Pakistan’s transition to a dynamic social protection registry
The Benazir Income Support Programme has developed a dynamic registration system that not only enables shock-responsive social protection but is also challenging traditional gender norms.
At a busy registration centre in Rawalpindi, a bustling metropolis south of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, Khadija is supervising a long queue of women who have come to register their families’ details at the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) centre. Among her many tasks, she is checking women’s national identity cards and issuing tokens for appointments.
One of Khadija’s responsibilities is to direct the women to the data entry officers who conduct questionnaire-based interviews with the women. Answers to these questions generate a score, which in turn determines whether the family will receive financial assistance or not. Khadija is herself a beneficiary of the BISP cash transfers and understands only too well the significance of this process. She only wishes more families could benefit.
Pakistan’s dynamic social protection system and the three R’s of Feminist Development Policy
The cash transfers provided by the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) have been designed and are structured so as to challenge entrenched gender norms, making it a truly gender-transformative initiative. It is helping women to manage and build financial resources, helping them to realise their rights as well as those of their daughters and wider families, and strengthening women’s representation in both the community and the workforce.
I love my job – I like being able to answer people’s questions and to satisfy them. And this job has enabled me to survive. But there are so many people who are deserving and who are not eligible.Khadija Sanaullah, Usher, BISP Registry Rawalpindi
The genesis of the National Socio-Economic Registry
While social welfare programmes have operated in Pakistan since the 1970s, the origins of the National Socio-Economic Registry (NSER) date back to 2008, when the government introduced a cash transfer for nearly two million poor families to protect them from the adverse effects of food and fuel inflation arising from the financial crisis.
A national door-to-door survey was initiated soon after in 2010 with the aim of registering all of Pakistan’s households and, although this goal was not achieved, some 27 million families were added to the Registry. At the time, the system was what is called a ‘static’ system, which means that new data can only be entered in the Registry through periodic surveys, when women can register or up-date the information about their families.
Given the size and geography of Pakistan, this was an enormous undertaking – both expensive and time-consuming – made all the more challenging by the use of paper-based data collection forms. And so, in 2017, a process began to design and roll out a digital system that would enable more comprehensive, efficient and accurate data collection using tablets.
’Never waste a good crisis’
When the first wave of COVID-19 reached Pakistan in May 2020, the government quickly realised the urgency of getting cash to the poorest households to cushion them against the many effects of the pandemic. However, the door-to-door data collection process that had begun in 2017 was slow – particularly in densely populated urban and remote rural areas – and a great many households were still missing from the Registry. For those areas that had not been covered by the new digital survey, BISP was forced to rely on the data collected in 2011 – nearly ten years out of date – to identify recipients of the cash transfers.
Having faced difficulties in identifying all those in need of financial support during the early phase of the pandemic, BISP prioritised the completion of the data collection process. At the same time, the eligibility threshold was raised to incorporate a larger group of very poor households in the cash transfer, in recognition of the additional burden placed on them by the pandemic.
By the end of 2022, a total of 35 million households had been entered in the Registry, with nine million deemed eligible for financial support. With intensive efforts throughout the pandemic, the programme disbursed nearly 180 billion Pakistani Rupees (just over a billion US dollars) to 14.8 million beneficiaries, including existing and new BISP beneficiaries, and was commended by the World Bank for the speed of its response.
And then in 2022 came the floods. While the pandemic affected very poor people everywhere in similar ways, the floods led many households that were previously managing financially to fall into poverty with terrifying speed. In the worst affected areas, families lost everything they owned and urgently required different types of assistance, including cash.
