Benazir Income Support Program, Pakistan’s largest social safety - a miracle for the poor and a pride for poverty alleviation strategies. This program is perhaps the most celebrated success story of Pakistan internationally yet the most misunderstood in the political elites of Pakistan and the most important support for the poorest Pakistanis.

Some of the criticisms leveled against BISP by the political elites have been that it is a bribing political cash tool, which makes beggars out of our poorest Pakistanis. Having personally been a vocal opposition Member of Parliament since 2008 this criticism was a familiar narrative of those days. Ever since 2010 this fact changed but due to lack of publicity and due to lack of credibility of the program’s political leadership at the time this narrative did not. It is high time it changed.

From 2008 to 2010 BISP beneficiaries were chosen by politicians and thus the above allegations which we made were partially true. From 2011 to date they were chosen by a survey which was internationally acclaimed and was carried out with the help of World Bank using Proxy Means Test covering 155 mm population, 27 mm households, identifying as eligible based on 16.17 score a women population of 7.7 mm. This survey which created the National Socio Economic Registry of Pakistan puts Pakistan’s development economy in a different league because now all governments have access to the real poor and can make better policy interventions. Thus in 2016 nobody can make a claim like they could have done till 2010 and yet due to lack of knowledge or a negative mindset above change of BISP targeting methodology did not get its due credit domestically. Fortunately for Pakistan it did internationally.

Despite the above survey there is still a belief in certain political circles that the database of BISP is politically motivated and is outdated. The response to such critics can only be technical and hopefully that should be convincing enough. The targeting performance puts Pakistan at number 5 internationally with 48% of BISP beneficiaries being from the poorest quintile while 75% are from the bottom 40%. This is underestimated since this reflects on 2013-14 and would be even better today. Thus this debate needs to be put to an end. And now the question of whether the database of BISP is outdated. Internationally it is normal practice for a database to be revisited every 5 years if it is static. Keeping the normal exclusion and inclusion errors in mind, BISP is ready to go for a resurvey in 2016. Technical work has started in 2015 and by the end of 2016 key pilot will be completed and before 2018 the national roll out of resurvey will be completed. Resurvey’s main features will be that unlike the last one, it will be consensus based, technically superior, Computer versus paper based, dynamic versus static. BISP should hopefully set new records with the new survey and reach the world leadership position based on the extensive learnings especially in 2015.

And now to address the famous allegation of making beggars needs to be addressed upfront also. Is BISP inculcating a dependency syndrome with the cash supplement? In my opposition days I actually believed it did. Now having seen the workings of BISP from the inside I believe it is not for the simple reason an amount as low as the initial last government’s Rs 800 or the present PMLN  government’s Rs 1500 per month cannot be a disincentive to work for an average family of 5/7 people. Moreover, as per third party evaluations and surveys published by BISP in 2015 it is clear that the impact has been massive in terms of giving women a political identify through the compulsory feature of needing CNIC for payment eligibility thus making them eligible for vote. The impact on food consumption has improved also since Rs 318 is the increase on per adult monthly consumption. Impact on women empowerment has been significant since 64% of female beneficiaries claim they retain control over cash transfer. Malnuitrition amongst girls has decreased 3.7%.  Per adult monthly health expenditures have increased  by Rs 50. The list of impacts on SDGs is long also. But its an ongoing contribution the results of which will be revolutionary for the development story of Pakistan.

The other criticism on the program is political. Its name continues to be associated with a leader of PPP and thus its acceptability to the rest of the political parties is questionable. The name was not changed by the PMLN government in respect of Motarma’s shahadat though everyone would have preferred a neutral name which could be associated with any government like the National Income Support Program———- that reflects Prime Minister, Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and current government’s approach towards political tolerance and reconciliation. The fact that PMLN due to the political direction of PM Nawaz Sharif continued with the program, improved its workings, increased its budgets manifold and did not change the name despite the negative political hit to PMLN should be appreciated by all. Infact the reason for this strong commitment is the fact that this key Income Support Initiative was the brainchild of Senator Ishaq Dar from the days when he was Finance Minister in the brief PPP-PMLN coalition of 2008. The belief in such a social safety net being necessary for Pakistan’s poorest has been part of PMLN manifesto’s 4 E policy.

BISP’s major achievement in 2015 include the commencement of work on resurvey but also over achieving of having 5,272,245 women beneficiaries versus target of 5.2 mm. Having tried Pakistan post, smart card, mobile phone banking and Debit cards, BISP has now successfully piloted in 2015 a payment mechanism which is biometric based and linked with CNIC so as to cut on middle men and make payments easier for our illiterate women. In 2016 BISP plans to move this from a pilot to a national roll out including the increase of access points. 2015 has seen the preparatory work for such a large initiative which will make life easier for women who have been subjected to ATM queues and middle men attacks.

Another important achievement of BISP  is the disbursement through electronic payment modes. This means that poorest have been provided an access to the banking system. The researches show that financial inclusion is a strategy that positively contributes towards reducing poverty and BISP took a right step in this direction years before other social protection programs in the world realized the same.

The other major confusion related to BISP is where is the Rs 102 b funding from BISP coming from. 90% is from federal government own resources and 10% is donor funded. We are grateful for the funding from WB, UK DFID and ADB in previous years which has been critical from a technical point of view in institutionalizing BISP products and processes. We look forward to future partnersips with other donors as well in 2016 as well as philanthropic organizations and Corporates from their CSR programs considering the high rating of philanthropy in Pakistan. Its time that this philanthropy is well targeted to the real poor using BISP database which we offer to this great community.

Whilst the list of achievements for 2015 is long, the Waseele Taleem  program which gives conditional cash transfer incentive of Rs 250 per child per month for 5-12 year children achieved an enrollment of 1,010,499. This makes BISP a serious player in the field of education in entire Pakistan  and can be seen as federal government assistance to all provinces despite devolution.

In addition to this BISP has launched graduation out of poverty initiatives which include having 25,000 women access PM Interest Free loans so that they can move out of poverty. Moreover, provinces have accessed BISP databases to give additional cash grants in times of emergencies or simply for disabled population. Federal government is using BISP database for the PM National Health Insurance Scheme as well.

BISP has launched major women empowerment initiatives by using its BISP beneficiary committees and communication strategy to introduce concepts like rights of women when faced with violence, polio and immunization drive necessity, early marriage issues, breast feeding necessity etc.

As per the directions of PM Nawaz Sharif and Finance Minister Senator Ishaq Dar the vision of BISP will remain giving dignity, empowerment and meaning to life to the poorest women and their families. It is a challenge which will take Pakistan out of the developing world and fast track its entry into the developed world. Our team of over 2500 employees spread all over Pakistan in 450 offices, with an independent board and a forward looking management at BISP are proud to be humble contributors to this larger objective.

n The author is a Member of National Assembly and Chairperson BISP.