KHOJ Episode 2 transcript
Ayesha Khan (AK), Asad Sayeed (AS), Haris Gazdar (HG)
AK: Good afternoon, and welcome to the podcast series Khoj. This series is hosted by the Collective for Social Science Research. We are a development research organisation based in Karachi, working on a wide range of issues, from gender to social protection, economics, and policy analysis to name just a few. Through our podcast, we will share with you some of the fascinating findings of our deep dives into the issues and communities we study. This work is part of a programme called Action for Empowerment and Accountability, a multi country research initiative hosted by the Institute of Development Studies in the UK. My name is Ayesha Khan, and I have been working for many years on gender and development issues here at the Collective.
AS: The unfortunate thing over the last few years has been that there is really no debate on social protection in Pakistan, and how do we move forward? Or what should be its parameters?
HG: So government had the responsibility, it had the opportunity, it had the resources… to actually do something much better. And that wasn't done. And I think that I feel very sorry for our country that we missed that opportunity.
AK: For today's episode, I have invited two of my colleagues, Asad Sayeed, and Haris Gazdar, who are economists and senior researchers with me at the Collective. Amongst other topics, both of them are experts on social protection issues in Pakistan. Over the years, Asad was involved in assessing social protection in the formal sector. He has also assessed child protection activities, and citizenship vulnerabilities, while strategizing ways to reconstruct the lives of those impacted by the 2010 Indus floods. And Haris has conducted several evaluations of the Benazir Income Support Programme with a focus on its cash transfer schemes. Today, we will talk about what social protection looks like in the country's fragile economic landscape, and what effect the pandemic has had on existing programmes.
Welcome, Asad and Haris. Thanks for taking the time out to record this important conversation. Why don't I start by asking you Haris What was the government's social protection response during our first lockdown over a year ago? Did it work?
HG: Thank you Ayesha. It's a very important question. But before answering that, I'd like to say a context, before we get to how things panned out with respect to the pandemic. So social protection, it's a commitment. It's also a resource transfer. And it's basically a way in which a government ensures that none of its citizens fall below a certain threshold in terms of consumption, or income, or well-being.
But it really mostly refers to assistance to people in the economic or material realm. So of course you have a broad range of social policies, in education, in health, and in other areas, and some of them are connected with social protection but social protection really is about helping people who fall below a certain level with respect to their income. Now, in market economies, social protection plays a very critical role because in these economies, when we expect that people consume, or they eat, or they earn, what they do through their work, or if they have assets. So any shortfalls in the economic system, any shortfalls in terms of their assets, in terms of their wages, where will they be met from?
Now, you know, in the old days, people thought of charity. But that's neither a commitment by government, nor is it based on any notion of rights. And finally, it is not something which is a guarantee from anybody to anybody. So Pakistan, started its first steps towards establishing a comprehensive social protection system around 2008 with the establishment of the Benazir Income Support Programme, and I would stress that it was a start. So it was an important programme. It was an important change in Pakistan in several ways. Firstly, it was a programme that was a very large programme. Second, it was a programme that wasn't based on cherry picking beneficiaries. What do I mean by that? Before this programme, whenever the government felt the need to assist people who are in any kind of difficulty, it would assemble administrative officials, sometimes political officials, and ask them to identify people whom the government could support.
The Benazir Income Support Programme changed that, it adopted a modern method for approaching who the beneficiaries will be, beneficiary selection. And it was based on identifying all Pakistani citizens as the potential universe for the programme. So it starts from a well defined definition of a universe. And from there it has different it can have different policies with respect to who the eligible beneficiaries would be. So, so that was a success. So it was a mass programme, it was designed on sound principles, its primary beneficiaries were women. And also, it constructed a number of important partnerships between government and other organisations around the technological means for transferring money in a transparent way.
When this crisis hit, it had actually quite remarkable demands upon us. Because several things were happening at the same time, the first thing that we experienced was a lockdown of the economy, which means that and something that was very conspicuous in the discussions at that time, was what would be the fate of people who relied on daily wages? Because if you shut the economy down, they don't have salaries to rely on, they may not have savings, they probably don't have savings. And they're in any case, living very precarious lives - hand to mouth -- particularly in the urban areas, because the lockdown was most strictly enforced in urban areas.
