The success of the relief packages rolled out to deal with the COVID-19 crisis depends on transparency of targeting criteria and efficiency of grievance redress
Following the declaration of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) as a pandemic by the World Health Organization, the federal government declared a National Health Emergency of Public Concern on March 13. As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 grows on a daily basis, the situation poses tough and urgent challenges to the public and social sectors in Pakistan including the small social safety net programmes. In the wake of emergency, there have been several announcements regarding relief packages for the vulnerable. A monthly stipend of Rs 3,000 for four months has been promised for over 5 million people under the Ehsaas Kifalat programme. While the announcements promise relief for those hit the hardest by this emergency, they also raise a number of important operational questions: who meets the criteria of ‘vulnerability’ and is entitled to benefits under these programmes? How can we explain this to those who will be excluded? What if the ‘excluded’ fall into the ‘vulnerable’ category during the four-month period?
A lot of debate around the impact of COVID-19 emergency in Pakistan has focused on daily-wage labourers and those living below the poverty line. However, they are not the only ones hit hard by this emergency. There are beauticians operating on a small scale whose monthly income has suddenly vanished; ticketing staff that bus companies no longer need as public transport has shut down; rickshaw drivers who’ve lost their fixed monthly income as schools and colleges have been closed until May; local small-time photographers and tailors are already out of orders as weddings have been postponed. The list goes on.
Targeting of safety net programmes is a tricky business. There are three main approaches to target beneficiaries – poverty, social categories and geographies. Poverty approaches generally focus on households and use criteria of (low) income and assets; social categorical targeting focuses on whether individuals belong to a specific social or demographic group (older people, disabled people, women, children, disadvantaged tribal or ethnic groups). Geographical targeting selects different districts, villages or regions.
Implementation of targeting entails a number of costs. In addition to administrative burden, there are significant social costs. Targeting creates a clear division between beneficiary and non-beneficiary households with the potential to increase social tension and reduce productive or cooperative behaviour. In a country like Pakistan where social bonds and cohesiveness are deemed very important, social costs from targeting have the potential to cause deterioration of community ties and erosion of informal support networks. Poverty is often the binding thread in low-income communities and enables social solidarity. The new and imposed distinctions between beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries are bound to create resentment.
There are beauticians operating on a small scale whose monthly income has suddenly vanished; ticketing staff that bus companies no longer need as public transport has shut down; rickshaw drivers who’ve lost their fixed monthly income as schools and colleges have been closed until May; local small-time photographers and tailors are already out of commission as weddings have been postponed.
Research has warned that backlash to targeting food aid alone can result in or exacerbate violent conflict within communities. This can include physical attacks, looting and theft. The conflicts are more prevalent when community members do not understand the benefit criteria. In Somalia in 2007, for instance, the WFP reported 15 major security incidents at food distributions, in which 10 militia were killed, 10 civilians were killed, and 350 metric tonnes of food remained unrecovered following looting. Lack of transparency also raises social costs. Secrecy in targeting approaches and inadequate/misleading communication give rise to suspicion and mistrust. Selecting a group of the population to receive cash transfers and excluding others from benefiting in the absence of adequate information seems to be a politically motivated act even if there are ‘technical’ justifications.
While it is impossible to bring all targeting costs down to a negligible level, there are mechanisms to mitigate the damage and still achieve the safety net objectives. Strategic communication and grievance redress mechanisms can be the two most important steps at this hour. Strategic planning of communications activities will require that the most appropriate and accessible communication modes be selected, sufficient human resource and technical capacity is in place for effective two-way communication between the programme and its target beneficiaries, and the programme‘s messaging is clear and consistent. This could entail using a combination of mass media, social media and face-to-face methods. Additionally, simple, accessible and easy-to-use grievance redress processes should be rolled out in conjunction with the programme. Clear and early messages about the grievance processes would help ensure that they work correctly.
This is indeed a difficult hour especially for a developing state in a chaotic situation. Relief packages to ease economic burden on the poor are a step in the right direction. However, these initiatives should not forget that there will be swindlers in the markets promising people to put their names on transfer lists in exchange for money, local political agents who will become active in their circles trying to find the loophole and exploit it to their benefit and many who satisfy the eligibility criteria will be left wondering why they couldn’t access what was promised and meant for them in the first place. The real test of these packages lies in preventing these injustices.