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Poverty and social protection

Last week I met with some senior officials of an international financial institution at the Cabinet Division in Islamabad. We discussed, at length, some core issues related to poverty alleviation experiences in Pakistan – in particular, the relationship between social protection initiatives and poverty.

We also discussed the social protection initiatives of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) and the development prospects of its forthcoming Graduation Program, funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). With transition from an income support function this is, perhaps, the right time to rethink BISP’s institutional structure in the face of its broadening menu of long-term projects of poverty alleviation. This transition gives credence to the strategy of the current government for the restructuring of BISP under the institutional ambit of the Ehsaas initiative.

The first part of our discussion was about the strategic alignment of the leading poverty alleviation and rural support programmes in the country. However, we were less interested in a theoretical debate on social protection and poverty alleviation; our concern was specific to the forthcoming BISP Graduation Model (BGM) funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). BISP has vast experience of designing large-scale social protection programmes in the past but the BGM is one of the most important initiatives with larger objectives than income support only. The second part of the discussion was sort of critical reflection on the mainstream debate of social protection and poverty.

The discussion also entailed deliberations on the institutional transitioning of BISP, with special focus on the successful execution of the BISP Graduation Model (BGM) as a stepping stone. The BGM needs some design tweaks so that it contributes to ongoing programmes of a similar nature in Pakistan rather than creating a parallel structure. The design tweak will help increase the programme’s efficiency, reduce duplication of efforts, avert double dipping of scarce development resources and dissipate negative competition for organizational remit. This will, ultimately, lead to inculcate a sense of institutional collaboration and programmatic integration among the leading players of poverty alleviation. Institutional collaboration and programmatic integration are deemed to be key strategic drivers for irreversible gradation out of poverty for millions of people.

There are three key dimensions of institutional collaboration and programmatic integration at the top, middle and on ground levels. Top-level collaboration involves information sharing across the board whereby BISP, the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) and the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN) can enter into a formal institutional arrangement to build on past work of graduation initiatives. Middle-level integration involves forming working groups which must involve the project team of the BGM, and development experts from the PPAF and RSPN. On-ground programmatic integration includes developing a workable socioeconomic transformation framework by adding the best practices of past programmes of a similar nature.

BISP must hire highly qualified development professionals rather than deputing government functionaries to execute this important programme. Design changes can be undertaken once the project team is taken onboard. The project team can work closely with these top poverty alleviation institutions of the country as well as with the BGM’s implementing partners. What is the BGM in its current form? The introduction of the BGM on the website of Ehsaas states:

“BISP Graduation Model (BGM) has been designed to enable the cash grants recipients to eventually transform into income earning individuals through self-employment, or wage employment and stable supply chains, or demand for work through public programs.” It further adds: “ It would enable the cash grants recipients to eventually transform into income earning individuals through self-employment and/or wage employment, protect the large numbers of vulnerable poor to fall again below BISP cash transfer threshold (currently 16.17 PMT score) and avoid becoming BISP beneficiaries again.”

The BGM seems to be an interesting addition to BISP’s ongoing initiatives to contribute towards the larger goal of socioeconomic transformation with certain developmental caveats. For instance, the BGM must not be reduced to an output-based programme like Waseela-e-Talim but it must help address the transformational lacunas of similar programmes which are already underway in Pakistan. For instance, the programme makes a strategic fit with an EU-funded programme known as the Sindh Union Council and Community Economic Strengthening Support (SUCCESS) being implemented by the Rural Support Programmes (RSPs) in the selected districts of Sindh.

Elsewhere in Pakistan, similar programmes were implemented under the Livelihood Enhancement and Protection (LEP) initiative of the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF). There is another programme, known as the National Poverty Graduation Programme (NPGP), partly funded by IFAD to be implemented through the PPAF’s partner organizations. These programmes must be studied and the project team of the BGM must have close collaboration with the project teams of SUCCESS and NGPG in particular. Learning from the LEP can also be incorporated in the design review document of the BGM as guiding principles during implementation. My idea of programmatic integration was appreciated by the discussants but it could have been more insightful than what I presented had there been representation from the leading poverty alleviation institutions as well.

In the second part of our discussion we focused on the mainstream development debate on social protection and poverty alleviation. I will only discuss the most glaring perspective which generated some interesting discussion. In the generic development parlance, poverty alleviation and social protection are interchangeably used much to the dismay of political economists like Dr Kaiser Bengali. Most of the discussants were of the view that poverty alleviation and social protection cannot be separated because the latter is only one of the initiatives in addressing multidimensional poverty. To a great extend, I agree with this view without discounting the point of view of Dr Kaiser Bengali. Let me explain what I mean by this.

To Dr Kaiser Bengali, the social protection initiatives of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) are not essentially linked to poverty alleviation because they do not offer a pathway to prosperity. Social protection programmes focus on the poorest of the poor by doling out some subsistence income support so that they survive. It is a social security provision with the proviso that the poor cannot be helped to move out of poverty. What Dr Bengali says makes sense only if the social protection becomes an instrument of charity and subsidiary which in turn creates dependency and the poor is politically seen as a parasite.

However, even growth economics despite its laissez-faire ideology tends to advocate social protection as an implicit offset mechanism to reduce the burden of the poor. This happens only if the need to sublimate public anger becomes inevitable in the face of increasing disparities. Growth economists believe that economic growth causes disparity in the short term to achieve long-term prosperity.

Well, we have not seen any empirical evidence of long-term prosperity, despite the fact that most of the developing countries adopted growth-oriented models. Social protection and safety nets do not work as standalone programmes if they are not linked with a long-term pathway of transformation of the poor. The BGM opens up this opportunity towards the development of a clear pathway for poverty alleviation. While Dr Bengali is right to highlight the discernible difference between social protection and poverty alleviation, there is also a larger perspective of integration to make development a sequential process.

Our debates sometimes cause fragmentation if we continue to put intellectual bars by fragmenting development into various components. One of the most important areas for the effective implementation of the BGM will be the availability of reliable data for poverty targeting. The third dimension of our discussion was about the significance of National Socioeconomic Registry (NSER) for improved poverty targeting. This dimension will be covered in one of my next articles on the subject.

Amir Hussain, "Poverty and social protection," The news. 2019-06-27.
Keywords: Economics , Financial institutions , Social protection , Income support , Development Bank , Theoretical debate , Developing resources , Institutional arrangement , Socioeconomic framework , Economic strengthening , National poverty , Multidimensional poverty