Building back better

Pakistan’s current social protection structure comprises ad hoc policies created out of political urgency to respond to a crisis

Pakistan has had its share of destructive crises over the last two decades: earthquakes in 2005 and 2019, floods in 2010 and 2012, the droughts in 1998-2002 as well as 2019, and the coronavirus pandemic. Global and national trends in natural shocks suggest strongly that crises are going to become more frequent so that surprise will no longer be an acceptable excuse for the absence of planning by governments in Pakistan.

In Pakistan a central component of this preparedness is shoring up a currently fragmented social protection system. A key component of this effort is technical and financial investment in a social safety net which has been highly successful in mitigating the negative effects of natural and economic disasters both in Pakistan (via BISP in the aftermath of the international food and fuel crisis in 2015) and abroad (in Mexico, Ethiopia, Brazil and the Philippines).

A critical aim of any crisis response is to not just support the already poor and vulnerable households but also to prevent additional households from becoming poor. Shocks to income through loss of health, jobs or assets can reverse hard-won gains for most families and substantially set back their standing in health, nutrition and education. In 2019, the think tank Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) calculated multidimensional poverty in Pakistan (covering health, education and living standards) afflicts roughly 4 out of 10 people in the country; substantially higher than those living in income poverty per Pakistan’s national poverty line – roughly 3 out of 10 people. Both figures are bleak, and both indicate a precarious situation for large numbers of people in the country.

Pakistan’s structure of social protection (as has been widely documented by research organisations such as the Collective and the Sustainable Development Policy Institute) currently comprises ad hoc policies created out of political urgency. Currently, the country has a dashboard of social policies which are silo-ed and duplicative. For example, at the federal level Bait-ul-Maal, Zakat and BISP/Ehsaas systems exist with differing capacities but the same ostensible purpose of delivering cash transfers. At the provincial level the duplication increases: in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, for instance, there are nearly 40 different schemes. Seven different departments in charge of the schemes administer these without coordinating their work.

However, the awareness and role of a social safety net in Pakistan has been evolving with the advent of BISP/Ehsaas and its ownership by (now) three successive governments. This has paved the ground for establishing a robust safety net that can be the first step towards a comprehensive social protection system.

What do the next few steps to turn an institution like BISP/Ehsaas into the cornerstone of an expanded social protection system look like?

Increasing coverage

Currently, support for those who are already vulnerable outstrips support for those who are one shock away from being vulnerable. BISP/Ehsaas need to build registries that are inclusive rather than restrictive. This means adapting the current method of entry to the database by allowing people to self-register universally. Here, universally will mean expanding the method of registration to move beyond CNICs to proof of payment of bills or proof of residence (typically, easiest done at the union council level). While BISP/Ehsaas did encourage local level registration and verification during the current crisis, this still rested on the provision of CNICs which tended to exclude those most vulnerable (e.g. those without CNICs because they were illiterate, lived far from a registration centre or women who relied on CNICs of men in the household). Alternatively, Pakistan could follow up with another mobile effort towards civil registration which is inclusive of both internally displaced and previously excluded populations (e.g. the Bengali community in Karachi). For areas vulnerable to natural disasters, universal registration of households would allow for a quicker response and follow up in the event of a shock. Self-registration can be followed by triangulation (with asset and wealth records) to highlight those in immediate, short-term or long-term need in a shock. Data collection on the registry will need to be regular and enable constant updating.

Have pre-arranged solutions in place

Natural and economic shocks require variable responses. Natural shocks typically require a multifaceted response that cannot rely solely on income replacement but needs to involve health (emergency response and nutrition) as well as need immediate shelter (housing, water, sanitation) followed by employment support. Economic shocks in the short run require income but in the long run also require employment support and food security. A safety net such as BISP/Ehsaas can be a first step and have pre-planned dispersal plans that are triggered in the event of a crisis and involve relevant agencies. For example: in the case of a predicted drought, the programme can plan ahead on which delivery mechanisms it will use in the areas most susceptible to the drought; which budget head it will go under and how it will coordinate with the health sector on meeting nutritional needs in the area. The development of pre-arranged solutions in cases of earthquakes, floods, droughts, landslides and epidemics will rely on institutionalising the technical and political lessons as well as constraints BISP/Ehsaas (and initiatives such as the Watan Card) faced in responding to crises since 2005 in the country.

Federal and provincial coordination on social protection

In the ongoing crisis, news has been rife with commentary and evidence of misalignment between federal and provincial efforts at providing immediate relief to vulnerable populations. In large part the optics of this duplication emerge from a political culture where social policies are marketed as a ‘favour’ to people rather than a right by virtue of citizenship. Moving into a direction where federal and provincial social protection bodies establish themselves as a unified system of social safety will require merging provincial and federal programmes into one fund. A one window self- enrolment procedure (as outlined above) does not make it impossible for the governments to target different groups at different times according to their needs.

Expanding the fiscal space to support such systems

Social protection in Pakistan has been heavily bankrolled by international money which is not an ideal solution either from the point of view of sustainability or from that of building a social contract between the state and the citizens. In 2019, Pakistan was estimated to have spent less than 2 percent of its GDP on social protection comparing unfavourably with a global average of 11.2 percent. A clear – much contested after the federal budget release this year – first step is redirecting existing expenditure from disproportionately prioritised sectors of the economy as well as sectors that receive inefficient subsidies. The redistribution needs to precede efforts to increase tax revenues. A government not seen to be spending in the right places – public service delivery, health, education and employment infrastructure – is not going to succeed in legitimising tax collection from an informal economy whose share stands at a minimum of 50 percent of the GDP.

Typically, for the right leader, a crisis offers the opportunity to take steps that can strengthen the relationship between the government and the citizens. In a fractured polity, where what it means to be a citizen in one province differs materially from what it means to be a citizen in another province or territory, investing in universal social protection offers the chance to strengthen a citizen-state relationship that is not complicated by niche identities.

The writer is an expert in social policy with a focus on the design, implementation and delivery of social protection policies and service delivery. She tweets at @MoizzaBSarwar

Building back better