So what would happen to the urban poor, particularly those who relied on wages, daily wages, as well as large number of people who rely on charity, but again, who live in a very precarious way on a day to day basis. So that's really where the social protection response was required. It was… the social protection is always around a particular kind of need. So the response has to be tailored to the condition that you're going to face. And then, for a long time, the not much could be done.
And when the response finally came, it was a big response in terms of budgetary resources, it was actually quite a big budgetary outlay… I think up to a billion rupees in the end, but much of it was really around the initial list of beneficiaries that were identified under the Benazir Income Support Programme, through its survey of 2010-11. So we used the database, which was about 10 years old, which was focused on chronic poverty, the vast majority of whose beneficiaries were in rural areas, and a system that had really no way of identifying daily wage labourers or casual labourers who were going to be the most affected.
AK: So if I understand you correctly, Haris, you're saying that the initial beneficiaries were Benazir Income Support Programme on their lists, but actually the needy at the time when COVID hit, were people living in the urban areas. So Asad, do you think that that's what happened? And also, I just want to ask, whether related to that, weren't there lots of charity efforts in the urban areas like for example, Saylani Welfare Trust, giving out food to the urban poor? And was that not enough?
AS: Well, initially, as Haris said, that, that the distribution that was done was based on the existing lists for BISP, and the amount was enhanced. And the bulk of the beneficiaries were in the rural areas. And just to recall, it was exactly this time last year. And this is a time when the wheat harvest happens. So there was first of all, very little evidence of COVID because at that time, COVID was in Pakistan, largely imported from outside the country.
So it was very much an urban phenomenon but the bulk of the beneficiaries were in the rural areas. The lockdown in Pakistan for good or for bad did not last for too long. But the cities went through the lockdown, and it was a fairly comprehensive one in the large cities, at least in Karachi, Lahore, etc. It was fairly comprehensive. So, so the need for social protection was clearly in the urban areas.
Now, a smart and doable response would have been to do a cash transfer and do a cash transfer based on geographical targeting. We by and large know where the poor live, and they live in those distinct localities and areas. And we have the information through the national database once we identify those localities.
So cash transfer would have been the optimal response. That was not done, because we were doing it on a list which was 10 years old, and which was actually made for a different purpose. It wasn't there for a contingency such as a pandemic. Food was distributed, yes. But it was done in a haphazard manner. One locality at one point to one point in time and other locality at some other point in time, there was there was a lot of duplication of effort that was happening, because the government was supposed to only coordinate it, essentially, and these charity organisations were supposed to deliver.
Now the problem always is that food, first of all, because there's no coordination, that it may reach some, it may not reach others, and it may reach those who actually either have jobs or who have savings or who have assets, and not others. So there was an issue of targeting, there was an issue of duplication.
And the situation was such that your supply chains of food were all working at that point. So markets are full of essentials, food essential especially. And the cash programme could have been done. It could have been rolled out in a couple of weeks. But that was not done.
AK: So this is a bit confusing, because on the on the one hand, we heard that, you know, Ehsaas programme was so big, and it was meeting the needs of people affected by the COVID lockdown. Then on the other hand, you're telling me now that there were so many it was mis targeted because it reached rural beneficiaries when actually urban beneficiaries needed. And then to add another layer of confusion on to what we heard recently, a few months ago almost 200,000 beneficiaries of the BISP were actually ineligible. So what's going on?
HG: Firstly, there are several questions embedded in that one question. So, let me try to unpick that. So, the BSP was and is the flagship programme, it has legal protection. It has a system. So as I explained its database exists, it is premised on a data, it was collected door to door. So although it is dated, and also, although it was intended to capture chronic… the chronic poor. So there are limitations to that data to those data. Nevertheless, that's what the BISP is.
