There is a need to realign the Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Division goals to focus on long term plans for the systematic alleviation of poverty
Official data and studies have revealed that five out of ten people in Pakistan live in multidimensional poverty. The country also has a high proportion of the poor experiencing severe poverty. Within the country, poverty varies across sub-groups of the population. Households that are headed by illiterate persons working as unskilled or semi-skilled workers are poorer than those that are headed by literate persons engaged in better-paid jobs. Chronic poverty is often concentrated in the most rural parts and urban slums of Pakistan, which can further aggravate human development progress in these areas.
In this context, Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection Dr Sania Nishtar’s Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Division has ranked third among the top 10 best performing federal ministries and divisions. The division was formed after the 2018 general elections. Although the ranking is based on the first two quarters of the fiscal year 2022-23, the division has been driving several initiatives since its inception. Dr Nishtar, being the first in-charge, brought the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) in the folds of her division. Given Prime Minister Imran Khan’s romance with Riyasat-i-Madina, the division enjoys special attention of the PM. Thus, the PM has been seen getting photographed at the Langar Khaanas in many cities.
To analyse the state of poverty, this piece advocates a holistic look – the metrics of the incidence and intensity of poverty, along with multi-dimensional indicators of poverty and the state of human development in the country. It also suggests the patterns of inequality in the federating units, along with public expenditure on social services and poverty. The Establishment Division, headed by the PM himself and being advised by Shahzad Arbab, should call for an emphasis on long term development plans for the most poverty-stricken areas of the country as part of the key performance indicators (KPIs) that they set with the Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Division.
Ehsaas distribution is considered the flagship programme of the division. It caters to various age segments. From the undergraduate scholarships to kifaalat programmes, the division has diversified the concepts of poverty alleviation and social security in the country. Students from rural areas and urban slums have benefitted from the scholarships being offered across the country. This is an initiative that Dr Nishtar and her team have championed and scaled over the last three years.
The historical data on estimation of poverty in Pakistan suffers from major methodological and conceptual weaknesses, including choices of poverty lines, conversion from calories into values, changing definitions, varying coverage in the surveys and differing assumptions. Therefore, a clear picture is hard to discern from simply reviewing a six-month performance with the examination of historical data.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s political face has mostly been associated with elite segments of the society, especially the overseas Pakistanis. With this division’s large-scale cash disbursements and initiatives for the masses, the present government has tried to be seen as a regime that strives for a welfare state.
When Dr Nishtar took office, it was alleged that beneficiaries of the BISP funds included people who were holding lucrative government positions one way or the other. She revisited the poverty data and exposed some such cases. The BISP data was synched and correlated with different available data sets and a conscious effort was made to fix the poverty data to reach out to the deserving households.
When Covid-19 hit and lockdowns were imposed across the country, daily wage workers were struggling to provide food for their families. The federal government decided then to undertake countrywide emergency cash disbursements. It was a huge task executed by the Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Division, with almost no allegations of corruption. The pandemic also reinforced the argument for such an authority at the federal level.
Global inflation has severely affected Pakistan. The burden gets doubled with the payments for debt servicing. These factors have diluted the superficial poverty alleviation initiatives, as they have been compromised with rising inflation.
Apart from a couple of initiatives, the major focus of the division has been addressing hunger which has widened the existing inequality. The process of systematic alleviation of poverty has not even begun.
The Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Division needs to align the work they do with the Population and Welfare Departments at the provincial level. Public expenditure on social sectors has started rising in the recent years after remaining stagnant for a long period. However, the poor efficiency of resource use poses a serious problem in achieving the desired results. Thus, a coherent effort across the governments – federal, provincial and district – is needed. Dr Nishtar’s division can play a decisive role in this regard.
Districts with the highest poverty headcount ratios need to be prioritised not only for poverty reduction strategies but also for overall economic development plans. Such targetting can both help reduce severe horizontal inequalities and bring down the overall poverty headcount ratio. The poorest districts also need greater investments in terms of education and healthcare service delivery plans.
The next performance ranking or awards should go by such a comprehensive outlook.
Nadeem Hussain is the co-author of Agents of Change (OUP, 2021) and The Economy of Modern Sindh (OUP, 2019)