COMMENTARY: Revolution on the cards

Bina Shah in Islamabad/Dawn

Islamabad (Dawn/ANN) - In Pakistan these days it's become the norm to bash both the government, no matter who is in power, and international development institutions for corruption and inefficiency.

But the success of the Benazir (Bhutto) Income Support Programme (BISP), designed by the World Bank and implemented by the current Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP)-led government, proves critics wrong - at least in this case.

The scheme began in 2008, modelled on two programmes in other countries: the Bolas Familia programme in Brazil and the Opportunidades programme in Mexico.

A monthly cash transfer of 1,000 rupees (US$10) per month is made through either the post office or an electronic debit card to a woman from some of the poorest households in Pakistan - families to whom the amount can make the vital difference between food security and starvation. These six million households receiving the income support translates to 36 million people in the poorest fifth of the entire population.

Using a "poverty scorecard" developed by the World Bank, the BISP surveyed 27 million households to determine who most needed the help. They measured household conditions - where was the house located, did it have running water, what was its monthly income? - and entered the data into a nationalised database.

The scorecard was then cross-checked against an initial list of beneficiaries as identified by local Members of the National Assembly and Members of Provincial Assembly, and 1.5 million women who didn't meet the requirements were withdrawn from the scheme.

The poverty scorecard itself is an innovation in the area of cash assistance in Pakistan. It's the main tool that will help target the delivery of social protection - cash transfers and other assistance - and health and other financial services using the debit card.

Acclaimed Pakistani novelist Maniza Naqvi, who helped to develop and establish the programme, says: "The BISP Poverty Scorecard is being used by all of the provincial governments [for example in Punjab] for not only BISP but for their own programmes as well. And NGOs are also using the poverty scorecard."

At first the government distributed the money through the Pakistan Post Office, the only system viable and available at the time the programme was implemented. Surprisingly, there was remarkably little abuse of the system thanks to the targeting and safeguards implemented into the scheme with the use of the poverty scorecard.

Plans are now under way to shift from using the post system to making transfers by electronic debit card or smart card into a bank account held by the women (transfers by cellphone had also been considered); the electronic debit card is biometric, tied to the owner's thumbprint so that nobody but the legal holder of the card can use it.

So far 800,000 hold this biometric debit card and by the end of 2012, this number will go up to four million women.

The card itself is a simple piece of plastic, but the biometrics behind it, along with frequent monitoring and spot checks by private auditing and consulting firms supervised by the World Bank have gone a long way in eliminating the problems a cash transfer scheme usually faces in a country like Pakistan: misappropriation of funds, favouritism in doling out the cash, politicians taking advantage of the money in order to gain votes in elections.

But the real revolution that's taken place lies in the other condition to receiving the money: each woman must have her own Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) before she can receive the cash through the post office or the electronic debit card.

According to Naqvi approximately 100,000 women were receiving a CNIC every week during the preparation phase of the programme in 2009. But what's so revolutionary about holding a CNIC? It's a piece of plastic that sits in our wallets, stating our identity and our address, to be taken out when we need to 'prove our identity' as it so whimsically states on the gates to military installations and other sensitive areas.

But there's more to it than that. "As you know," says Naqvi, "an ID card allows women to legally own land, have a bank account, take a loan, get a passport, become a part of the formal national economy and so much more. It allows a woman to vote."

The BISP still has a long way to go in the eyes of its critics, though. Researcher Syed Mohammed Ali notes that the poverty scorecard is not a foolproof tool: people in the survey can lie about their conditions to procure benefits, and elected representatives and other political figures may still attempt to politicise the process of selecting beneficiaries in order to manipulate voting in the next election.

Other critics believe that the very idea of providing income assistance to the poor without requiring those families to fulfil conditions such as sending their children to school or participating in health and nutrition seminars is less effective than cash assistance programmes - in Latin America for example - which include conditionality in their structure.

Yet in a country where women have been so badly marginalised by the patriarchal mindset that pervades the power structure, the financial system and our society and culture, the BISP represents a sea change, where women are not only being included, but given the responsibility and the role of decision-maker as to how this money will be spent in their households.

And it's not the women from the upper classes, who have traditionally enjoyed more social, cultural and financial freedom, but the poorest of the poor, who are being given the tools of emancipation in the form of those two very small pieces of plastic.

Somehow, I think Benazir Bhutto herself would be proud to see the women's revolution that's taking place in Pakistan today under her name.

The writer is the author of Slum Child.