By Asad Ahmed
The fact that 57 per cent of Balochistan lived on less than Rs3,000 per person per month in 2014 may raise a few eyebrows, but is unlikely to fly in the face of what informed citizens generally know. What will be less widely known is that Balochistan is the only province where this rate increased between 2010 and 2014, and that it stands at nearly twice the rapidly falling, national rate of under 30pc. (World Bank estimate using newly developed 2014 poverty line, back-casted, and inflation adjusted for prior years)
The good news for Pakistan’s poor is, of course, the Benazir Income Support Program. Dispensing over a billion dollars a year across the country, helping deserving families fight the poverty trap, BISP remains a splendid idea that needs to be expanded manifold to bring our social protection expenditure in line with our economic peers. Despite recent noises to the contrary, this is a view that rightly enjoys broad consensus amongst serious economists. This, of course, doesn’t mean there is no bad news. The bad news for Balochistan is this: the state’s premier social protection programme is systematically biased against what is by far the poorest province in the country. Demonstrating this bias is simple. The way BISP works is that deserving families selected via a nation-wide poverty census (last completed in 2011) receive Rs4,700 a quarter, paid to the woman of the house. Sounds fair. Until one starts examining the provincial numbers.
Based on the latest census, and BISP’s latest data, 16pc of Pakistani households received unconditional transfers from BISP. For Punjab, with the lowest poverty level, the coverage level is, unsurprisingly, the lowest of the provinces, at 12pc. One would expect that the percentage of Balochistan’s population covered by BISP would be the highest.
In fact, only around 13pc of households in Balochistan were beneficiaries. Thus, bizarrely, a resident of Balochistan, while more than twice as likely to be poverty stricken as a resident of Punjab, has a roughly equal likelihood of being a BISP recipient. Every other area (including Fata and Gilgit-Baltistan) has substantially higher coverage. To the north, 25pc of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s households receive BISP transfers, and to the east, far richer Sindh, with far smaller household sizes, is 22pc covered.
So, to equal KP’s coverage, BISP’s reach in Balochistan would have to nearly double. This would mean an additional 235,759 of the province’s women getting a stipend. Put another way, nearly a quarter million of Balochistan’s families are being deprived of what should rightfully be theirs. To say that this is unacceptable is to state the obvious.
The renowned economist, Dr. Kaiser Bengali, the first national coordinator of the BISP, in his recent book (A Cry for Justice: Empirical Insights from Balochistan) arrives at a similar conclusion. He notes that it is “disturbing” that Balochistan’s share in total BISP disbursements in 2014/2015 was substantially lower than its population share, whereas one would expect the reverse, based on relative deprivation.
So how did this happen?
Initially, BISP beneficiaries were chosen by legislators, each of whom were given quotas. Because each province has an equal number of senators, Balochistan’s share of the pie was thus far larger than its population share. Unsurprisingly though, leaving the need assessment to parliamentarians proved to be a bad way to target the genuinely poor.
That’s when the federal government adopted the current methodology, based on an ambitious nationwide poverty census concluded in 2011, rating households using a poverty scorecard. While, by most accounts, this has largely resulted in a more equitable selection of recipients within provinces and regions, it has been disastrous for inter-provincial distribution, and has caused the injustice at the heart of the programme today.
Dr Bengali’s work helps explain why. He argues that the main reason for Balochistan’s underrepresentation among recipients is the fact that a larger portion of the populace (compared to other regions) wasn’t even surveyed. This thesis is corroborated by even a cursory data analysis of houses visited as a per cent of estimated population.
Why might this be? Simple answer: roads. Thanks to a terrible road network across the province, Dr Bengali reckons that enumerators for the house-to-house poverty tally (conducted after he had left BISP) essentially ignored thousands of families living in isolated, inaccessible settlements across the vastness of Balochistan. Adding to the gravity of the omission, those left out for this reason were almost certain to be poorer than average. For a social protection programme to overlook people who are so poor and neglected that they are difficult to reach is a special kind of absurd.
Ms Marvi Memon, chairperson of BISP, is on record multiple times over the past few years acknowledging that the poverty census was flawed in Balochistan, and the errors will be corrected in an update. This update is now finally under way, and should be completed this year. Better late than never, surely. But it is critical that the results be compared to other poverty estimates to ensure that there are no such omissions this time.
It is unclear why an obviously unjust distribution continued for more than five years, or why the programme grew substantially over the same period, without addressing such a clear wrong. Why none of the major impact assessments of the programme brought attention to this issue is an important question worth asking. Why the new poverty census didn’t start from Balochistan is another.
BISP is an excellent mechanism to ensure that growth in Pakistan is equitable and inclusive. Indeed, those in power will be judged by such metrics. As far as the poor families in Balochistan missed by the BISP survey are concerned, the jury is still out.
(The writer is a Lahore-based columnist and consultant with a background in finance, strategy, and energy.)