Grinding Poverty in Pakistan
Is Ehsaas Program a panacea?
Since its inauguration in 2018, the Imran Khan-led government has focused more on poverty eradication than any other programme. Without disturbing the landmark poverty alleviation project, i.e. the Benazir Income Support Programme, the PTI government initiated its own projects that are innovative and sustainable as well. Panah Gahs have been functional in major cities to provide shelter to the homeless, while Ehsaas is on its way to a phased completion to provide instant supplies of food, clothing, education, health and subsistence to deserving people. The Division of Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety is unique since it was purpose-established to implement the umbrella initiative, Ehsaas.
On March 27 last year, the Government of Pakistan launched the “Ehsaas” program, the objective of which is to reduce inequality, invest in people, and lift up the lagging districts. Ehsaas is about the creation of a ‘welfare state’ by countering elite capture and leveraging 21st-century tools such as using data and technology to create precision safety nets; promoting financial inclusion and access to digital services; supporting the economic empowerment of women; focusing on the central role of human capital formation for poverty eradication, economic growth and sustainable development; and overcoming financial barriers to accessing health and post-secondary education. The program’s principles and approaches also center on tapping whole-of-government, multi-sectoral collaboration for solutions; ensuring joint federal-provincial leadership; and mainstreaming the role of the private sector through an approach which will provide a level playing field, on the one hand, and foster locally-relevant innovation, on the other, to create jobs and promote livelihood in quick-win areas. The program’s premise is grounded in the importance of strengthening institutions, transparency and good governance. The program is for the extreme poor, orphans, widows, the homeless, the disabled, those who risk medical impoverishment, for the jobless, for poor farmers, for labourers, for the sick and undernourished; for students from low-income backgrounds and for poor women and elderly citizens. This plan is also about lifting lagging areas where poverty is higher. Ehsaas poverty reduction strategy is articulated in four pillars and it currently embodies 115 policy actions, which may be expanded as the process of consultations on the program, further widens. The four pillars include: addressing elite capture and making the government system work to create equality; safety nets for disadvantaged segments of the population; jobs and livelihoods; and human capital development.
The first pillar on “Addressing elite capture and making the government system work for equality” is targeted against injustices in taxation, water management, and labour laws, among other things. Under this objective, Ehsaas provides for increased government spending on social protection, with a specialized ministry for this purpose and a one-window operation for poor to access these services. Also, pro-poor policies and incentives will be encouraged under National and Provincial Finance Commissions and innovative ways of development funding shall be formulated that will increase the impact of public sector development programs.
The second pillar on “Safety nets” envisions sub-programs including the “Tahafuz” (protection) program which caters to downtrodden and marginalized segments of the society. It will provide legal aid, educational grants and medical insurance for the poor. The “Kifalat” program which provides cash stipends, shelter for orphans, health coverage, livelihood recovery initiatives and other elements required for the overall well-being of the society. The Prime Minister envisions to create laws and initiatives for the welfare of the poor, elderly, orphans, widows, labourers and Pakistani workers abroad.
The third pillar on “Human Capital Development” invests in human resource from early stage as it will cater tackling malnutrition, preschool or early education, protecting children from harm; ensuring access to quality education, skills and jobs; long-term commitment to Universal Health Coverage, and measures for empowering women and girls.
The fourth pillar on “Jobs and Livelihoods” will formulate a new policy of Solutions Innovation Challenge, Prize Funding, and Venture Capital Funding to develop value chains and solutions for poverty at scale by identifying private-sector partners. It will encourage entrepreneurs by building an enterprising environment, offering business support and expertise, vocational trainings, soft loans, online platforms, manpower export and youth programs.
Another essential element of Prime Minister’s poverty alleviation strategy is the use of digital technology and formation of databases entailing essential information and demographic disbursement of poverty across Pakistan. Moreover, technology will help in bringing change in traditional ways of implementation of projects towards an evidence-based decision-making for an informed policy.
It is noteworthy that these development solutions may vary in terms of objectives and design, but they all target human well-being and environmental sustainability. Despite the core objective being one, there are major differences and disagreements in terms of which development template and solution to follow, as some of these initiatives have been successful, while others have failed.
These steps reflect the government’s determination in pursuing Article 38 (d) of the Constitution under which the state is to ensure citizens’ access to fundamental rights such as shelter, clothing, health and education. Despite facing hard financial issues, the PTI government cut development allocations in the budget for 2019-20 but still allocated Rs80 billion for the underprivileged segments of society. In 2020, the sum would be increased to Rs120 billion.
The success of any development recipe lies in its sensitization to the local settings and domestic social environments and most importantly, the efficiency with which these universal development practices are tailored accordingly to indigenous factors and socio-psychological temperaments, and finally, effective implementation.
There are several operational challenges and theoretical policy puzzles that stand in between the effective implementation of Ehsaas program. For instance, the capacity issue. Pakistan has already declared right to education as a fundamental right under Article 25-A. However, this has not resulted in the actual dispensation of free and compulsory education. Pragmatically speaking, there are serious capacity issues for the state when it comes to providing shelter, food, cloth and education as fundamental rights.
As history bears testimony to the fact, one of the main reasons for the failure of development and poverty alleviation programs in Pakistan has been the lack of devolution or excessive centralization. Political interference also tends to create inconsistency and adhocism for such programs that results in their failure. There are several thousand people, if not more, who make a living out of the poverty alleviation agenda. This includes those at the top of hierarchical structures, experts serving as consultants in collaboration with key lenders, and those working in the field down the pecking order. They gobble up a sizeable share of the total spending, including the aid inflow, meant to serve the poverty-stricken multitude. The lenders are not beyond blame either: they knowingly depend on sub-optimal national data and do little, if anything, to force the government to produce something credible. Multiple UN agencies, World Bank, Department for International Development (DFID), Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other key lenders that have a history of engagement in Pakistan can’t be absolved of the responsibility. They are bureaucratic, high on paperwork and low on performance audit and they are incorruptible is a myth.
These factors should be a relevant concern for Ehsaas program. Striking the right balance at this junction is a critical factor for the success of Ehsaas program.
Although reliable statistics are not available on the collective spending on social welfare by the government, non-profit and private sectors, it runs into hundreds of millions of rupees every year. The government, the private sector and the public at large need to redefine their vows to fight poverty. So far the government, through its Ehsaas programme, has several policy windows such as the “National Poverty Graduation Initiative, financial inclusion strategy, and prize funds for innovative solutions such as garbage collecting rickshaws to create jobs. Still, state’s capacity to fight poverty is far from the desired goal. The private sector, though, has partnered with the government in its Langar programme, but its corporate social responsibility programme needs to be streamlined, scrutinised and documented. Pakistan has made a name in philanthropy, and in every nook and corner, charity work is ongoing selflessly. These initiatives must be documented under a governmental window so that they are facilitated and strengthened. The creation of a poverty alleviation ministry can do the needful.
The writer is a PhD Scholar (English Literature).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org