ISLAMABAD - Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) is being implemented through an autonomous board comprising non-partisan experts on social protection, BISP Chairperson Farzana Raja said on Wednesday.

She was addressing an audience on social researchers, economists and development professionals at a dialogue on Social Protection in Pakistan: Design, Institutional and Financial Challenges arranged by the Institute for Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS).

Raja dispelled the impression that the government was using BISP for gaining political mileage. She said political resolve was required for the success of the programme as policy making was the domain of the people’s representatives, the administration of BISP conformed to high standards of professionalism. She said under the BISP Waseela Taleem component, around 3 million of the 9 million out of school children will be enrolled in schools in the next four years. She added successful enrolment of all the out of school children was a mamooth task and would take some time.

Shahid Kardar, former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, linked BISP’s effectiveness in reducing poverty and promoting social protection of vulnerable population to a partnership between the federal and the provincial governments. He said political obstacles to striking such a partnership could be removed if ownership of programs like BISP was also shared by the federal and provincial governments.

Kardar also objected to the bypassing of the existing institutional structures in the federation and provinces. He said the federal Planning Commission, with representation from the BISP management and the provincial planning and development departments, should lead the social protection policy and let the provinces customize the programs according to their needs.

Adding to Kardar’s perspective, Dr Ijaz Nabi, member of the BISP board, said direct cash transfers to the poor under the BISP were helping them cope with issues such as crop failure, illness, food price hike, illness and seasonal unemployment for agricultural workers. However, he said, the ability of such cash transfers to help the poor avoid such situations was still uncertain.

Lead economist, the World Bank Mr. Cem Mede presented on the advantages of mixing conditional with unconditional cash transfers, and added that such a formulation would allow households to spend on basic necessities like food and debt-servicing, as well as on important social services like education. Building on the same theme, Dr. Ali Cheema, senior researcher at IDEAS and CERP, presented results from an evaluation of a government-run skills-transfer program in south Punjab, and pointed to historical mismatches between supply and demand of skills training being offered. One such mismatch is the urban bias in skills training programs, and the fact that they have minimum education requirements. Another one is that most existing programs have no provision for currently employed individuals, which would allow them to upgrade their current skill set.

Joining through videoconference, London School of Economics’ professor Dr Mairteesh Ghatak cited the case of West Bengal, and talked about the improvement in agriculture efficiency due to the implementation of land reform, and transferring land to poor and vulnerable households. An important debate during the conference was on the utility of asset transfer programs versus cash transfer programs, and evidence was presented in favor of the former by Dr. Imran Rasul of the University College London.

Finally, Dr. Anjum Nasim, from IDEAS, and Dr. Asad Sayeed, from the Collective of Social Science Research, concluded by talking about the fiscal impact of social protection, and the need to link poverty alleviation interventions with the overall economic paradigm of the country. Dr. Sayeed specifically talked about the impact of untargeted subsidies given to fuel, food, and energy, while Dr. Nasim mentioned a need to enhance spending on social protection, and a need to obtain consensus between all political stakeholders.