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BISP and institutional reforms

By Amir Hussain
September 25, 2020

In the social protection debate we usually play down the role of short-term relief work in alleviating human suffering when emergencies hit, or during a situation of crisis.

The social protection debate is generally skewed towards the conventional wisdom of social security measures including cash transfers for income support, old age benefits, pensions, alms and food provisions etc. Most of the traditional institutions of social protection are founded to address the adverse impacts on the poor as a result of vertical economic growth as well as economic meltdown. The idea of social protection, therefore, is reduced to the measures that are usually designed to address the ongoing and impending economic shocks. This is how BISP was primarily created to address the economic shocks by doling out income support assistance to the poor but its primary goal was not that of poverty alleviation in the sense of its multi-dimensionality.

Having said that, the institutional design of BISP was even less responsive to emergency situations punctuated by a bureaucratic process of decision-making and a labyrinth of multilayered procedures in the program delivery mechanism. It lacked institutional flexibility, innovation, professional depth and technical wherewithal to adapt to new situations in particular when there was an emergency calling for agility, rapid response and adaptability. BISP was usually headed by a minister of the incumbent government with an a priori imperative to use the institution for the political millage of the ruling party. However, in 2019 BISP underwent a series of reforms which were introduced to establish a merit-based system of induction of staff based on professional credentials and skill sets rather than deputing people on political grounds. The culture of deputation was replaced with the induction of specialists to design and run the programs on merit basis with no political interference. Led by a highly qualified professional who has served in prestigious international organizations, BISP is now on the way to become the national flagship program of social protection.

The launch of the Ehsaas program coincided with establishing a robust institutional culture of accountability and transparency which worked well during the emergency cash transfer to millions of poor households during the Covid-induced lockdown. The agility and responsiveness of this institution during the Covid-19 emergency demonstrated that professional commitment, dedicated leadership and willingness to reforms could bring about revolutionary changes in public institutions. BISP is also in the process of establishing a Policy and Research Unit with the core function of introducing evidence-based policy formulation and exploring research based approaches to improving the efficacy of its programs.

With the institutional strengthening, BISP should also assume the role of the country’s lead institution of humanitarian assistance through application of cutting edge approaches in natural or human induced disasters. BISP may design the blueprint of a series of cutting edge and context specific initiatives like Cash for Work (CFW) programs under its Policy and Research Unit. CFW programs have gained significance as one of the effective instruments for the restoration of socioeconomic life in post disaster situations across the world. These programs have become an integral part of relief and recovery efforts of humanitarian assistance as a quick response to rebuild the essential infrastructure as well as the restoration of livelihood opportunities.

CFW programs have grown into an entire area of specialization in humanitarian assistance in that organizations seek to induct development workers with specialized knowledge of designing and implementing such programs. These programs have evolved into gender sensitive and protection oriented development initiatives where men and women have safe and equal access to socioeconomic opportunities offered by CFW programs. In a situation of humanitarian crisis, women and children become the most vulnerable segment of society as they face physical assault and sexual exploitation. CFW provides an opportunity to meet basic needs through work with dignity, and reduces the likelihood of sexual abuse of women and children significantly.

During my recent research work, which I carried out to design a CFW program for a development agency, I had an opportunity to interact with some of the leading national and international experts of social protection. These experts shared enriching perspectives from the international arena where CFW initiatives were integrated within the national policy on social protection.

The experts were of the view that CFW programs are premised upon the thinking that the economic self-reliance of women and the poor lead to their empowerment to perform a larger and recognizable role during a crisis. This larger role and social recognition helps diffuse the risk of sexual harassment and other forms of exploitation of women, children and other marginalized groups during disasters and complex emergencies.

It becomes important to draw upon international experience of CFW programs to understand how they work in the real world. While the world has become increasingly vulnerable to disasters and pandemics, CFW programs are gaining larger support in the international development arena. These programs are viewed as one of the most appropriate responses to address the key challenges including food insecurity, loss of livelihood and destruction of basic infrastructure to access the socioeconomic opportunities and markets.

In the absence of means to sustain relatively independent life, poor and vulnerable groups like women and children become exposed to harassment and exploitation in the face of a disaster. There are some other critical dimensions of CFW programs too which development practitioners and organizations need to understand before initiating CFW programs to address the immediate causes of poverty.

In the context of the institutions of social protection it is crucial that their work is guided by some core principles like inclusion, participation, accountability, transparency and concern for sustainability. CFW programs can help strengthen these principles by ensuring inclusion and participation of vulnerable groups in the development. In the face of a global economic meltdown, global poverty has increased significantly with visible adverse impact on Pakistan too. Recent studies by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank suggest that some 6.5 million Pakistanis will lose their means of livelihood during the years 2020-2021. In this scenario, institutions like BISP can devise CFW programs to help restore the livelihoods of the poor across the poorest regions of the country.

There are a number of success stories which encapsulate the experiences of how the poor and vulnerable groups of society were protected through timely interventions of CFW. These case studies from situations of intersecting issues of poverty, disempowerment, and lack of access to economic and social opportunities, gender based violence, sexual abuse, issues of food insecurity and loss of livelihood etc provide great insight for policy reforms.

Case studies from Indonesia, northern Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Niger demonstrate that short-term CFW can also lead to sustainable programming if they are accompanied by systematic monitoring and are integrated with the overall institutional assistance of social protection framework. It is, therefore, important to link interventions to longer-term development projects. BISP, under the programmatic framework of the Ehsaas initiative, is well shaped now to lead these innovative programs like how it is doing wonderfully in other spheres of social protection.

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


Twitter: @AmirHussain76