Now, about 90 to 95% of the beneficiaries of Ehsaas are from the BISP list. So let's be perfectly clear about that. So Ehsaas is not a new programme. It's basically another layer of labelling over a programme that already exists. So, whatever happened in the COVID response, and it was called the Ehsaas programme, at its core, as well as its periphery, except for maybe about 10% of additional beneficiaries, all of the other beneficiaries are somewhere in the BISP list. So that's, that's who they are.
Now, what happened to be BISP beneficiaries prior to the COVID crisis? What was the policy of the government as it was developing Ehsaas, with respect to be BISP beneficiaries and so on? Yes, certainly... There was a stage when a very large number of beneficiaries were taken off the list. I think perhaps the number was much bigger than 200,000. I think the number that I had seen at one stage was about 800,000 people nationally.
Now, who were those people? A lot of those were people who were post hoc, identified as being ineligible. What do I mean by that? When the programme first came into play, it had a specific criterion for selecting beneficiaries. Later on, just maybe two years ago, the government decided that actually, it's going to add further criteria, such as ineligibility of people who had government jobs, or those whose family members had government jobs, people who had travelled abroad, or those whose family members have travelled abroad, people who had bank accounts, in certain kinds of banks, or whose family members had those bank accounts, right. So none of these criteria were actually in existence, when the initial list of beneficiaries was established. Of course, the government had the right, it had the legal right.. The board can decide, and the cabinet can decide to change the criteria.
But to say that those people were ineligible and they had become part of the programme is incorrect. Those people were eligible. They met the original eligibility criteria, those criteria were changed. And then a conversation was started that they were fraudulent. So anyway, that was I think, in some ways, an irresponsible conversation because it, you know, asked or in the public mind, it posed questions about the credibility of a programme, which actually had passed many tests of being transparent and being correct and being effective. Of course, there are going to be problems in every programme. But relative to other programmes, the BISP was known to be an effective programme.
So this was the story prior to COVID. Now, what happened when COVID hit was that we were already in the middle of an IMF programme. Now this is very important to understand that we were already undergoing an important economic crisis, a very big economic crisis. We don't have the time to talk about the responsibility for the crisis. Of course, there were governance failures, and there were all kinds of economic failures. There were things happening in the global economy as well. But nevertheless, we were in that situation. And we were in the middle of an IMF programme that had set some very stringent targets with respect to government expenditure, with respect to power tariffs with respect to interest rates, and a lot of those measures had led to a contraction of the economy. So when the pandemic hit with its own demands on the economy with its own burden on the economy, the economy was already reeling under one big shock. Or the people who support the programme would say it was reeling under the medicine that had been administered, because it was in a problem before then.
Now, at that moment when the pandemic hit, and the government understood that, you know, things were going to be very difficult. The Pakistan government, like many other governments, they approached the IMF, they approached their foreign lenders for relief. And Pakistan, then received relief way back. I think the negotiation started in March/April immediately and that relief basically gave us a holiday from the IMF programme. Right. So it wasn't a get out clause, it was it was a like a little break from the programme. And we have now re-entered the programme. But that break was premised on the government doing a number of things with respect to pandemic response. So a lot of government expenditure had to be directed towards social protection, it had to be directed towards health.
Now, I know that there were three important donors who came in with a total of one and a half billion US dollars, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Asian Investment Bank. So these three banks with $500 million each came up with a total bill of one and a half billion dollars. And the conditions attached to it were almost all exclusively around giving benefits under the social protection programme.
AS: So, as Haris mentioned earlier it's important to remember that when you have a targeted programme, or even if you have a universal programme, there are certain criteria, which make you eligible for the benefit. So in Pakistan, that was chronic poverty. There could be many other situations where it's these criteria could be different. For instance, if there is a flood, then those who are affected by the floods would be the beneficiaries and not others, or a few live in a coastal area, and there's a tidal wave or a tsunami, then those who are in that area would be the beneficiaries.
