Category Archives: Publications



Radio Program Raabta: Dr. Nishtar discusses significance of CNIC for households to benefit from Ehsaas

Feb 3, 2021 – Islamabad: SAPM Dr. Sania Nishtar connected with Ehsaas beneficiaries through Radio Pakistan’s national hook up program, “Raabta”. The program is held every Wednesday to educate masses about the importance of Ehsaas survey and new enrolments under Ehsaas Kafaalat through survey. During the program, Dr. Nishtar replied to questions of listeners who connected with her on telephone. “To get registered in Ehsaas Kafaalat through survey, it is mandatory for households to share details of their computerised national identity cards (CNICs). Those without CNICs will not be able to benefit from Ehsaas. When the survey teams visit them, the households should cooperate with the teams and share correct data”, said Dr. Nishtar. The program can be listened every week at 9 am. Listen here.

Dr. Sania calls on Auditor General of Pakistan to explore options for Ehsaas partnership

Dec 9, 2020- Islamabad: SAPM Dr. Sania Nishtar together with Secretary Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Division called on the Auditor General of Pakistan to explore options for Ehsaas partnership. The meeting featured deliberations around how the government’s flagship programme, Ehsaas can collaborate with the Auditor General’s office to strengthen its systems even further.

Logic behind the langar

Logic behind the langar Published in The News International, October 15, 2019

The Langar Policy is one of several policies under the Ehsaas umbrella, in its Safety Net category. This policy is being implemented in the public-private partnership mode, as part of which private charities and trusts will be supported to operate langars (soup kitchens) at designated government land/premises.

The policy is predicated in the understanding that many welfare organizations in the country, already providing meals to the destitute at some scale, have capacity to upscale further significantly, if strategic support is provided by the government.

Pakistan scores very high in philanthropic giving. According to estimates, more than Rs300 billion is channelled to welfare, annually. However, up until now, the government and welfare organizations have been siloed. There has been no strategic approach to collaboration. Ehsaas aims to change that, so that the expertise and resources of reputed welfare organizations can amplify with government support.

With regard to langars, the question is: what sort of government support is needed? To this effect, three areas have been identified. The first is logistic support because currently welfare organizations often face severe resistance in setting up langars where needed most. This happens because of market dynamics and reluctance of local administration due to fear of encroachment on prime public lands. The second way in which the government can play its role is by setting safety and quality standards, and the third is by disseminating information widely.

It has therefore been decided to support selected reputable organizations that have a proven track record of providing meals at scale, and facilitate their access to government land/premises in a predicable manner. Areas where this can work best include bus stands, industrial areas, railway stations, and places where labourers tend to congregate. The langars established will be tagged in the Ehsaas App (to be launched soon). This will allow the government to create awareness about their locations, enabling millions of destitute to benefit daily. And this would be at zero cost to the government.

This is quite a departure from the standard government style of execution, where ministries want control of execution, paving the way for corruption and inefficiency.

Based on this policy approach, an agreement was signed with the Saylani Trust to open 112 langars across the country. The prototype one was opened in Islamabad; Thar will be the focus for the next set of langars. The Saylani Trust already provides over 70,000 meals a day and with government support this will be doubled. Under the agreement, the expectation is that the trust will provide healthy and nutritious meals, ensure quality of food, cleanliness in the premises; and that in each langar, hand-washing will be promoted, trans-fats will not be used in cooking, salt will be kept to a minimum, and nutrition guidelines adopted by Ehsaas will be followed.

The framework of the Ehsaas Langar Policy will also enable other reputed long-standing langar-running NGOs to partner with the government over time. We will refine the model based on implementation experience. If at any stage government funding is needed, budgetary approvals, and compliance with the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority rules will be ensured.

We have started with langars but the scope of the policy to engage the private sector in ‘welfare activities’ will later extend to other areas, guided by evidence – orphanages, protection homes, schools for the marginalized, shelters for the homeless, etc. We believe public-private synergy in a context of unprecedented giving in Pakistan can significantly scale up the work of welfare organizations, benefitting millions. Hence, an overarching Ehsaas public-private engagement policy is also under development.

Overall, the government is aware that one isolated action, policy or initiative isn’t the answer to tackling poverty, which is why the Ehsaas strategy has more than 134 mutually-reinforcing actions, designed to target different groups. Safety net initiatives are for the lowest rung – stipends for women; new policies for orphanages, disabled, shelter homes, and child protection; and Tahafuz to protect against catastrophic risks.

To help people graduate out of poverty, the policy windows include the National Poverty Graduation Initiative, financial inclusion strategy, and prize funds (first wave announced yesterday) for innovative solutions such as the new design of Thela, and garbage collecting rickshaw to create jobs are the bottom of the pyramid. Similarly, labour protection is another stream in Ehsaas, as is human capital development under which financial access to health and education are main instruments (Insaf card, need-based undergraduate scholarships, and education stipends).

As an integrated whole of government programme, Ehsaas is being executed step-by-step. Each intervention helps to reinforce the other, while we simultaneously also work on making programme improvements based on implementation insights.

To help with Ehsaas’ execution, a new ecosystem had to be built – a national survey (ongoing), digital payment system, new ministry, financing arrangements, IT systems, Delivery Unit, oversight committees, Ehsaas governance and integrity policy, and partnerships policy – a massive task in its own right.

As far as langars are concerned, we know the evidence is compelling in a context. We know that they lessen despair among the homeless. They restore dignity and self-reliance to those that will otherwise go hungry, and they contribute to grassroots activism and social cohesion with food security and nutrition aims. They also provide jobs to those involved in the operations.

