Di­vided on so­cial pol­icy

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Faisal Bari

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.

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