And in any social protection programme, or social security programmes anywhere in the world, there are what we call errors that do happen. And these errors happen to be of two sorts. One is that when you include the wrong people, and that would be called an inclusion error. The other is that you exclude the right people. And that would be the exclusion error. So now there was this this notion of excluding existing beneficiaries, on whatever grounds that were mentioned. First of all, as Haris mentioned, though, those grounds did not exist 10 years ago, or those questions were not asked at that point in time. And secondly, that was if anything that was an inclusion error.
But at the same time, over the years, we, the government itself, as well as the press, as well, as research was showing us that there was a very large number of people who were excluded from the programme, for reasons that they did not have, either the national identity card, or that they did not have permanent addresses. And that number was far larger and close to about 2 million people who were excluded. So, there was very little that was done over this period of time to remove the exclusion error, and there was emphasis on inclusion errors, which was also politically motivated as this government is keen on, on demonstrating corruption and corrupt practices of previous governments. So, there was this this large gap that was already there that was not filled. And one reason is that the poverty census that was done in 2010-11, would have become redundant any waiver in a span of say about five years. And it's been over 10 years that the new survey or the new census that was to be done, has not been completed and a new list has not been developed.
AK: So this sounds like maybe a lot of money went into social protection over the last year, but for a programme that maybe was not fit for purpose? I mean, both of you have spent a lot of time in the field understanding the needs of communities, both urban as well as rural across different geographies in Pakistan. So, you know, does this work? Was this programme fit for purpose?
HG: And I would say it in a slightly different way, I would say that the beneficiaries of the Benazir Income Support Programme, who now we are saying that the Ehsaas beneficiaries, as well as the people who are added on later, mean, I have no reason to believe that they are not amongst the poorer people of Pakistan. And if money was transferred to them, I don't really have any complaints about that.
But what I do have a problem with is that we had an opportunity to do something much better that we didn't take. So that opportunity was lost, what was that opportunity, the opportunity was to actually upgrade the programme, make it much more effective, make it much more nimble, much more responsive to the kinds of needs that we would now encounter, I think virtually every year… I think the pandemic was just one of the many, many wake up calls that we've received in Pakistan, just remember, we are in the middle of a climate disaster in this country, you know, we have floods every other year, we have droughts in different parts of the year. And we have all other kinds of disasters, locusts coming, all of these things, you know, they take away the little people do for themselves. And it really throw people you know into the margin. And I think that's really, so government had the responsibility, it had the opportunity, it had the resources… to actually do something much better. And that wasn't done. And I think that I feel very sorry for our country that we missed that opportunity.
AK: So what what's missing from the discussion, then?
AS: I think the, the unfortunate thing over the last few years has been that there is really no debate on social protection in Pakistan, and how do we move forward… Or what should be its parameters? So there's a lot of talk of helping the poor supporting the poor. But there's no there's no debate on what are the basis on which we're going to do it.
So now the global debate in developing countries has been across a number of areas, that should social protection be something which is universal, that all citizens qualify but the uptake would be those who are the poorest. So you remember, we had a ration system in Pakistan, which was adopted, which was actually inherited by the country from the colonial state. And that ration system would provide certain food items at a subsidised rate, and everyone was eligible for it. But for several reasons, a lot of the uptake was amongst those who, for whom it was difficult to afford those, those particular goods at those prices. So it kept their consumption levels intact. And it was mainly it was staples, it was wheat, it was rice, it was oil, sugar, etc. Now that was done away with in Pakistan in the 1970s. India continues with that. In India, they call it the Public Distribution System. And I think they even they want to do away with it now. But there's a debate that should it be universal, should it be targeted.
Targeted is better if you have limited resources, and nowadays, we have the technology to identify people through national databases. So there are a number of areas. So that debate is not happening as to who is it that we should be targeting or who should be the beneficiary population, who are the ones whom the market doesn't fully support us or serve. And as a result, what we have is a lot of ad hoc stuff that goes on.
So you have nowadays the panahgahs have started which are shelter homes for the poor. Now, if you look at the number of beneficiaries of these shelter homes, they'd be like, not even 100th of those who actually do not have adequate housing. Or you have a food or soup kitchens that were advertised recently by the Prime Minister himself, which would, which doesn't even begin to address the issue of food insecurity, and nutritional deficiencies that the country faces.
