Monday October 03, 2022

Dr Sania Nishter is quietly doing things considered ‘almost impossible’ in Pakistan

February 27, 2020

Islamabad : Reforming old systems and structures and creating new ones, fixing funds leakages, creating mechanisms to provide relief to reach out to the most deserving, and utilising latest technological tools to ensure transparency and accountability—in short Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection, Dr. Sania Nishter is quietly doing things considered ‘almost impossible’ in Pakistan.

Her office has no big desk—only, a consultation table, and a presentation area. The work pressure is extraordinary as Ehsaas is one of the most active programs offered by the government to honor its promises of poverty alleviation and social protection. Despite that, she maintains her calmness and professionalism.

Though Dr. Sania is known to stay away from self-projection, a video of one of her visits to the programme sites in disguise to get firsthand information on the status of implementation became viral. “I used to park my car far from the place I planned to visit. Once someone noticed the car with a flag and recorded the video,” she said recalling the incident.

Her staff tells you that she holds random meetings with the families while visiting the field. She does so to assess their needs. It is the best way to reach them. She identified and disclosed the big wigs, who were also the beneficiaries of BISP. It attracted criticism and put pressure on her. Remarkably, she did all this with the same team.

“I have hired no consultants. The only thing I requested when I joined the office was that I want the cleanest people around me as I am answerable to the most deserving people of the country,” she said in an interview with The News. She pointed out that with the help of the same staff, she was able to formulate more than 10 policies after extensive consultations with the stakeholders. Work on many others is on.

“I had always given my best to whatever assignment I worked on and believed that I was following the toughest routine ever, but while working on Ehsaas, I realized that it is much tougher.”

Briefing about the program and how it is different from the past initiatives, she said that Ehsaas is an umbrella initiative to address poverty and inequality. It is one of the main instruments through which the Government aims to build a welfare state. It is a whole-of government multi-sectoral and multi stakeholder coordinated initiative—the biggest and boldest pro-poor program ever launched in the country with five objectives and 134 elements.

“It is innovative because of its scale. It’s an umbrella initiative where everything is linked through the theory of change. It is a whole of government program with 34 agencies of the federal government and all federating units responsible for implementation. Non-governmental stakeholders—private sector, civil society, philanthropy community, academia, and international partners—are also invited to contribute to Ehsaas in an appropriate framework.”

Objectives of this program include addressing elite capture and make the government system work for equality of opportunity; Provide effective and comprehensive safety nets for the marginalized and the vulnerable; Create livelihoods and jobs for the poor; Invest in people for human capital formation; and Lift lagging areas. “The first four objectives constitute the four Ehsaas Pillars, under which its 134 policies and program areas are aligned whereas the fifth objective is cross-cutting.” She said that for this program, values, indicators, technical areas and principles have also been defined. Normally there is not this kind of planning in the government systems. “We are the only ministry that is purpose created to deliver a programme. Government and integrity was formulated. New digital payment system was procured. A new survey was conducted. Stakeholders committees were launched, expert committees were made.

Sania said that the Ehsaas framework is aimed at the extreme poor, orphans, widows, the homeless, the disabled, the jobless, poor farmers, labourers, the sick who risk medical impoverishment, the undernourished; students from low-income backgrounds and poor women and elderly citizens.

The list of programs planned under Ehsaas is long including Kifalat, Tahafuz, Amdan, Education conditional cash transfers, merit and needs-based undergraduate scholarships, Lunger and Specialized nutrition food for mothers and children up to 2 years 6, IT hubs, new policies for orphans, differently-abled, informal sector, schools for marginalised children, solutions innovation challenge policy, Ehsaas TV, portal to pool all free government online resources, Insaaf card etc. “Some have already been launched whereas others are in the process.”

Interestingly, the BISP works under one of the Ehsaas’ initiatives titled ‘Kifalat.’ There are major differences between BISP and Kifalat. The survey methodology has been revised to enable ongoing identification of beneficiaries through desk registration. The earlier survey was 10 years old. Also the payment system was 10 years old and through a new procurement process, a new payment system has been installed. The cash transfer amount has been increased, inflation adjusted and the safety net Kifalat now offers digital and financial inclusion opportunity since women will have their bank accounts and better access to mobile phones. We are now using data analytics to refine the list of beneficiaries and make sure only the true deserving have access to safety nets,” added Dr Sania Nishter.

She agreed that path to implement this initiative is not smooth. “The biggest challenge for me is the limited capacity of public institutions whereas the biggest support came from Prime Minister Imran Khan. And then there are supportive bureaucrats and my own circle of colleagues.”