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BISP and social protection

The more than ten-year old social protection scheme, Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), has survived its second transfer of power since it was launched in 2008 by the PPP government.

It appears that there were detailed discussions on the design of the social protection programme back then in 2008. According to Gazdar (2014), “Internal discussions and briefing by the bureaucracy persuaded the (then) PPP leadership to abandon workfare in favour of a simple cash transfer”, and hence, we had BISP.

The continuation of BISP, which mainly provides unconditional cash transfer to women beneficiaries, is not to be taken for granted. With every transition in government, including the present one, there have been apprehensions whether BISP will be able to continue unhindered; however, such angst has not proved to be correct. With the new change in the government, a case was made to plead for the carry-over of BISP by many, including this writer in October 2018 in The News on Sunday.

Now a few words about BISP. The number of beneficiaries is approximately 5.63 million out of a total population of 207 million in Pakistan. It has an annual budget of approximately $1.15 billion. It makes quarterly payments of Rs4,834 through its unconditional cash transfer to its beneficiaries and almost 99 percent of beneficiaries are paid through technology-based payment methods including debit cards. Other social uplift programmes have piggybacked on BISP. It has four other complementary initiatives for social protection focusing on primary education, life and health insurance, technical and vocational training, and micro-finance.

BISP was established through an act of parliament in 2008. The long-term objective of BISP is also to facilitate the process of meeting the targets of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by eradicating chronic and extreme poverty and ensuring women empowerment. According to literature, the immediate motive of the PPP government back in 2008 was to provide some financial cushion to the poor in the backdrop of high food and fuel prices as the result of the international financial crisis. In the initial phase, cash transfers were made through parliamentarians which was replaced by more objective poverty scorecard-based disbursements that used proxy means testing through a nation-wide survey. BISP is more concentrated in less well-off provinces and has increased Pakistan’s spending on social protection three-folds.

According to Sayeed (2015), independent evaluations of BISP commend it for its targeting of the poor and for its role in facilitating the beneficiary women to prioritize spending on nutrition and food, particularly of their children. BISP has contributed to women’s empowerment. By linking BISP disbursements with their national identity cards, women beneficiaries have also gained access to greater voting rights through its spin-off effects. Similarly, the provision of BISP’s cash transfers through electronic means has increased financial literacy amongst the women.

According to some other literature, though BISP exclusively targets poor women which is to some extent unique and highly commendable, there are also others who link the launch and continuation of BISP to distribution of patronage by political representatives to perhaps garner votes or fulfil such other needs of their constituents. For example, it is not surprising that the PPP which launched BISP in Pakistan has won its third consecutive five-year term in Sindh where a large number of the programme’s beneficiaries reside. Notwithstanding such arguments that may or may not be easily empirically validated, BISP has done immense service to the poor of this country, particularly poor women, and might have contributed to the moderate poverty reduction in the country.

Issues are bound to crop up with every good initiative of social development; yet BISP is not only much needed, its scope also needs to be expanded to deal with the grinding inequality and poverty. BISP with its huge dataset of 27 million households on the basis of poverty scorecard survey has become a precursor to change in the way social development is done in the country. By using BISP’s institutional architecture, more social protection initiatives are launched.

The present PTI government to its credit (at least for the design, as we yet have to see its effective implementation) has come up with its own social protection programme ‘Ehsaas’ in March 2019, in addition to continuing with BISP. This ‘Ehsaas’ programme has main four pillars: overcoming ‘elite capture’ and enabling the government to work for all citizens; providing social safety nets; working to develop the much-needed human capital; and providing jobs and livelihoods. All these four pillars of the new social protection programme have been worked out to a great extent, as the government’s website on this initiative: http://www.pakistan.gov.pk/ehsaas-program.html.

In terms of implementation, according to press reports, the government has decided to conduct a fresh follow-up poverty survey to validate the old National Socioeconomic Registry through ‘multiple validations”; this will be converted to a live registry, so that information about the poor and poverty is regularly updated. BISP and other such social protection programmes must be prioritized till we have drastically reduced poverty. We owe it to the marginalized.

Foqia Sadiq Khan, "BISP and social protection," The news. 2019-07-31.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social protection , Social impact , Technical training , Development goals , Financial cushion , Financial literacy , Political representatives , Poverty reduction , Social development , Social safety , Human capital