Social protection in Pakistan

Does Pakistan currently have a realistic action plan for a social protection system?

By definition, social protection encompasses a number of initiatives that reflect upon the possibilities to facilitate human life through the provision of a certain level of immunity against poverty and vulnerability throughout the lifecycle.

According to the global standards, some of the benefits of those initiatives include: provision for children and families, maternity related expenditures, compensation for unemployment and/or employment injury, and health protection among others.

The right to social security is not yet recognized and a quick survey of the global statistics reveals that insufficiency of investment in social protection systems is not limited to Pakistan but is a global issue. In comparison to many other developing countries Pakistan’s performance is quite poor as evidence by the huge proportion of population living below the internationally-defined poverty level.

Currently, the poverty ratio is estimated to be around 24 percent. The greater the value of this ratio, the greater will be the number of the out-of-reach people from government’s safety net programmes.

Unfortunately, even on the global level, only 45 percent of the population is covered by at least one social protection benefit. The rest - that amounts to 4 billion people - are left unprotected.

According to the estimates of International Labour Organisation, only 29 percent of the global population has access to the comprehensive social security systems (including full range of benefits). 71 percent (5.2 billion people) of the population still remains out of the reach of it or has partial protection.

One of the reasons for the huge gap is a lack of significant government expenditure in social protection programmes, particularly in Asia and Africa.

In this regard, to see where Pakistan stands keeping in view the global standards in the social protection systems, there is a need to categorically identify the government of Pakistan’s priorities and action plan in the light of Sustainable Development Goals (2030) which is the contemporary framework followed for its development-related agenda.

Pakistan has been one of the first countries to efficiently adopt the Agenda-2030 since 2015. Although strong policy intervention is one of the remedies, employment opportunities and better health facilities ultimately ensure poverty reduction. Analysis of the voluntary national review (VNR), that reports on the progress of Agenda-2030 in Pakistan, reveals that insignificant improvement has been witnessed on various SDG targets, including those associated with the provision of social protection.

Moreover, as a prerequisite to ensure social security, reduction in poverty is one of the main elements which has also been highlighted as priority area or target that Pakistan is aiming to achieve by 2030. For instance, the target is to reduce poverty from 24.3 percent to 19 percent by 2023 while reducing the multidimensional poverty headcount from 38.8 percent to 30 percent during the same time period.

Additionally, another report; Pakistan’s National SDGs Framework-2018, sheds light on the required policy support to achieve the target of social security provision through higher, sustained and inclusive growth. It also targets to bring 70 percent of the population below the poverty line under the umbrella of social protection systems by 2030. Policy intervention is also required for improving the livelihood sources through increasing access to credit.

Despite the government’s commitment to facilitate its vulnerable segments through strong policy interventions there is a much greater need for the government to analyse its currently operating social safety net programme.

For instance, to end the poverty in all its forms everywhere, proportion of resources for government spending on essential services, such as education, health and social protection needs to be significantly mobilised.

In contrast, as of 2014-15, in Pakistan merely 18.10 percent of government spending was allotted to these services. The target to achieve is to increase this share to 25.30 percent by 2030. What initiatives have been taken on so far?

A few justifications for such initiatives as per the policies that exist on paper and according to which emphasis has been placed upon the provision of minimum level of social protection and healthcare to harmonise the society. For instance, SDG-1 (Target 1.3) aims to implement the nationally appropriate social protection system by indicating the proportion of the population covered by social protection systems by sex, unemployed persons, older persons, and persons with disability, pregnant women, work-injury victims and the poor and vulnerable etc.

According to recent data, around 29.90 percent as of 2014-15 of the poor are covered under the social protection programmes.

Furthermore, social protection is also associated with SDG-10 (reduce inequality within and among countries). Target 10.4 aims at achieving greater equality through provision of support in the fiscal, wage and social protection policies.

The analysis of Pakistan’s national framework for achieving the 2030 Agenda shows us the targets that need to be achieved. However, the question arises whether Pakistan currently has any realistic action plan for a social protection system? If there is one why has it not worked so far?

To answer this question, we need to study the currently operating system in Pakistan that addresses the following policy areas keeping in mind two schemes (as suggested by World Social Protection Report 2017-19) 1) Social Insurance in Pakistan (contributory schemes) and 2) Taxed Financed Benefits (non-contributory schemes, including the social assistance).

Pakistan had a limited social protection system which included Bait-ul-Mal, Zakat (social assistance programmes) and pension programme for public and private sector workers. In 2007 it developed a National Social Protection Strategy in which it introduced the Benazir Income Support Programme in 2009 that became South Asia’s largest social protection programme.

Through BISP, more than 5 million deserving families receive the support through cash transfer (current quarterly stipend: Rs 6,000 per household). $3.6 billion have been disbursed so far.

BISP is a part of the government’s largest strategy called Ehsaas, to reduce poverty and inequality. BISP has a crucial role in protecting the most vulnerable and poor.

One of the main effects of BISP in the past twelve years can be seen in the form of increased social protection expenditure that increased from 0.1 percent of GDP in 2008 to 0.9 percent in 2011 and reached 2 percent of GDP till 2018. However, as most of the recent studies have recommended when it comes to real output in terms of reduced poverty levels and increased socioeconomic conditions of the deserving, cash transfer programmes of the BISP might not have been successful.

Therefore, despite the increased expenditure share of the safety nets the head count poverty ratio and multidimensional poverty ratio do not seem to be improving.

In this situation, even having a positive output on most of the targets of the SDGs seems to be a distant reality. The remedial proposition by the government on various forums seems promising, however the action plan on the practical ground needs to be promulgated on the basis of a rigorous and evidence-based policy intervention.

In this regard, despite the government’s commitment to facilitate its vulnerable segments through strong policy interventions there is a much greater need for the government to analyse its currently operating social safety net programme. To serve the purpose of updating or further improving the system, BISP could play a role in the form of its established network having access to the data of greater proportion of the poor population.

The writer is a research associate at Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI)

Social protection in Pakistan