Hilal For Her

Interview — Dr. Sania Nishtar

Chairperson, BISP and Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Council shares her strategies and future plans regarding poverty alleviation and economic uplift of Pakistani women 
Poverty alleviation on long-term basis is our top priority. BISP aims at supporting the deserving poorest of the poor through financial assistance that encourages productive use of money. 



Women constitute almost half of the population of Pakistan and if a majority of them are not engaged in economic activity then this means that a big chunk of the human capital remains untapped. Therefore, it is very important that this situation is dealt with in order to alleviate poverty and bring about prosperity. This will not only benefit women and their families but will contribute towards the greater goal of progress and development.
Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) is an important organization that aims at poverty alleviation, by helping the women of poorest segments of society and working to engage them in economic activity.
Hilal for Her decided to converse with BISP Chairperson, Dr. Sania Nishtar, to find out how BISP is helping in poverty alleviation and her long-term goals as the current Chairperson for building systems for change and working towards improving the economic conditions of the most destitute.
Dr. Nishtar also chairs the recently constituted Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Coordination Council and the United Nations International Institute for Global Health’s Advisory Committee (UNU-IIGH). She is the founding chairperson of the UN Secretary General’s Independent Accountability Panel (IAP). Her diversity of experience is unique — ranging from leadership of civil society, multilateral institutions and government, and background in medicine, governance and research. Throughout her career, she has been a staunch advocate for accountability, transparency and good governance.
What are the economic challenges faced by the Pakistani women, based on statistical data by age, remuneration, financial status and how many are below the poverty line?
Pakistan is a very diverse nation and women comprise 48.76% of the total population, according to 2017 census. Although there are no systemic constraints for Pakistani women in the society or in economic life and thus it is way ahead of many other nations, however, their role in the economy — which is largely in the informal sector — is underreported. 72% of working women are involved in agricultural activities as unpaid labor. Such work is mostly perceived as an extension of their domestic duties, as in the case of livestock rearing and agriculture. In urban setting, women form the bulk of domestic workers. Domestic service is an unregulated, unorganized, undervalued and highly exploitative form of employment. One of the things that we would like to do in the poverty council is to make sure that this segment of women is recognized and they come under the umbrella of labor laws and have social security. 



The second trouble area is this whole space of domestic work; the proportion of women as domestic workers is much higher compared to men. Pakistan does not report on such data, where it actually is doing quite well on some of the parameters like seasonal employment during the harvest season.


There is a segment of these women who have the potential to be employed and contribute in the economic sphere. This segment becomes part of a program of graduation, where they graduate out of the state of absolute poverty and become economically productive.


How does BISP help women from the lowest strata to deal with the problems they are facing and how does it identify those who have economic potential to engage in economic activity?
To help women BISP works on two levels. It gives the most destitute a quarterly cash stipend of five thousand rupees. However, there is a segment of these women who have the potential to be employed and contribute in the economic sphere. This segment becomes part of a program of graduation, where they graduate out of the state of absolute poverty and become economically productive.
BISP is currently focusing on two main activities. It helps create a linkage with the private sector entity to find employment, and/or provides them with an asset transfer along with skill building, so that they can exercise economic autonomy by becoming self-employed. In some cases, BISP also provides interest-free loans. Secondly, broadband connectivity needs to be affordable and accessible. Therefore, BISP aims to provide an environment for Pakistani women, where they can be digitally inclusive by providing them with a digital infrastructure to connect easily with the world. At the same time efforts are being made that these women have access to personal bank accounts so they can be more independent in financial matters.
There is a step-by-step mechanism which BISP has adopted. Pakistan has the largest safety net institution, which currently runs a PKR 125 billion income support program for 5.7 million underprivileged women, with an envisaged impact for over 37 million individuals, nationally. BISP conducts a survey on a set of women, who are identified as the pool and then it continues to give them quarterly grounds in terms of cash. In addition to the cash transfers, which act as a social protection mechanism, BISP has adopted several strategies to help women living below the poverty line to overcome their economic constraints. These include assistance to organize BISP Beneficiary Committees at village level. This provides opportunities for training and skill building, and asset transfers to enable them to graduate out of poverty.


Going forward, I envision BISP as a dynamic digital social protection ecosystem for the future. Such an ecosystem would enable the possibility to develop targeted policy interventions, and deliver precise and tested benefits to the poor and vulnerable by employing big data analytics and by tracking real-time information about the evolution of the beneficiary status, to make social protection adaptive. 


BISP has developed a one model of linking women with the industry, which will provide opportunities for them to work in the private sector. This is usually done through sister organizations. 
What were some of the problems that you faced when you first joined BISP and what is your short and long-term vision for BISP and Poverty Alleviation Council?
My first priority is to put organizational governance in order and secondly, initiating processes to plug critical system gaps. BISP has many legacy issues, which successive managements have strived to address. Several gaps have been plugged, but many critical ones remain.
BISP’s payment mechanism needs to be redesigned. There is need to strengthen fiduciary systems, financial management, procurement systems, internal controls, capacity and systems for planning. My priority is to institutionalize risk management and assurance, transparency, and a culture of evidence-based decision-making. I am deeply conscious that those that benefit from the program are voiceless, which is why beneficiary empowerment and respect needs to be high on the list of priorities. In this regard, I will work with the board and management to reform BISP’s system pillars.
Once critical gaps are plugged, the existing safety net system can be expanded, and the adequacy of the benefits can be increased as per government policy, especially with regard to complementary investments for human capital development (conditional cash transfers for nutrition, health, and education) and graduation programs. In addition, demand-side safety net instruments can be introduced for protection against crises and catastrophic shocks — a salient safety net feature. 



Going forward, I envision BISP as a dynamic digital social protection ecosystem for the future. Such an ecosystem would enable the possibility to develop targeted policy interventions, and deliver precise and tested benefits to the poor and vulnerable by employing big data analytics and by tracking real-time information about the evolution of the beneficiary status, to make social protection adaptive. This will enable timely support for income stabilization and protection against catastrophic shocks on one hand, and the creation of economic opportunities to decrease welfare-dependency, through relevant partnerships, on the other. In addition, this will also help Pakistan move closer to delivering on its global commitment to Sustainable Development Goal 1.3, which entails “developing nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all.” A strategic planning process will commence at the forthcoming board meeting, with a view to commencing action in these areas. I look forward to working with all stakeholders to ensure that we deliver on our promise of lifting millions of women and their families out of poverty.
The Poverty Alleviation Council is organized in the country and it requires massive legal changes. The council is recommending the creation of a labor commission, which will look at all the agencies that deal with labor welfare. The poverty alleviation agenda entails legislative changes, new commissions, a constitutional amendment and a number of different policy changes to make the market function smoothly.HH


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