Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

How cash transfers prevent lockdown tragedies

- By Sania Nishta, exclusivel­y for the Sunday Times in Sri Lanka

ISLAMABAD – In 2017, I was a candidate to become the next Director- General of the World Health Organisati­on. At the 70th World Health Assembly, I stood before health ministers from around the world and warned that three things could destroy the planet: A celestial event, a third world war or a pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic may not have destroyed the planet, but it is certainly putting public and private institutio­ns to a harsh test. In addition to its dire health consequenc­es, the pandemic has decimated livelihood­s worldwide, squeezing the middle class and pushing low-income households into abject poverty.

In Pakistan – the world’s fifth-largest country by population – 24 million breadwinne­rs rely on daily wages or are self-employed in the informal economy. For them, life came to a standstill with the implementa­tion of a lockdown in March, causing a widespread loss of income that began fueling civil unrest and rioting.

To mitigate the pandemic’s socioecono­mic damage, Pakistan’s government created the Ehsaas Emergency Cash program, the largest social-protection program in the country’s history. Rolled out ten days after the lockdown began, it is delivering one- time cash grants totaling more than $1.2 billion to more than 16.9 million households, covering around 109 million people – approximat­ely 50% of the country’s population. Recipient families are given Rs12,000 ($ 75) to cover their immediate subsistenc­e needs.

Prior to the delivery of Ehsaas cash, I saw unspeakabl­e suffering among people from many walks of life. There were day labourers and hawkers, hotel and restaurant staff, and domestic servants, security guards, and drivers. There were also laid- off public- transport employees, fishermen and miners, beautician­s and barbers, and millions of shopkeeper­s – all on the verge of hunger, with their savings used up. They, along with private-school teachers, electricia­ns, welders, painters, carpenters, plumbers, car mechanics, taxi drivers, and constructi­on workers, did not know where their next meal would come from.

These stories were repeated across industries and regions, with even those used to earning a decent living suddenly wondering if their finances would ever add up again. But the handouts brought stability and comfort to millions of families, and the whole country watched as countless tragedies were averted.

Beyond the immediate crisis, the success of Ehsaas Emergency Cash offers Pakistan and other middleand low-income countries invaluable experience in speedily delivering a massive national program in a complex and uncertain context. In order to share this knowledge, the government recently released a report describing the knowhow we gained through the program’s design and implementa­tion, as well as the operationa­l challenges we encountere­d and how they were addressed.

The program’s end-to-end digital approach, with transparen­cy hardwired into its design, offers lessons about how to leverage personal identifica­tion systems. By combining phones, Internet connectivi­ty, and national IDs, a digital, demandbase­d social-protection system can be created to enable those in distress to seek support during crises. And it demonstrat­es how cash transfer programs can be deployed to counter the adverse socioecono­mic consequenc­es of external shocks, such as COVID-19.

For Pakistan, this was a watershed moment in terms of government functionin­g. The crisis compelled the government to be more responsive, data-driven, experiment­al, and ambitious. Cost- effective digital methods of working, new ways to coordinate the activities of multiple stakeholde­rs, and a whole- of- government approach have been institutio­nalised. These measures will transform policymaki­ng in a post-COVID-19 world.

Finally, the legacy of the program goes beyond short-term relief. Built into its design are long-term goals to strengthen the safety net and increase financial inclusion, both of which will bring lasting benefits to recipients and to Pakistan as a whole. Alongside this is a commitment to transparen­cy and accountabi­lity, which is the underlying motivation for the publicatio­n of the report. In order for democracie­s to ensure progress, a culture of integrity and openness must be ingrained in government institutio­ns and processes.

History shows that disasters and their tragic consequenc­es can be a catalyst of large- scale social change. COVID- 19 has presented Pakistan with an urgent and unpreceden­ted challenge, which could be met only by a program with the scale and ambition of Ehsaas Emergency Cash.

In the wake of the pandemic, we must embrace the once-in-a-generation chance to replicate this ambition globally and build a fairer world that overcomes poverty, inequality, and the climate crisis, with social protection as a core pillar of that effort.

The world has not faced a more difficult challenge since the end of World War II. But in our darkest hour, we can find a way forward by collective­ly deciding to move toward a fairer, greener, and more sustainabl­e world for all.

Sania Nishtar is Special Assistant on Poverty Alleviatio­n and Social Safety to the Prime Minister of Pakistan with the status of a federal minister.

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