Beyond good intentions: Making 'Ehsaas' deliver
Prime Minister Imran Khan recently launched an 80 billion rupee poverty reduction program called Ehsaas, which means percipience, and which aims to provide the poorest of Pakistan’s poor with shelter, food, education, health and amenities including clean drinking water.
In fact, article 38 of Pakistan’s Constitution, which says, “The state shall provide basic necessities of life such as food for all such citizens...unable to earn their livelihood...” is to be changed to include decent living as a fundamental, guaranteed right.
But the new program goes a step further in its implementation. It recognizes that Pakistan’s social protection framework is fragmented and that the effectiveness of public spending is compromised.
According to the program's agenda, a dedicated ministry for social protection and poverty alleviation is to be established to act as a coordinator for different programs. Data gaps are to be plugged and the government has decided to update its database by the end of this year to have the right poverty figures divided down to the district level.
Additionally, in the name of women's empowerment and in order to boost their financial inclusion, the government has announced that savings accounts will be opened for 5.7 million poor women which can be accessed through government-provided mobile phones.
The ‘tahafuz' (protection) initiative will provide legal aid to those who can't afford it. Those unable to physically access the legal aid cells will have the option of accessing call centers through their phones or messaging services. A program for children unable to pay school expenses is also being designed. Likewise, street children and transgender persons requiring state support will get the help they need. It is hoped that the tahafuz initiative will help in uplift the children working under bonded labor conditions.
The initiative needs our appreciation and could go a long way in expediting Pakistan’s achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. However, the challenges for Khan’s team, mistakes that have caused well-intentioned poverty reduction programs to fail perviously, cannot be ignored.
First, the government will need to protect the fiscal allocation for Ehsaas throughout its tenure. In the past, changing fiscal priorities of the government implied a cut in the already approved budget allocations for the poor. There are ways to protect the allocation of welfare for the poor, for example, through the strengthening of the Fiscal Responsibility and Debt Limitation Act.
Programs like ‘Ehsaas’ require transparency to avoid the risk of corruption by public officials.
Dr. Vaqar Ahmed
Second, existing social protection programs only benefit formal workers. It’s just not a wide enough net. The reach of the program must be expanded to cater to informal workers, farm labor, disabled and other unprotected and vulnerable groups.
Third, in most cases, education and skills development programs are not accompanied by employment guarantee schemes or non-collateral credit facilities for those wishing to pursue self-employment. Such linkages have to be carefully designed under ‘Ehsaas’ so that the educated youth is able to join the working population.
Fourth, an integration of social protection and social assistance programs is needed which can increase the capacities of the local population to cope with financial shocks and natural and man-made disasters. Partially, this can happen if these programs ensure the creation of productive assets, for example, land for the poor.
Fifth, vulnerability prevention must be a key component of the social protection framework. For example, micro-insurance schemes can mitigate the impact of weather patterns and natural disasters adversely affecting crops, farm lands, livestock, and small-scale businesses in areas hit by drought and flooding.
Sixth, the government collects a substantial amount of money in Zakat, the obligatory Islamic charity, in bait-ul-mal and private sector contributions at federal, provincial and local levels. The management of collected funds requires an overhaul so that public money facing depreciation in its real value can be protected and enhanced.
Finally, programs like ‘Ehsaas’ require transparency to avoid the risk of corruption by public officials. State led accountability mechanisms can be supported by social accountability efforts at the grass roots level. In this regard, transparent and economical models to address people’s day-to-day grievances with regards to their eligibility and receipt of stipends and other entitlements must be put in place.