In his speech announcing Pakistan’s budget for the fiscal year 2016-17, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar declared the allocation of Rs.115 billion to Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). Through this programme, billions of rupees are distributed among beneficiary women every year with the one objective in mind: to eradicate extreme and chronic poverty from the country. However, unfortunately for the Pakistani poor, BISP will not be able to achieve its chief objective due to its many intrinsic drawbacks.

In 2008, BISP had initiated a cash grant project to provide poor women with financial assistance on a monthly basis, with the objective of alleviating poverty and empowering women who belonged to the socially and economically marginalized sections of Pakistan. The cash awards were increased in this budget announcement from the initial Rs.10000 per woman per month to Rs.47000 per woman per quarter. Through this programme, 5.29 million families across the country are currently being provided with financial assistance. However, despondently, the assistance has failed to get rid of poverty; instead, it has succeeded in giving the poor a sense of complacency and dependence upon it.

Recently, the BISP introduced a step to digitize the dispersion of their funds to 94% of the beneficiaries, by attempting to help them acquire their funds via ATM machines. However, instead of being helpful, the technology has proven to be the source of corruption and the main obstacle in the path of distributing the funds transparently to beneficiary women. It is an undeniable fact that most of the beneficiaries are illiterate, unsophisticated and completely unable to use ATM machines to withdraw their funds. Taking advantage of this situation, bank agents have established a large network of shops that charge Rs.500 from every beneficiary to withdraw their funds through biometric machines which are provided to them by banks.

Furthermore, the agents in Shikarpur, Larkana, Sukkur and other districts of interior Sindh, charge Rs.1500 on every quarterly installment of Rs.47000 from beneficiaries who have lost the pin codes of their ATM cards. They fleece millions of rupees on every quarterly installment, which has turned into a lucrative business for them. The situation calls for the introduction of a transparent process of funds transferring and for a revamping of the existing methodology of distributing the cash grants to the beneficiaries, in order to ensure the transfer of the amount of grants completely, without any deductions.

Annually, indigenous universities — both private and public — generate thousands of graduate and postgraduate female students in various fields, who hail from the underprivileged sections of the society. After receiving degrees from their universities, the students, most of them from lower middle class, not being permitted by their parents or husbands to go to the bigger metropolitan cities to look for jobs, find no employment opportunities in their districts and towns. And, unfortunately, no factories, industries, professional and technical institutes, and tailoring and embroidery centers have been established in the bucolic regions of the country especially in Sindh and Balochistan. The only industry in these areas is the education sector, both public and private, which is not capable of catering to a large force of unemployed females. As a result, we have a colossal number of educated yet unemployed females in the backward regions of the country.

The goal of poverty alleviation – the target of BISP – can be achieved using the talent and potential of these unemployed educated females.  Reviving the "Wasila-e-Rozgar" programme, the BISP, introducing capacity building initiatives, can play a vital role in the empowerment of poor and underprivileged women by providing them professional and technical trainings, in order to generate entrepreneurship skills. After they complete their training, they can be given interest free loans under Prime Minister’s Interest Free Loan (PMFIL) scheme to establish small and medium enterprises (SMEs)—factories, industries, tailoring and embroidery centers — which play a very important role in the empowerment of women in underprivileged and undeveloped regions of the country. 

After a hiatus of 6 years, the BISP has decided to initiate the pilot phase of its new poverty survey, to be conducted in 15 districts using the most advanced mechanisms and procedures selected randomly from AJK, Gilgit-Baltistan and FATA provinces, in order to obtain the most reliable and accurate information. Yet even in this survey no modus operandi has been devised to sift out the bogus beneficiaries who had been included in the lists of the Benazir Income Support Programme in the previous survey, and who have illegally been profiting from this programme.

In 2010, in Sindh, the contract of conducting a poverty survey was awarded to Sindh Rural Support Organization (SRSO) who had employed data collectors, on a temporary basis, who did not receive the capacity building training properly to collect accurate and transparent data. Secondly, the questionnaire used in the study was so complicated and problematic that even data collectors were incapable of comprehending it. The incompetence of the data collectors and intricacies in the questionnaire collectively resulted in the enlisting of fake beneficiaries and depriving most of the deserving women of inclusion into the programme.    

Moreover, most of the deserving women living in the villages which were made no-go-areas due to prolonged tribal clashes, were not registered to the programme in Shikarpur, Jacobabad and Kandh-Kot districts of interior Sindh.

This time, one of the main steps that needs to be taken is to ensure that no deserving woman is deprived of the right to be registered to the programme to avail financial assistance.

To make the poor economically self-sufficient through demand-driven vocational trainings, the BISP, some years ago, had launched a project to equip beneficiaries with technical knowledge in 52 various programmes through numerous vocational and technical institutions. It was two years ago that more than 100 youth from Shikarpur, including some of my own relatives, received training for repairing mobile phones in Islamabad. A large number of other youth from the city also received training in various fields at institutions in Shikarpur, Sukkur and Karachi, to acquire proficiency in technical and professional fields so that they would be able to generate some income to support their families, by setting up their own outlets or working at factories, industries and workshops. But, unfortunately, the trainings have brought no change to their socio- economic status. The reason behind their failure? Lack of financial support and help by the government, due to which they are still unemployed despite being trained.

The BISP needs to improve its performance, addressing essential drawbacks and irregularities within it, in order to make the programme transparent and restore the confidence of international donor agencies so that they will feel confident in injecting the country with funds which are necessary to initiate new projects and revive old ones.