Help the poor to help themselves

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We live in a country with strange people governing us. Those who let hundreds of us die in targetted attacks by unmanned aircraft without any qualms and yet give out billions of rupees in a cash transfer scheme to help the poorest of us to live and survive. We are living in strange times where the entire infrastructure, upon which social development rests, has collapsed and yet we dole out cash in billions to manage poverty. The forty or so thousand families, receiving cash through Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), would hardly be having any access to schools, health care centres, electricity, safe water, roads, or maybe a dignified life. The programme is on board for the last two and a half years, Rs93 billion has so far been allocated to it, of which Rs88 billion have been spent for the needy people. The new fiscal year brings along a reservation of Rs50 billion for the program. This shows as if our rulers consider us to be some hungry beasts with the belief to “put some food in their mouths or pull the trigger if need be so.”
The Benazir Income Support Programme has been initiated to provide a safety net to poverty stricken people of Pakistan. The idea was to provide relief to people, almost broken by the pressures of inflation and international economic crises. A social scientist, who has been involved in the development of BISP told Profit on the condition of anonymity, that, “I never found any good reason behind the creation of this new programme when two of its kind, Zakat and Bait-ul-maal were already in place. Instead of revamping and improving upon systems already functioning, the creation of the new scheme smacks of political patronage to hedge the PPP vote bank. For this scheme to be different and productive it should have been stringed to human development, which calls for Conditional Cash Transfer Schemes, so that some gains could be made on the investment. Simply putting money in hands of the poor could have adverse effects such as making them alienated, dependent or maybe corrupt.”
Latin America-an inspiration for many
Conditional Cash Transfer Schemes have been on board for a couple of years with resounding success. Since the 1990s, Latin American economies have been able to lift their people off the poverty syndrome by giving them cash, with a belief that the money would relieve them of monetary pressures and provide them strength and space to think and plan for the future. CCT has been introduced in the wake of growing insensitivity of financially wrecked people towards social imperatives such as education and health. It has been observed that during deep financial crises academic pursuits or health issues become less relevant, something to be put to rest, perhaps for good. The economic ramifications of this attitude in terms of unskilled, uneducated and morally corrupt human resource were scary enough to shake governments out of slumbers of self delusion. With an attempt to ensure a goal-oriented approach in people and giving them a realisation that life is not all about living but living meaningfully, an idea was generated wherein cash payment was tied to socially responsible behaviour such as attendance of children at schools and/or attendance at health clinics, participation in immunisation campaigns and more of the likes. The result of such schemes has been marvellous. Probably the biggest and best known of all cash transfer schemes in the developing world, is the Bolsa Familia in Brazil. Since 2003, 12 million families have benefitted from the scheme and have received small amounts of money (around $12 a month). Inequality has been reduced by 17 per cent in just a period of five years, which is perhaps one of the most dramatic achievements in welfare ever recorded. The poverty rate in Brazil has fallen from 42.7 per cent to 28.8 per cent.
Scarcity of resources and their efficient use has been the subject of economics ever since the adoption of this discipline to streamline financial aspects of our lives. However, in spite of all amounts of conceptual, theoretical and practical development, the case of efficient use of scarce resources has remained a gnawing issue, inflicting a large portion of the world adversely, with the result of them remaining impoverished or strictly speaking poor and poorer on the world map. There have always been, and will always be, people on this planet who would fall short in acquiring even the bare minimum of riches to sustain their lives. Hunger, deprivation, and diminished hope would always be the central theme of their lives. It is probably due to this consistent phenomenon that every organised religion has encouraged philanthropy and has developed a system of alms-giving to make up for the losses some people incur not by their own choice but perhaps by the diktat of fate. Talking about Islam, the system of Zakat (the compulsory giving of alms according to a certain percentage) and the idea of Sadaqat (the act of voluntary alms giving without any limit) have been created to provide a safety net to people who fall in the abeyance of ignorance due to lack of sustainable resources. The conditional Cash Transfer Scheme aims to do the same with the difference of being tied to social development. This scheme has been built up by developing countries to help their poor people in cash but not in kind. More than twenty countries have taken up this scheme including Chile, Mexico, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey and Morocco. More recently, New York City announced its “Opportunity NYC” conditional transfer of income program, modelled on Bolsa Família and its Mexican equivalent.
Why cash and not kind?
This is because it provides greater power to households in the sense that they could buy things they deem important for themselves. Most of these Cash Transfer Schemes are targetted towards women as it is believed that they spend a major portion of their money on education, health and nutritional requirements of their children. Lately, a study conducted in India has revealed that weak financial position of Indian women has been the reason behind the country having the largest number of malnourished children in the world. The economic gurus of India are thinking of incentivising women to take care of their children’s academic and health needs, offering a cash reward in return.
It is high time that the Benazir Income Support Programme is redesigned on the lines of Bolsa Familia, making cash transfer conditional to social and economic benefits for recipients. Coming to think of countries using these schemes successfully, their economic indicators are astounding. Mexico is standing at 5 per cent economic growth in terms of GDP, Chile at 6 per cent, Indonesia 7 per cent, South Africa 4.8 per cent, Turkey 4.5 per cent, Morocco 4.6 per cent and Brazil at 5.5 per cent. All of these nations have been working seriously in providing basic necessities to their people. We all know that Brazil and South Africa are counted among the fastest five developing countries of the world. Can we forget the Chilean government’s concern towards the lives and safety of its citizens, when it managed to rescue thirty three miners trapped in a coal mine after two months? Chilean President Sebastian Pinero refused to leave the spot unless the last person was out of the mine. Where do we stand as a nation? The month of May in the year 2011 will be remembered as the goriest part of our national life, when every inch of our sovereignty and political will came to a grinding halt. There is no gainsaying the fact that cash enrichment has no parallel but the aim of a government is not to feed mouths alone but to ensure a healthy, stable and nurturing generation for future sustainability.
One out of every ten, out of school child lives in Pakistan, not because of financial constraints but due to the absence of any structured academic system in rural areas. It is not so much about paucity of funds at the parents’ disposal that has played truant on the fate of Pakistani children as it is about the decades of cronyism and mismanagement that has left Pakistan on the verge of an education crisis. At least 26 poorer countries send more children to school than Pakistan does. The situation with the health sector is similar. We have not been able to curtail the menace of polio so far. Child mortality in Pakistan is a major cause of concern, with every one among ten children dying before reaching the age of five and one among 30, just after they are born.
Senior Economic Analyst Dr. Qais Asalm believes that Benazir Income Support Program or for that matter any program of its kind would not generate any positive result unless we build and reform our institutions. Pakistan is thick with philanthropists yet the ratio of unemployed people and beggars is climbing high, all because the money is not spent within a structural framework. We are not helping poor to help themselves. The moral of the story is that, it is not only THE MONEY that would make the difference; it is institutional building that would eventually solve the governance crisis that breeds poverty in Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore and can be reached at [email protected]