The risk of covariate shocks is particularly high in Pakistan, as the country is prone to natural hazards – including floods, cyclones, droughts, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches and tsunamis as well as armed conflict and civil unrest that cause loss of life, damage to infrastructure and massive displacement. On average, approximately 3 million people in Pakistan (1.6% of the population) are affected by natural catastrophes each year, with damages and losses estimated to have exceeded $18 billion over the past decade. Exposure and vulnerability to hazards varies by

Province/district and is exacerbated by population growth, rapid urbanization, environmental degradation and shifting climatic patterns. With a poverty rate of 30%, socio-economic status is considered the biggest single determinant of vulnerability to disaster risk.

The Pakistan government has a rich history of delivering cash transfers for emergency relief and recovery since the earthquake of 2005 which provided a ‘wake-up call’ on the need for effective disaster-response systems. Most experiences to date have not been conceptualized as part of the social protection system, but rather as standalone emergency interventions or through Disaster Risk Management (DRM) structures. Such experiences were consolidated after the floods of 2010 through the Citizen’s Damage Compensation Programme (CDCP) which provided immediate relief and early recovery assistance to over 1 million families. In the context of devolution, the provincial government of Punjab has developed its own cash-based flood response programme – the Khadim-e-Punjab Imdadi Package – operated through the DRM system as the most important rehabilitation intervention and source of cash transfers for disaster-affected populations in the province. Cash transfer programmes elsewhere have responded to displacement due to operation against militancy (such as support in 2016-17 to over 330,000 Temporarily Displaced People in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas) through World Bank assisted TDPs and Rehabilitation Project. NGOs and humanitarian agencies have contributed significantly to national relief and rehabilitation efforts through the implementation of emergency cash transfers.

The role of social protection in disaster response has not been clearly articulated. Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) is the main national social safety net programme of Pakistan established in 2008 under an act of Parliament currently extending benefits to more than 5.6 million families with a quarterly assistance of Rs. 4834/-. Recently a conference on the role of Social Protection in shock responsiveness was held in Peru where all Latin American countries were invited to discuss the future role of social protection programs in the shock responsiveness where I had the chance to attend to represent Pakistan, the only country invited from Asia.

It has been learnt from the conference that keeping in view the established systems i.e. National Socio Economic Registry of more than 155 million populations with household GPS reading and effective payment mechanisms to transfer funds, BISP considered its key role in transferring assistance to affected population in the major disasters. BISP had transferred funds to affected population by the disasters in the past but it was only limited to its beneficiaries. A platform for moving forward on shock-responsive social protection could be established by leveraging BISP either as a programme or through its underlying systems – in particular the NSER database, its close connections with NADRA, and its diversified payment system to respond to shocks. The first option, working through BISP as a programme, could be to ‘top up’ transfers to existing beneficiaries (‘vertical expansion’) so that they could receive additional financial support after a disaster. The rationale is premised on the understanding that BISP’s target group (a subset of the poor identified through a proxy means test with a cut-off score) are some of the least resilient in a disaster and likely to be in need of this additional support. Vertical expansion would leverage BISP’s systems, all of which function well (though there has not been an assessment of the resilience of BISP systems in times of crisis, which would be a critical aspect to ensure in advance in relation to all of the options. If this can be established, and if vertical expansion to BISP beneficiaries were used in times of crisis, this would remove the need to establish parallel processes for targeting, enrolment or delivery of cash to these beneficiaries.

The second option of enrolling additional households into BISP temporarily at times of disaster (‘horizontal expansion’) could also be considered, drawing from the set of households who are registered on the NSER but do not receive a transfer because they are above the poverty score cut-off for admission into BISP. This could address the issue of population coverage while still taking advantage of existing systems. The NSER’s high national coverage (higher than most other social registries worldwide and currently being updated and expanded) and its linkages to the ‘CNIC’ national ID database provide a strong platform for implementing such an approach. National coverage of BISP and its large existing caseload of some of the poorest households in the country could facilitate a measured response to disasters. An updated NSER could be utilised for rapid identification of caseload; this can be through the potential inclusion of household GPS coordinates and indicators of climatic and livelihood vulnerability in the updated NSER. It has been learnt that many Latin American Countries are handling the assistance through their established social protection systems instead of establishing new programs which is not only delaying the process of disbursement of assistance but also caused lot of additional administrative cost on national exchequer.

It is pertinent to highlight here that effective coordination amongst relevant stakeholders i.e. BISP, NADRA, NDMA, PDMA, NGOs, ERRA and financial service providers is a key to handle the disaster situation in an efficient manner. Role of each stakeholder should be defined to handle the shocks in a systematic way to avoid duplication of efforts. I feel it is the high time that all stakeholders should sit together for preparation of joint implementation plan identifying roles and responsibilities of each stakeholder for handling the shocks and disasters effectively and BISP is ready to take lead as country’s main social protection programme for inviting all the stakeholders at one place. BISP is planning to hold national conference on shock responsiveness where all Federal and Provincial stakeholders involved in the relief work at the time of disaster will be invited to prepare a joint plan on shock responsiveness.