Divided on social policy
ARGUABLY the poorest people in Pakistan tend to be found more in the camp of the PPP than of the PML-N or PTI. The latter, going by popular perception, seems to draw most of its support from the youth, and from the urban/peri-urban areas. Support for the PML-N is believed to come more from lower middle- to middle-income groups.
Does this explain the difference in social-sector policies that each party favours or, at least, appears to favour? The PPP’s biggest social-sector move was the creation of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP).
Though the PML-N was in coalition with PPP when the idea of a social protection institution was discussed and it too supported it, after they parted ways it was the PPP that took the idea forward, gave the programme Benazir Bhutto’s name and designed and implemented its key programmes.
It was the PPPs choice to go for an unconditional cash-transfer programme under the BISP flagship, which was aimed at households, especially women in each household. The PPP also chose to focus on the very poor. Now BISP is in the process of being expanded from a basic cash-transfer programme to a conditional cash-transfer programme for health, education and employment generation. But it is still focusing on the very poor.
The PML-N, in power in Punjab, opted to do away with its food stamp programme and, instead, offered programmes like the sasti roti scheme, educational merit/need scholarships, laptop distribution programmes and Danish schools. These programmes are either not targeted (sasti roti) or not targeted at the very poor. PML-N leaders have also criticised the BISP for what they allege is its partisan use as well as for creating an unconditional cash-transfer programme, terming it ‘dole’.
PTI leaders have indicated their support for government-supported and/or government-funded supply-side interventions in health and education. They have also expressed some reservations at the approach of giving money to households rather than to providers.
There does seem to be support for employment schemes in most of the major parties, but there are differences, as expected, about who the employment schemes should target, with the PPP favouring the poor and others prioritising the urban/educated youth.
There is major confusion in the debate on social policy that makes matters murkier than they need to be and makes differences look even starker than they are. Where the PPP has favoured unconditional cash transfer as the main vehicle for the BISP, other parties have critiqued the programme by saying that it creates dependence.
There are various ways of looking at it. Think of a poor widow or a poor household that has physically or mentally challenged people in it or a household with older inhabitants. Does an unconditional transfer not make sense for these households? Even if there is a poor household with no such challenges, but it has uneducated/unskilled people who, despite trying, cannot find work, and are not able to eat enough, does a money transfer not make sense for them too?
One can argue that for the latter households the transfer should be conditional on investments in marketable education/skills, but that is still a transfer. Both conditional and unconditional transfers create dependence. The only difference is that condition- al transfers are made only if people accept and achieve certain conditions like enrolment in school/skill programmes, getting inoculated etc. But for very poor households, does it make sense to force them to spend money on education when they cannot get enough to eat?
There is little evidence from socialprotection programmes across the world that conditional transfers work better than unconditional ones. But even if we wanted to have conditional transfers, does it not make sense to offer the very poor households two transfers: an income supplement and then a conditional transfer for encouraging a specific activity/investment?
This is where the differences in party positions get tied up with party constituencies. If the PPP wants to support the very poor and poor, it will have to use both income support and conditional transfers to make a difference. And the BISP is moving in that direction. If the target group is the educated or lower middle class, then unconditional transfers might not be needed. Skill/education and/or employment programmes might be required. This might explain the PTI and PML-N’s enthusiasm for such programmes.
But we not only have a large number of very poor and poor, we also have many lower middle- and middle-income people who are very vulnerable to income and health shocks. So, in reality, we need programmes for all these groups. However, the fiscal space that we have for social programmes is limited. And the various parties, if they are in power, given the resource crunch, are likely to favour their own core constituencies.