Friday, 20 March 2015

Enumerating success: designing the Benazir Income Support Programme

by Azmat Budhani

Benazir Bhutto, clipboard and pen

Copyright: Dawn archive; Source:

The appointment of the energetic Marvi Memon as Chairperson has signalled a welcome revival of interest in the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) at the highest levels of government.  BISP was partly an upshot of the slogan “Benazir aaygee rozgar laaygee” (Benazir is coming, she will bring employment) in the election manifesto of Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP).  The cash transfer programme was introduced in 2008 when the PPP and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) were in coalition, to help families cope with a sharp hike in food prices.  It later became a flagship social protection programme and was enacted into law with unanimous cross-party support in both houses of parliament.

It was the first programme of its type in Pakistan which directly provided cash (1,000 rupees monthly) to women in poor households. This was innovative enough.  But the BISP also changed things in Pakistan with respect to the design of social programmes.  We at the Collective had ring-side seats to both observe and at times influence programme design and processes, having been part of several studies and evaluations of the programme.

In the beginning, from 2008 to around 2011, the federal government relied on parliamentarians to programme beneficiaries.  Each parliamentarian was given several thousand application forms to distribute to the poor in their constituencies and completed applications were then verified by the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) before a woman was enrolled as a beneficiary.  This came to be known as Phase 1 of the programme.  Problems with this way of doing things were acknowledged from the start.  Besides obvious dangers of political favouritism in beneficiary identification, there were practical issues.  According to Member of National Assembly (MNA) Dr Nafisa Shah: “MNAs have no office set up and staff to locate poor women so we have to rely on our political activists at various levels to reach poor households.  We don’t even have the secretarial facilities necessary to process so many forms.”

In the meanwhile, BISP was already working, with help from the World Bank and other donors, on testing a poverty scorecard (PSC) survey in 12 pilot districts.  This survey was at the base of the new design for the programme.  It could be broken down into several processes including implementation of the survey, data management, beneficiary selection, payment disbursement, enrolment grievances, and payment-related complaints, to name but some.  Each of these processes had further sub-processes.  It was our job, along with our partners in the Process Evaluation, to carry out independent observations of each of these processes and particularly the interaction between programme processes and intended beneficiaries.  Teams of enumerators fanned out across the country with their forms and satchels and others shadowed them around with their clipboards and pens to observe if prescribed processes were being followed.  Many of the recommendations made during the course of the Process Evaluation were eventually incorporated into programme design to improve its access and outreach to intended beneficiaries.  One example was the use of the door-to-door census method to implement the PSC and to add extra steps in the census method to ensure the inclusion of socially marginalized women and their families.

The immediate aim of the PSC was to provide simple data on all households in the country and to compute a poverty score for each surveyed household to determine whether or not its women members could become programme beneficiaries.  Once the lessons from the pilot districts were incorporated the PSC was rolled out to the entire country.  This herculean task was then followed up with the setting up of grievance and complaints systems for dealing with beneficiary problems.  The programme’s online presence helped as it allowed ordinary citizens to check their poverty scores on an official website to know if they were indeed eligible.  The market economy also responded and many local internet cafes across urban and rural areas began to offer a ‘BISP service’.

In the end the national roll-out of the PSC survey reached 27 million households and identified 7.7 million eligible women as beneficiaries, of whom 4.5 million are currently reported to be receiving 4,500 (at 1,500 rupees per month) after each three months.  For some of the poorest women in Pakistan 1,500 rupees is equivalent to ten days’ worth of wages from manual labour, and receiving the cash transfer means that they and their families can eat better for some days.  Another less tangible yet real change is the acceptance in patriarchal societies of women’s direct interaction with government agencies, commercial banks (who are payment agents), and markets (where women beneficiaries often go to spend their cash).

While there is still much to be done to improve the core cash transfer element of the BISP (for example, ensuring that ALL eligible women are enrolled as beneficiaries, making payment modalities more accessible, and updating the programme database), we can confidently talk of successes too.  These, in my mind, were due to a combination of two distinct drivers.  First, programme design was based on state-of-the-art applications of data management systems and technologies which were aimed at ensuring efficiency and transparency.  Second, the programme remained aware of its goal: to smoothly deliver cash to women of the poorest and some of the most marginalized households in the country.

There were often synergies, but at times tensions between these two drivers.  Some of these tensions were made visible, and then addressed, through exercises like the Process Evaluation.  Going forward, such synergies and tensions will remain. This is in the nature of such programmes.  The important thing is for the BISP, and other social protection programmes, to try to remain true to their original goal of reaching out and making a difference to the weakest and the most vulnerable.  These are some of the lessons that the new Chairperson and her team will doubtless consider as they make their own mark on a programme that has delivered much and can deliver more.