Governments have a strange way of behaving. Sometimes it takes a long time for them to do something that seems logical and desirable to a lot of people inside as well as outside of government, while at others they move at tremendous speed, perhaps too quickly, to do the same thing. The debates and arguments around social protection have had this character. For the past many years, analysts, of a variety of ideological ilk, had been arguing for introduction of comprehensive social protection programmes to:a)-ensure that all poor people had access to a bare minimum of resources, b)-all vulnerable groups could be provided with assurances that they would be taken care of in case of a shock, and c) all people had access to resources that would allow optimal investments in asset creation: human, through access to education and health, and physical, through access to credit and insurance markets. But all of these arguments had been falling on deaf ears. The last government, despite all its talk of reform, growth and responsiveness to people, had flatly refused to take on the issue of social protection seriously. They had allowed some analytical work to go on in the area, but that work was then consistently ignored, recommendations were listened to half heartedly only and most of the time the increased allocations for social protection, if there were any, were paltry and mainly for window dressing and keeping critics at bay. So, where Pakistan's Bait ul Maal's allocations did go up by a little, they were hardly ever more than Rs. 6 billion odd, when most analysts were saying that we needed a minimum of Rs. 20 odd billion to target just the poorest of the poor, and a lot more if we wanted to reach most of the poor in any meaningful sense. Even more importantly, the analysts had argued that we needed to build systems that would allow us to provide social protection. We needed targeting mechanisms that could identify the poor in a reliable, transparent and credible manner, we needed mechanisms to reach these poor, and we needed independent monitoring and evaluation systems to validate our systems so that we could establish trust in these institutions: we needed to get away from the perception, that was there and still might be there about most social protection programmes including Zakat and Bait ul Maal, that these were poorly targeted, had issues of corruption, nepotism as well as inefficiency. But given the lack of interest of the government of the time, this was never attempted with any seriousness. This was interesting also since the government of the time used to insist that they were a democratic government that was working for the benefit of the people, was responsible and accountable to the people and was looking for their support and votes. Even when the much talked about growth phase was over and there was increasing realization, even in government circles, that there was need to look after the poor and the vulnerable, the government chose to ignore the needs and also overlooked to work on the needed institutional framework. Most interestingly, the government of the time knew that it would be going to the electorate towards the end of 2007 and / or beginning of 2008, it still showed its utter disregard for people-centric approach in their policies. It was, in every sense, heartening to see the results of the election, from this perspective alone if nothing else. And how quickly has the debate changed. All incoming parties promised significant increases in social sector and social protection expenditure in their manifestos, and within six months of the last government having moved out, from Rs. 10 billion-odd of cash transfer programmes (Bait ul Maal and Zakat), we have a situation where not only is the government spending that amount, new programmes of some Rs. 60 billion-odd or more have been added to the ambit of social protection. Rs. 34 billion have been earmarked by the federal government for the Benazir Income Support Programme, Rs. 22 billion have been pledged by Punjab government for their food support programme, Sindh government is already working on a land for the poor and landless programme, and the NWFP government, one hears, is also toying with the idea of an income support programme for some of the poorest districts in the province. This is in addition to the wheat subsidy, a non-targeted one, which the provinces are offering right now. So from Rs. 10 billion, we are moving to Rs. 60 billion of additional funds in the area. And there was a time when we could not get the government to spend an additional Rs. 15 billion. Furthermore, the current governments, provincial and federal, are doing this in times of fiscal crisis while the last government was not willing to do this in good times even when there were plenty of funds around. What has changed in six months? Was it just the fact that the economic condition deteriorated very quickly and that triggered this change. The change surely contributed something to the urgency with which the new governments have moved, but surely that is not the full story. There is, it seems, a lot that is coming from the fact that these governments feel more accountable to the people and want to ensure good performance so that they can be re-elected in future. From that perspective, it is not bad that we have different parties in power in different provinces: it might help in keeping them on their toes. Whatever the reason, we are in a very different world today and social protection, finally, is now a serious and high priority item on the policy agenda. What is problematic, of course, is that since we did not use the time in the last few years to develop credible and viable delivery mechanisms for social protection interventions, and now when the governments across Pakistan have had to roll out large programmes in a hurry, we will be using pretty inaccurate mechanisms for delivery. Punjab has been forced to use a general non-targeted wheat subsidy, for all, to reach the poor. But this is expensive and possibly non-sustainable. Had the previous government taken the trouble to develop systems at least, we could potentially have lower leakage now and could have benefited more poor or each targeted person in a more substantial way. Benazir Card, the food programme in the Punjab, the land programme in Sindh and similar programmes from NWFP will now have to live with the fact that despite their best efforts there is going to be a certain percentage of leakage in the programmes that they are going to offer: some non-poor will get benefits and some of the deserving will not be caught in the net. Of course, the government needs to ensure that the leakage is minimum possible, but the need to provide relief urgently probably requires that the government roll out the programmes and not wait for perfect vehicles to be erected before that. But, over time, the government has to work on better delivery mechanisms: ones that have better targeting, fewer leakages, and the ability to monitor and evaluate more rigorously. The credibility of the programmes, and of course the governments also, will depend on this. And this is especially important now since the programmes are going to be much larger as well. There are synergies in developing nationwide targeting and delivery mechanisms, and significant economies of scale in doing so as well. One hopes that the provincial governments and the federal government will be able to see the logic of this and cooperate with each other in developing this nationwide system. A social protection system is badly needed in Pakistan. And it has to be a comprehensive one. The economic situation of the country makes the need even more keenly felt. It is an area that was badly neglected by the last government, and not only did they not start any new initiatives worth writing about, they did not even invest in creating institutions that would allow the government to deliver social protection credibly and in a well targeted manner: they were really not interested. But the game has changed now for the better, and in a big way. The current governments are planning to move serious money through social protection programmes. But our institutions and systems are weak. One hopes that the government will give the needed attention to developing the institutions as well. But this will have to be done while programmes are being delivered through arrangements that are not perfect. E-mail: faisal@nation.com.pk