Islamabad : The history of social protection programmes has been riddled with stories of corruption and politicized decision-making. It is, therefore, no small news that the largest social protection programme ever to have been launched in Pakistan’s history in the form of Ehsaas Emergency Cash is being praised internationally. And it is having real impact on ground. In 6 weeks, Rs. 112 billion have been disbursed to 9.2 million families. When this reaches 12 million families, which is the programme’s target, 80 million people would have benefited.
The lives that this initiative has impacted are truly those who deserved help during this direst moment when COVID-19 has stalled economic activity, hitting daily wagers the most. In payment centers, we have witnessed heart-wrenching scenes, when families with no rations at home for weeks receive Rs. 12,000 to take back. It is the most vulnerable segments—domestic servants, labourers, laid off maids and drivers, and street hawkers—that are getting help.
What is most impressive about the programme is the role of rules, transparency and openness. Prior to launching the programme, the PM’s Special Assistant Dr. Sania Nishtar outlined the process in a video—quite unprecedented by government standards. The identification of beneficiaries was strictly data-driven with no space for human interference. Payments are done after biometric verification to prevent abuse and pilferage.
An information portal was made public which outlined details about disbursements down to the Tehsil level (third tier at the sub-national level) with regard to the number of beneficiaries, bank disbursement details, accounts credited, and money withdrawn.
Digital capabilities established over the last one year as part of Ehsaas, Pakistan’s poverty alleviation programme, were adapted to deliver Ehsaas Emergency Cash. Requests were sought through SMS short code service 8171.
A new wealth profiling data analytics mechanism was established in 2019 to exclude serious inclusion errors and false claimants in social protection lists. Based on this last December, 820,165 people were exited from the lists of the former Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). This represented the first time such a lean up action has been undertaken. This data analytics capacity was drawn upon to select beneficiaries.
Also, a new digital payment system was procured in 2019, based on which payments are being made after biometric verification.
The use of national ID numbers has been the central peg in this system. The Pakistan experience has shown the world that a demand-based digital system can be created to solicit social support during this time of crisis through the combination of unique personal identification systems/numbers, mobile phones, biometrics, and internet connectivity.
In a recent article on a World Economic Forum blog, Dr. Sania outlined the nature of challenges encountered while rolling out operations and wrote that addressing these challenges required a whole of government approach involving provincial governments, various ministries, the Cabinet, security agencies, the COVID-19 National Command and Control Center as well as daily coordination meetings with banks and ground staff.