A step towards a welfare state
In March, Prime Minister Imran Khan launched his administration’s poverty alleviation programme giving it the title of Ehsas, an extensive program that is meant to be implemented through 20 federal ministries/divisions, 6 federal agencies involved in poverty alleviation and social protection, four provincial governments, AJK and GB. The newly created Division of Poverty Alleviation and Safety Nets is the coordinating agency of the Ehsas program.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government in its election manifesto and 100 Days Agenda envisioned formation of a welfare state. Following up on the agenda, Prime Minister Imran Khan, on March 27, 2019 announced his vision for development and poverty alleviation under a program called “Ehsas” (percipience or consciousness).
Ehsas poverty reduction strategy is based on four pillars and embodies 115 policy actions, which may be expanded during the process of further consultations on the program. According to Prime Minister’s Ehsas Policy Statement, the four pillars include: addressing elite capture and making the government system work to create equality; safety nets for disadvantaged segments of the population; human capital development; and jobs and livelihoods.
The Ehsas program envisions to make constitutional amendments especially in Article 38 which caters to the promotion of social and economic welfare of the people, and Article 37 which elaborates on how the state has to ensure the above mentioned responsibility. Therefore, Ehsas is not only a policy initiative, but also a visionary document which lays the foundations for a welfare state that provides basic necessities as fundamental rights for its citizens.
The first pillar on “Addressing elite capture and making the government system work for equality” is targeted against injustices in taxation, water management, and labor laws among other things. Under this objective, Ehsas 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” (protecting) 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” (guarantees) 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 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 data bases 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.
The steps announced by Prime Minister Imran Khan as part of his anti-poverty initiative ‘Ehsas’ sound innovative and sincere.
The amendment to Article 38 (d) of the Constitution to redefine access to food, shelter, clothing, health and education as a fundamental right would certainly, in a legal sense, change the relationship of the state with its citizenry. Along with this, Mr Khan also announced an increase in the amount of money the state intends to spend on underprivileged segments of society — from Rs80bn to Rs120bn by 2020. The prime minister also announced a new ministry for social protection and poverty alleviation would be set up, though the details were scant.
All of these are sound priorities to pursue for a leader, and there can be little doubt that Mr Khan, on his part, has shown a sincere desire to deliver to the poor. The problem is with the path forward.
In the past, too, we have heard the prime minister speak about stunting in children and malnutrition, and the distribution of poultry as income support for low-income households. To date, there is scant evidence that much has been done to follow up on these announcements. To earnestly improve access to food, shelter, clothing, health and education, far more than constitutional amendments will be required. The prime minister said that after the amendment has been made, any citizen would be able to approach a court and demand his or her fundamental rights.
The first thing that will be required will be the numbers in parliament to make this amendment to the constitution. Given the kind of relationship that Mr Khan and his government have with the opposition parties, this looks like a challenging task.
Second, the capacity of the state to actually produce results is debatable. What is obstructing better health and education outcomes at present is not the fact that they are not legally recognised as fundamental rights. Instead, the challenge lies in the lack of resources, overlapping jurisdictions, and the absence of any commitment made by the political elites to prioritise social welfare objectives and give their undivided attention to the task. A constitutional amendment will give the courts the power to carve a role for themselves in the provision of social services, but this does not mean that the judiciary would be able to deliver the services in question.
It is good for Pakistan that its leadership should speak of poverty alleviation and social service delivery as important priorities of the state, and seek innovative ways to improve performance in these crucial areas. But both priorities have highly developed approaches and a wealth of past experience to learn from. A new ministry will have much to reflect on and learn, before it can embark on an effective course of action.