The pressures of globalisation, a slowing economy and increasing inequality have moved the debate forward but it was also the Kashmir earthquake and the more recent floods that have brought home the message of how so many are so vulnerable. But it is still quite unclear as to which way we are headed regarding social protection.
In some discussions with colleagues from academia, public policy circles, bureaucrats and politicians from across the political spectrum, there has been a lot of ambiguity about what people mean by social protection and which policies fall within its ambit. From yellow cabs to laptops and every development and road construction scheme to BISP, different people have justified all, in one conversation or another, as social protection.
Some people like the Rs1,000 a month transfer that BISP makes to the poor, some do not. Some think it is too small and will have no effect while others think it will create dependency. Sometimes the same person thinks of both these aspects. Everyone says that we should help the poor and the needy but some feel spending Rs60bn or so a year, which would be the cost if BISP were helping five million families, is too much.
Many believe that we should not be ‘giving fish’ but ‘teaching people how to fish’ i.e. we should not just be transferring cash for consumption but transferring skills that have the ability of removing deprivation.
Social protection is not just a set of policies to address the needs of the poor and vulnerable, it is also a rights-based or entitlements approach. The social-protection approach assumes that as a society we agree that citizens are entitled to a certain minimum standard of welfare by virtue of their citizenship.
Social-protection policies are then the ways in which we ensure that everyone has that minimum, has a way of getting there, or has a way of invoking the entitlement when needed. These policies might use social assistance (in cash like BISP or in kind like wheat/ghee distribution), access to services (health and education) and social insurance (crop and employment) to reach the concerned citizenry. There can be debate about what the policy mix should be, who the recipients should be, how are they to be identified and how can we make programmes better. But all of these come after there is a basic agreement on entitlement.
It is here where there is still a lot of ambiguity and confusion. Most people allow the fact that there is a large percentage of people in Pakistan who need assistance but tend to be reluctant to talk of minimum standards of welfare. Even more are reluctant to see the acquisition of the minimum standard as an ‘entitlement’ or a right. Some argue that fiscal constraints do not allow us to entertain the claims of minimum standards as rights or entitlements.
But if there is no agreement on the minimum standard of welfare, implicitly or explicitly, that we need to ensure for all citizens, how do we come to agreements on what sort of social protection should we be offering and how do we prioritise various expenditures that the state has to make?
Currently, we have a government in Islamabad that has made BISP one of the cornerstones of its political and economic strategy. Despite fiscal constraints, the current government is saying that it will continue to fund BISP at existing levels.
Whether they see this as a way of winning votes (Benazir Bhutto’s name is associated with the programme) or as a way of reaching out to their voter constituencies (PPP has support in the poorer segments), the programme is working.
What happens post elections, especially if we get a government that does not have the PPP in the ruling coalition? Will other parties, including the PML-N and PTI, feel as strongly for the same programme (BISP) and for the same constituency (the poor) when it seems that their vote-banks are more in the lower middle- and middle-income groups? Or will they be more comfortable with employment and service-delivery programmes (health, education) that allow the lower middle-income group, still in the poor or transient poor category, to participate as well? Will BISP, with or without the same name, survive? Should the PPP government have used a more politically neutral name for the programme to ensure its longevity? Will the rights-based approach of social protection survive?
A lot depends on how we develop a dialogue and consensus on the social-protection approach. Do Pakistanis feel there should be a minimum standard below which no fellow Pakistani should be forced to live? Are we willing to put in the resources to make this happen? A large number of Pakistanis live below the poverty line (approximately 30 per cent) and a huge number is in the poor, transient and/or vulnerable category (around 60-70 per cent).
Given the alarming data on malnutrition and stunting from nutrition surveys, poverty numbers and our education/ health indicators, clearly we need to invest in enforcing a minimum threshold. It seems we have moved towards this thinking in education when we accepted the latter as a basic right in the constitution of the country. Should we not be debating if the right to a life of dignity, with a basic minimum of welfare, be similarly acknowledged and become the basis for a dialogue on social-protection approaches and policies?
From the Dawn, Pakistan, Friday 11th May, 2012.