This week, the Ehsaas Taleemi Wazaif (School Stipend) App has been made available on Google Play store. Through this App, anyone, anywhere can register students of Ehsaas beneficiary families for Ehsaas School Stipends. The app is one dimension of an extensive ecosystem of a nationwide education conditional cash transfer programme, which has been established pursuant to the policy commitment #73 in the Ehsaas Policy framework.
The context and background of evolution of the programme is important to bring to bear. The education conditional cash transfer system, predicated on school attendance was tested for the first time in the country in 2012 in five districts under the programme called Waseela-e-Taleem (WET).
The objective of the programme was to promote primary school enrolment in beneficiary households, decrease the number of dropouts and improve children's attendance. When our government took over in 2018, this programme was running in 50 districts for primary school children only.
To design the Ehsaas School Stipends programme, I commissioned a meta-analysis of all the studies conducted on WET. Outcome-level analysis revealed that while the impact on enrolment of children was positive, there was no clear impact on attendance and learning outcomes.
There were four important learnings about implementation shortcomings. Foremost, there was no institutional capacity within the government system to implement WET. There was complete reliance on NGOs, where there were serious contractual issues. Conflict of interest became a real concern since the same NGO was entrusted with both enrollment and attendance compliance. NGOs charged a high cost and delivered poor quality service.
Second, since the system was largely paper based, there was a high chance of error and fraud; a lot of ghost children ended up getting enrolled. Third, the stipend amount was very low, and the stipend was neither structured to incentivize girls’ education nor was it aligned to address the issue of school drop-out. Finally, the programme was confined in selected districts to 5th grade students only.
While structuring the Ehsaas School Stipends programme, these shortcomings were brought to bear; therefore, the new design has been structured around four key pillars. First, institutional capacity has been built to execute the program, nationwide and reliance on NGOs has been eliminated. Around 2000 staff members have been brought on board on merit; hardware, and mobility has been put in place and project management and monitoring mechanisms have been established. As a result of this investment, operational cost has been reduced from eight percent (which is what was the case when NGOs operated WET) to three percent.
Second, the programme has been made paper less and end-to-end digital. Font-end apps have been integrated with three databases – the Ehsaas database for verification of a beneficiary family, NADRA database for verification of the B form of the child and Management Information Systems of provincial education departments to verify and tag respective schools. Digitisation of all processes has eliminated the space for abuse in terms of corresponding ineligible and ghost children getting enrolled.
The new programme has made deep-rooted changes in the stipend amount, which has been weighted in favour of the girl child. As a starting point, the stipend was doubled for primary school going children and has been further increased for girls. Under Ehsaas School Stipends, primary school children are now provided Rs1,500 for the boy child and Rs2,000 per quarter for the girl child. The sum at the secondary school and higher secondary level is Rs2,500 vs Rs3,000 and Rs3,500 vs Rs4000, respectively. The Ehsaas Education Stipends programme with a higher incentive for girls is encouraging parents to send their children, particularly girls to schools.
Pakistan is now the only country in the world which gives a higher stipend amount to girls in a programme at this scale. Ehsaas has also introduced a one-time graduation bonus of Rs3,000 to encourage girls to complete primary education. This award is being given to girl students completing Grade 5 from Ehsaas eligible families. The graduation bonus has been designed to encourage girls’ education till the secondary level.
Today, after three years of extensive spade work, building of the institutional architecture and extensive policy structuring, Ehsaas school stipends are available to every Ehsaas eligible family in every part of the country. MOUs have been signed with all provinces and federating units to ensure their collaboration, since they are responsible for supply side matters (quality of schools) in this programme.
Up until last week, Ehsaas beneficiary families had to visit our offices to register their children. But now with the availability of the Android app, people can join the government to register children for these stipends, so that the education financial access barrier can be overcome. According to Ehsaas’ recently completed National Socio-Economic Survey, there are 19 million out-of-school children, which need to be urgently placed in schools. This initiative is an important tool to enable that.
Education is critical for human capital development and the single most important factor in enabling Pakistan to compete in the world of tomorrow. Ehsaas has a life course approach to enabling financial access to education, with Ehsaas School Stipends covering grade 1 to 12 and Ehsaas Undergraduate Scholarship scholarships undergraduate education.
We are striving day and night to execute these programmes on merit and to insulate them from abuse which has been a rampant practice in the past.
The writer is a senator and special assistant to the prime minister for poverty alleviation and social safety.
He tweets @SaniaNishtar
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