This presented BISP with the highly complex challenges of identifying and providing rapid financial support to newly vulnerable families; tasks that were simply not possible with the existing static registration and payments systems. The certain knowledge that this would not be the last crisis to hit the flood-prone region, or indeed the country, served as a wake-up call. According to Dr Franz von Roenne, Head of Programme, for the Social Protection – Social Health Protection (SP-SHP) Programme at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmBH, the two crises had a catalytic effect on Pakistan’s social protection system:
BISP needed to make payments fast in order to avoid greater disaster, but the system couldn’t identify people or disburse funds fast enough. The crisis served to galvanise action – they do say, “never waste a good crisis” – the money is there, the attention is there, and the sense of urgency can lead to positive change.Franz von Roenne
Germany supports the move to a dynamic registry
BISP embarked on a process to transfer the static registration system to a dynamic one, capable of registering and updating household data on an on-going basis, essential for adapting social assistance to households’ changing circumstances and to enable a rapid response to shocks and crises as they arise. Fundamental components of this strategy involved defining the digital inputs required to move towards a more integrated and interoperable system to link up Pakistan’s many social protection programmes, improving the payments system, and a rapid expansion of registration centres to bring BISP services closer to people’s homes.
Back in 2008, BISP had used simple money orders to deliver the cash payments. The payment system evolved with mobile banking and smart card pilots in 2010, and the biometric verification system in use today was introduced in 2015. With plans in the banking sector to roll out mobile wallets and branchless banking, particularly targeting poor women, BISP’s payments system will continue to evolve.
In the face of the overwhelming levels of need in flood affected areas, the SP-SHP programme, implemented by GIZ on behalf of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), approached BISP to offer support. The programme provided vital equipment for the operation of the new registration centres, including power banks to keep centres operational during electricity cuts, IT servers, counters and a system of computer-generated tickets to help with queue management.
Noman Ali, Design & Planning Specialist for the NSER, remembers the urgency of the situation:
When the floods struck, the Disaster Management Authority notified 78 districts in the country as flood-affected. To perform registrations, BISP had to open centres on an emergency basis and urgently needed equipment to make these centres functional, often without electricity, so that we could collect the data to identify people in need of assistance.Noman Ali
The initial goal was to establish one BISP registration centre in every Tehsil or sub-district in the country and at the latest count, there were 637 BISP centres, with online registration also coming on stream. New plans aim to take the centres to even smaller administrative units closer to the communities, particularly in provinces where the population is geographically spread out, distances to the nearest town are long, or roads are missing.
Pakistan’s ailing economy, high inflation and rising prices for basic goods have contributed to a surge in people in need of financial assistance. In response to a mass communications campaign informing people about the BISP cash transfers, many registration centres found themselves overwhelmed with potential new beneficiaries. To ease these pressures, German Development Cooperation supported the recruitment of some 1,300 female supervisors and ushers, two for each BISP registration centre. As BISP Director General, Naveed Akbar explained,
We needed to register people very quickly – the pressure to go faster was huge. Without the support of GIZ – and now also of KfW – we would not have been in a position to roll out this dynamic registry so quickly. The floods have really accelerated this – within two to three months we have registered 2 million new families.Naveed Akbar
From addressing gender inequities…
The BISP seeks to enhance gender equity in a number of important ways. Since its inception, registration of household data has been the preserve of women. Only ‘ever-married’ women can provide the information about their household members and, when the household is deemed eligible to receive assistance, it is the women who receive the cash.
In addition to the main (unconditional) cash transfers, for which the only condition is severe poverty, BISP also provides conditional cash transfers which support poor families to access mother and infant health and nutrition services and education. The design of these conditional transfers also addresses the specific vulnerabilities of women and girls in Pakistan, for example, by paying a higher amount to families for keeping girls in school compared with boys at all grades, as well as a graduation bonus when girls complete their primary education.
BISP is also piloting the provision of iron and folic acid tablets to girls growing up in poor households. Girls who take these supplements learn about why they are so important for their health and, once in the programme, this secures additional cash for their households.
…to challenging established gender norms
With the support of German Development Cooperation, BISP is also challenging traditional gender norms in more substantive ways. The recent arrival of the female supervisors and ushers at all of the BISP centres not only enables the rapid expansion of the Registry, it is also contributing to the empowerment of women from poor and vulnerable communities. Many of the new female employees have themselves been beneficiaries of BISP cash transfers, giving them particularly useful insight into the situation of the women coming to register.
Through their work, these women are helping to transform their own, their families’ and their communities’ image of what women like them are capable of. This lifts the intervention to a different level because it treats women not as passive recipients of support but as agents of change, as well as challenging social norms around women’s employment outside the home.
