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BR Research

Citizenship and social welfare

Eight months ago, rumours about BISP’s name change had stirred a controversy. The PPP was obviously against the idea
Updated 21 Nov, 2019

Eight months ago, rumours about BISP’s name change had stirred a controversy. The PPP was obviously against the idea, whereas the top PTI leadership was reportedly divided. Later, BISP’s chairperson Sania Nishtar buried that controversy by saying that the government had neither presented any bill in the parliament to amend the name nor was it discussed at high official levels. But the question at the root of the controversy remain unanswered: does the PPP stand to benefit from having late PM Benazir Bhutto’s name as a part of Pakistan’s biggest social welfare programme that every successive government has continued since it began.

 In comes this on-going research by Rehan Rafay Jamil, a PhD Candidate at Brown University, whose thesis essentially explores the subject of social policy and changing citizenship boundaries in Pakistan, where one of the key questions being explored is whether or not cash transfers programs create more active citizenship.

Speaking at Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund’s third conference on research and learning held on Oct 30-31,2019, Jamil’s survey findings reveal that both beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries of BISP perceive Benazir Bhutto and her family to be the source of BISP money being received by the beneficiaries. The percentage was higher in the case of beneficiaries (65.6%) compared to the non- beneficiaries (60.3%) – but both segments thought that late PM and her family are the source of this financial assistance, rather than the federal government in power.

But before PTI supporters cry foul, here is another finding worth brooding over. Jamil’s sample-based research in Faisalabad, Muzaffargarh, Hyderabad and Thatta also found out that despite beneficiaries’ close association of BISP with Benazir Bhutto and her family, voting patterns were split between those who voted for the PPP and those who voted for the Shirazis (or the independents) in the last general election. In other words, BISP’s close association with the late PM and her party does not reinforce clientelism.

Hopefully Jamil would expand this research to explore province-wise responses, and perhaps by districts that have high percentage of BISP beneficiaries as against those that have much less percentage of beneficiaries. Other nuggets from Jamil’s ongoing research are also sort of myth-busting or at least raise important questions.

For instance, many critics argue that handouts such as cash grants under BISP or free food under Ehsaas-Saylani Langar Scheme (ESLS) make beggars out of people and erode basic human dignity. Jamil’s research thus far instead shows that these social welfare programmes do not appear to create social stigma. If anything, the impact is quite the reverse.

His preliminary findings show that a vast majority of beneficiaries and their male household members reported feelings of “pride and dignity on being cash transfer recipients” and “being recognized by the state as citizens”.

This coils back the discussion to earlier question whether or not cash transfers programs create more active citizenship. Jamil seems to be resting his thought on the notion of ‘citizenship as a bundle of rights’, including the right to social welfare that often creates a sense of affiliation and belonging with the society at large.

It should not come as a surprise if Pakistan’s government, current or next, ends up citing this research (once completed), especially the virtues of how social welfare increases citizenship to justify expansion in social welfare.

But in that vein, while state’s social welfare may well be a necessary condition to achieve higher level of citizenship among citizens, it is surely not a sufficient condition. And in the absence of full spectrum of political, economic and civic rights, expansion in social welfare can only increase the level of citizenship to a certain degree. If anything, if the state grants its citizens the full spectrum of political, economic and civic rights, the need for social welfare programme may in fact grow less, not more.

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