedly, thus keeping it free from the influence of the ruling elites, and guides and interacts with the beneficiaries in order to achieve the desired results.
The writer is a publicist.
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