So, now all of this would come about, through some sort of a rational debate, and the debate as to whom do we wish to protect? And in what order of priority do we want to protect? And then the second element of that is that, how much money are we willing to spend? What is our fiscal window for social protection? And that, again, is part of what national priorities there are in terms of spending? So do we want to spend on defence? Do we want to spend on physical infrastructure? Do we want to spend on climate protection? And do we want to spend on social protection, etc. So, the big problem right now is that there's a lot of populism, there's a lot of bravado… But there's very little actual debate, neither at the political level, nor at the academic level.
AK: So basically, what you're saying, if I understand correctly, is that you can have politicians can have the best intentions to provide food, to provide shelter, to provide cash transfers, but unless it's a very thorough and well thought out policy, mistargeting will happen. And possibly, not all the right people will get the help that they need in time.
AS: Or you may just do ad hoc things as being done, which does not address the underlying issue. I mean, just to take the example of the shelter homes and the food programme, they do not address the underlying issue of inadequate housing, or inadequate shelter for the poor, or of nutritional deficiencies and food insecurity.
AK: But some critics would say that, you know, social protection, isn't it like a band aid in the sense that it's not going to actually address the drivers of poverty is it?
HG: The whole social protection paradigm arose when it became clear that the world was moving towards some kind of a global consensus in favour of a market economy. So people would work, the labour market would either provide jobs, or people would be unemployed, or people would be in the age of being pensioners. So all of the people who would not be actively in the labour market, or whose wages were going to be too low, even within the labour market, were the ones that social protection came in aid of. So that's really where all of the whole discussion for social protection started. And I think that we remain in that paradigm. And hence, we have to continue thinking in terms of social protection as a way to protect people while doing other things to make sure that there is a growth in jobs, there is a growth in incomes, and the economy's lifted up.
So I guess the lessons that we've learned from building the Benazir Income Support Programme, and then the lessons that we've learned over the last one year are really that if you have made the investment, both resource investment and the political investment in creating good systems, you will actually have mechanisms for helping people when you need to help them. But to build systems is actually a laborious task, it is tedious, it requires a lot of effort. And it may or may not give you the political headlines, it has to be done mostly in a quiet way. And ultimately, yes, you know, you will earn some political reward, or you might get some fame. But you know, that's how it is. But that's really the experience of every single country in the world. So, Europe went through it after the Second World War when they build their social welfare system. So we say, social welfare state, but actually they build systems through which these things could be delivered. And so we were on our way to building that system. And then somewhere along the line, we've stopped. And I think that when you're not building systems, you're basically chasing headlines, and you're still finding certain, you know, bits of good news that Asad talked about, that a shelter here and you know, a community kitchen there, and you make a big deal out of it. But actually the task of building the systems, maintaining them and upgrading them, that really is the task for all countries in this time.
AS: And social protection is a very important sort of citizenship sort of empowerment tool, especially in developing countries, and especially in post-colonial countries, where citizens and the state only interact in either a conflictual or an oppressive manner. So the poorest of the citizens’ interaction with the state happens either through law enforcement or through the courts. But here is something where a positive relationship between the citizen and the state can be created. So its benefit, apart from the benefit that accrues to the poorer segments of society is also one of nation building, and of transforming nations into more inclusive societies.
AK: So lots of serious problems to address and it seems that we never have enough time, nor enough debate to actually come up with the right solutions. But thank you so much Asad and Haris for taking time out for this conversation. I've certainly learned a great deal. And it seems that well targeted and reliable social protection programmes are certainly needed, especially as our citizens recover from the pandemic. With a third wave already upon us it will be interesting to see what the government does now to protect the poor.
This podcast was produced in collaboration with Films d’art. I would also like to thank
SoundsGreat studios for the recording facilities. I hope you enjoyed listening to the second episode of our podcast series Khoj, and will tune in again for the next time until then, goodbye.