|A focus group discussion with BISP beneficiaries in Chatto Chand, Thatta.|
Photo credits: CSSR's field research team
Taking Stock of Ten Years of the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP)
Over ten years since its establishment, the Benazir Income Support Progamme (BISP) has become Pakistan’s largest social safety net, providing coverage to over 5.6 million women and their households across the country. The expansion of BISP over the past decade marks an important shift in social policy in Pakistan. BISP has now been overseen by three elected governments and has resulted in a significant increase in federal fiscal allocations for social protection. Despite vocal reservations about its name expressed by some political parties, the program remains Pakistan’s largest flagship poverty alleviation program with international recognition.
Third party impact evaluations of BISP have largely focused on its poverty alleviation, nutritional and gender empowerment impacts.  These evaluations point to important reductions in poverty and improved nutritional levels for beneficiaries and their households. Oxford Policy Management’s 2016 evaluation finds reductions in BISP households’ reliance on casual labor and an increase in household savings and asset accumulation.
BISP is one of the largest cash transfer programs targeted exclusively at women in the Global South, making the gender impacts of BISP important to understand. In their evaluation, Ambler and De Brauw (2017) find some changes in gender norms and attitudes amongst beneficiaries and their families. Their study finds that female beneficiaries are more likely to have greater mobility to visit friends without their spouse’s permission, are less likely to tolerate domestic violence and male members are more likely to contribute to household work.
BISP and the transition from Cash Transfer Beneficiaries to Citizens
The evaluation reports provide some evidence that BISP has also had a wider set of intended and unintended consequences in influencing beneficiaries’ access to public institutions and spaces. Perhaps the most frequently cited impact of BISP has been a marked increase in rural women’s access to computerized national identity cards (CNICs), a prerequisite for obtaining the program. CNICs can be seen as the first step to citizenship and rights claims in Pakistan. The most significant impact of the rapid increase in CNIC registration amongst BISP beneficiaries has been with regards to voting. Ambler and De Brauw (2017) find evidence that BISP beneficiaries are more likely to vote in national elections. But whether BISP beneficiaries are empowered by the cash transfer to make a wider set of rights claims and access local state services, is less clear.
In order to understand some of the changes brought about by BISP in the lives of rural women, I conducted qualitative field work, including in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with beneficiaries and their spouses, in the district of Thatta in Lower Sindh. Thatta has a high proportion of BISP beneficiaries (47 percent), being a high poverty district. The aim of the fieldwork was to develop an understanding of how beneficiaries and their families perceive of BISP and whether the program has brought about any changes in their engagement with local state services.
Beneficiaries’ Perceptions of BISP and the State
One of the most striking findings of the fieldwork was the gendered differences in the perceptions of BISP between beneficiaries and their male household members. The beneficiaries we interviewed were engaged in limited agricultural or domestic labor. They invariably associated the program most closely with Benazir Bhutto, at times even reporting the funds being directly from her and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Responses amongst adult male household members were more varied, with some attributing the program to the Benazir Bhutto or the PPP, while others answered it was a federal government program. A handful of male respondents interviewed believed the program was funded by donor agencies.
Voting preferences and Clientelism
Despite the fact that many respondents in Thatta identified BISP closely with Benazir Bhutto or the PPP, my research found little overt evidence of the program being used for clientelistic purposes. Beneficiaries and their families reported very low levels of interference of politicians in beneficiary selection. Although a substantial number of households reported grievances about other poor households not obtaining the cash transfer, when asked in follow up questions if political connections could help people enroll in the program, the vast majority of beneficiaries said no. Voting preferences of BISP beneficiaries, over time also reflected deeper affiliations to political parties or specific candidates. For example, BISP beneficiaries’ party preferences in Thatta tended to be split between the PPP and the influential Shirazi family, who sometimes contested elections independently or forged alliances with other larger political parties.
The Politics of Recognition and Access to Public Spaces
The most striking impact of BISP reported by beneficiaries and their households was changes in women’s mobility and access to public spaces. Women in rural settings in Pakistan typically have very circumscribed access to public spaces. While few beneficiaries interviewed reported going to state institutions such as Union Councils, police stations or district courts, the vast majority reported obtaining the BISP transfer directly and keeping a share of the transfer for themselves before sharing it with their spouses and families.
Beneficiaries and the male household members described long ques of hundreds of beneficiaries waiting at authorized branchless banking agents and commercial banks when the transfers are disbursed. Although the vast majority of female beneficiaries interviewed were either illiterate or had only a few years of formal schooling, their responses indicated a growing awareness about the disbursement timings, amounts and arbitrary cuts that local middle men would invariably extract for ‘assisting’ them in obtaining the transfer.
The vast majority of beneficiaries and their spouses reported feelings of dignity and pride in obtaining a BISP cash transfer and being recognized by the state as rights bearing citizens. These preliminary findings suggest a gradual shift in both beneficiaries’ perceptions and access to public spaces and services, even if their wider engagement with the local state remains limited.
 Gazdar, H. (2011). Social Protection in Pakistan: In the Midst of a Paradigm Shift? Special Article. Volume 46 No. 28. Economic and Political Weekly.
 Ambler, K., De Brauw, A. (2017). The impacts of cash transfers on women’s empowerment: learning from Pakistan’s BISP program. Social protection and labor discussion paper; no. 1702. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.
 Cheema, I., Hunt, S., Javeed, S., Lone, T., & O’Leary, S. (2016). Benazir Income Support Programme – Final impact evaluation report: Oxford Policy Management.