Samra Parveen, who has worked as an Usher at the BISP registration centre in Kallar Syedan since January 2023, takes her responsibilities very seriously and likes helping the women at the centre. And like her supervisor, Salma Bibi, Samra has a newfound status in the community, which also helps to spread the word about the Registry. She says: ‘When people in the village know that I am doing this job, they come to me and ask for information.’
Revealing differing attitudes across the generations, Samra’s parents are conflicted about their daughter’s employment, despite being beneficiaries of the BISP cash transfer. As more women from similar socio-economic backgrounds are employed, however, these attitudes will surely change.
It is hard for us that our daughter works because working and bringing in money is supposed to be done and taken care of by the head of the household – but for us there is no other option.Samra Parveen’s mother
Laying the foundation for adaptive social protection
Support from development partners, including Germany, for the rapid evolution of the Registry, combined with strong political will and BISP’s readiness to learn from experience and invest in new technology, has helped to establish the NSER as one of the most comprehensive, accurate and advanced digital social protection systems. Franz von Roenne points to the importance of data and digital systems as a prerequisite for designing and building dynamic social protection programmes,
Comprehensive data provide the backbone of adaptive social protection systems. Provided these data are correct and can continually be updated through a digital system – even during shocks such as floods or wars when people are on the move – this lays the foundations for adaptive social protection.Franz von Roenne
With the introduction of an API-based system, allowing for the secure exchange of data between the different digitised databases, the Registry now serves as a targeting platform for nearly all social protection programmes in Pakistan. Public institutions, policy thinktanks and development partners use it to design a wide range of social protection and poverty alleviation interventions.
To date, NSER data have been shared with more than 60 different organisations, and BISP’s decision to openly share data is also being used by programmes in other sectors. At the Pakistan Kidney and Liver Institute, where transplant operations can cost around one million Pakistani Rupees – an impossibly large amount for many people – there is a BISP centre where patients can check the Registry to ascertain their eligibility to receive immediate financial support. Those who have not previously registered can do so on the spot.
Dynamic systems respond to people’s changing circumstances
There are compelling reasons why governments around the world are shifting to dynamic social protection systems. Very poor households are particularly vulnerable to changes in their external environment, often having no family members with secure employment and little capacity to accumulate the assets and savings that would help build resilience to future shocks. Dynamic systems enable governments both to provide a minimum level of income support for those with the greatest needs, and to respond rapidly in the face of external shocks to prevent households from falling further into poverty.
Not only are there strong economic rationales for preventing people from becoming poorer, but untargeted subsidies are also highly inefficient, resulting in wasted public resources at a time when the public budgets are under immense strain, as highlighted by Naveed Akbar.
Prior to NSER, the Government of Pakistan was providing so many untargeted subsidies. Now, this registry is really playing a vital role in targeted subsidies to those who need assistance, so that the government can allocate resources more effectively and efficiently.Naveed Akbar
Building consensus for the way forward on adaptive social protection
With a high level of fragmentation and duplication in Pakistan’s social protection sector, German development cooperation recently helped to organise and finance Pakistan’s first annual national social protection conference, bringing together diverse stakeholders from federal and provincial levels, many of them with opposing views and priorities.
The three-day conference aimed to identify common priorities and to agree strategies for tackling some of the historically contentious topics, such as data access, security and privacy in the absence of clearcut legal frameworks, and in the context of devolutionary processes. Demonstrating a strong willingness to move forward, participants issued a joint statement setting out consensus around some important intentions, including the intention to improve cross-sectoral coordination and tackle duplication between federal and provincial agencies, to establish reciprocity in data exchange, and to continue to explore options for partnerships across programmes. In the event of any new crisis, partners also committed to collaborate with disaster management agencies at all levels.
As the BISP continues to develop its systems, harnessing the ever-increasing potential of data and technology, it has made a conscious decision to maintain a focus on empowering young women and girls, building their resilience – both physically and socially – and enhancing their status in their communities and households in a truly gender-transformative approach.