Recently, a British newspaper the Daily Mail accused the British government of squandering more than £1 billion in foreign aid given away in cash over the past five years. It took umbrage at one scheme in particular: the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), which provides families in Pakistan with an amount of over 1500 rupees per month with the objective of ‘smoothening and cushioning the negative effects of slow economic growth, the food crisis and inflation on the poor, particularly women’.
In July 2008, the government of Pakistan launched the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) as a flagship national safety net system. The Programme has grown rapidly to become the largest single social safety net programme in Pakistan’s history and one of the largest in the South Asian region. It is also one of the best social safety nets in the world catering for the 5.3 million poor families all across Pakistan. Although, the programme is appreciated and well-recognised both within the country and abroad, there is no shortage of Doubting Thomases who see it differently. In a recent report in a UK newspaper, Daily Mail, it was stated that the BISP, which was designed to provide cash to some of Pakistan’s poorest is not only costly for the UK taxpayers but also subject to corruption. “Just when you thought it could not get any worse … your cash is doled out in envelopes and on ATM cards loaded with money,” the report blamed. Saying that “around 235,000 families pocket cash every three months to boost incomes,” the newspaper carried a picture of Pakistanis queuing up outside an ATM, withdrawing money, a part of which was provided by the UK government. Other newspapers have picked up the same story, questioning the amount of money provided by the UK which encourages corruption. According to the report, the UK’s Department of International Development was donating £200 million a year to the BISP, contributing about 7 percent of the BISP’s total costs. Conservative Member of Parliament, Nigel Evans, who is a member of the influential International Development Select Committee, also agreed that cash transfers were “clearly open to fraud with money siphoned away when it ought to be directed to those most in need”. Defending the BISP, the UK officials, however, commended the programme for introducing a biometric system with fingerprint checks which means that the British taxpayers could be sure that the help they provide does go to the less fortunate as intended. The BISP helps 5.2 million of the poorest families gain access to food, health, clothing and schools.
Although BISP is a flagship programme of the country to protect the poorest in the country and largely acknowledged as such by all and sundry, the weaknesses of the programme as highlighted by the UK newspapers should not be taken lightly. The programme is, in fact, so popular that it was launched in 2008 by the PPP government and continued by the present PML (N) government for its highly desirable traits of enhancing financial capacity of the very poor and eradicate extreme and chronic poverty. The cash transfers to eligible families have been increased from Rs. 1,000 per family in 2008 to Rs. 1200 in 2013, Rs. 1500 in 2014 and Rs. 1567 w.e.f. 1st July, 2016. BISP has also expanded rapidly over the years. The number of BISP beneficiaries has risen from 1.7 million in 2009 to 5.3 million at the close of March, 2016 and are expected to increase to 5.6 million by the end of June 2017. The size of the BISP has also progressively increased from Rs 16 billion in 2009 to Rs. 102 billion by June 2016 and is estimated to rise to Rs. 115 billion by the end of current fiscal. In its initial stages, BISP delivered cash transfers through Pakistan Post due to its greater outreach but later started using the innovative payments mechanism in the form of Benazir Smart Card and Mobile Phone Banking. At present, around 94 percent beneficiaries are receiving payments through technology-enabled innovative payment mechanisms.
However, whatever the merits of the programme, its deficiencies cannot be whisked away or ignored altogether. The criticism of the UK press and its parliamentarians should be especially noted because Britain is providing financial support to the programme and its critical observations could also prompt other countries and agencies to re-evaluate the scheme and withdraw their support. This is so because the donor countries need to be given assurance that the money of their taxpayers is meant only for the pockets of the poor to buy vital food, clean water, clothing and healthcare and is not misutilised in any way. The right way to do this is to minimise the influence of parliamentarians in the selection of beneficiaries and give a greater role to neutral officials who are not likely to discriminate between people on some caste, creed or ethnic grounds. Besides, a higher level of resources could be allocated for projects which could enhance employment opportunities so that the beneficiaries could be facilitated to shift from outright grants of BISP and take up paying jobs over a period of time. If such a provision was not included, the queue of BISP beneficiaries would continue to grow, burdening the national exchequer more and more. And finally, donor countries and agencies may preferably be associated with the policymaking process in the BISP so that they don’t have the reason to criticise the programme openly with a view to stopping its funding. All we wish is the continuation of the scheme to fulfil its noble objectives without much mud thrown at its doors by the outsiders.
Courtesy: Business Recorder