The prime minister is personally committed to ensuring that no one goes to bed hungry in Pakistan – and the government will work hard to realize that vision.

The writer is the special assistant to the prime minister on poverty alleviation and social protection.

Twitter: @SaniaNishtar

The Ehsaas strategy

The Ehsaas strategy Published in The News International, September 17, 2019

The Ehsaas Strategy has been released today ( to solicit public input, prior to its finalization. The strategy elaborates on the prime minister’s vision of a welfare state.

This is the first time that a government document has gone to government officials and the public for review at the same time, introducing a culture of openness and transparency.

Ehsaas is unique for three reasons. One, with currently 134 policies and programme elements, Ehsaas is the most ambitious umbrella initiative the Pakistan government has ever undertaken aimed at social protection and poverty alleviation.

Two, it takes a multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approach, recognizing the importance of the private sector, civil society and multisectoral across-government collaboration.

Three, Ehsaas is embedded in a theory of change, reflected in four pillars: action against elite capture; safety nets; livelihoods and jobs; and human capital formation with a focus on lagging areas.

Safety nets are the short-term priority within Ehsaas in view of the current fiscal austerity measures. To expand safety nets, the social protection budget has been increased and to promote integrity, the Ehsaas Governance and Integrity Policy has been prioritized. Work on the new national socioeconomic database has been fast-tracked to enable precise targeting.

The soon-to-be-launched ‘One-window Ehsaas’ will address fragmentation. To promote policy coherence and coordination, the Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Division ‘the Ehsaas Ministry’, was established, and the previously fragmented federal social protection agencies were placed under its administrative control. BISP’s digital payment system is being revamped after a nine-year delay.

Under the new BISP programme, ‘Kifalat’, the 5.7 million BISP beneficiaries, which were previously receiving ‘cash only’ will now have access to bank accounts, mobile phones, financial literacy, digital hubs, labelled cash transfers, and graduation opportunities. The National Poverty Graduation initiative – comprising interest-free loans, asset transfers, and vocational training – and projected to impact 16.28 million individuals over four years has already been launched.

‘Tahafuz’ – Pakistan’s first shock-oriented precision safety net, will be launched by December. Ehsaas also includes welfare policies for the differently-abled, the homeless, orphans, street children, seasonal migrants, transgender, victims of child and bonded labour, daily wage workers, substance abusers, workers abroad, informal labourers, and domestic workers.

Under Ehsaas, undergraduate scholarships are on the anvil in collaboration with the HEC. A new health and nutrition conditional cash transfer programme to address stunting is in the final stages of planning, and education conditional cash transfers are being upscaled for five million children.

Beyond social protection, Ehsaas recognizes that the determinants of poverty and inequality are complex – as are the measures to address it.

Global lessons show that massive poverty reduction is the result of overall robust and sustained economic growth, when combined with economic freedoms and the will of governments to counter organized vested interest and elite capture. In Pakistan, elite capture is the root cause of poverty and is evident in water management, crop choices, land use priorities, labour laws, the taxation system, cartelization trends and nepotism patterns.

The government’s vision is driving change at various levels to address this. In its framework, Ehsaas has included objectives under Pillar I ‘Address Elite Capture’ to assist that overarching mission.

For too long, the levers of our system have been in the hands of a small group of elites. As an attempt to break that system, a constitutional amendment to move Article 38(d) from the ‘Principles of Policy’ section into the ‘Fundamental Rights’ section reflects the philosophical change within Ehsaas, while on a practical basis, Ehsaas stipulates pro-poor goals, and conflict-of-interest norms for every ministry; polices to protect resources for pro-poor initiatives; and guidelines for parliamentarians on use of development expenditure.

Ehsaas Pillar III is predicated on the understanding that human capital development is a significant contributor to the wealth of a nation in this digital age. Therefore, to catalyze action, provincial Ehsaas plans are being developed.

Ehsaas aims to create safety nets for at least ten million families, livelihood opportunities for 3.8 million people, and financial access to healthcare for ten million families. Scholarships/education incentives for five million students (50 percent girls); financial and digital inclusion for seven million individuals (90 percent women) and an enabling environment for poverty reduction by promoting mutli-sectoral partnerships and innovations. These goals will be expanded based on new partnerships. A new policy and framework of commitments will allow the private sector and the civil society to make commitments.

The strategy document outlines the government’s vision, or Ehsaas’ bedrock; the principles which drive it; the context which has shaped it; the Theory of Change, which underpins its conceptualization; and the four pillars under which its goals, policies, and programmes are organized. The strategy also outlines the manner in which 21st century approaches can be used to build a welfare state – data and technology for precision safety nets; financial and digital inclusion; human capital formation; women’s economic empowerment; value chain building for agriculture and crafts; Solutions Innovation Challenges to develop solutions for poverty; measures to address malnutrition, and multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approaches for solutions at scale.

Ehsaas’ premise is grounded in the importance of strengthening institutions, transparency and good governance. We realize that the limited capacity of public institutions, and governance challenges often impedes their ability to deliver. Therefore, Ehsaas is also planned with the ambition to fight through all such challenges – in that respect, implementation of the Ehsaas Governance and Integrity Policy assumes great importance.

To be fully successful, Ehsaas will need to effectively use all government levers to drive change in one direction. I strongly believe it is possible to achieve that with a constructive approach to collaboration.

The writer is the special assistant to the PM on poverty alleviation and social safety.

Twitter: @SaniaNishtar

More provinces?

More provinces? Published in The News International, May 1, 2018

Calls to create more provinces are once again resonating across Pakistan as the elections draws closer. Beyond the election rhetoric, the objective of creating more provinces in the country should be carefully deliberated to ensure that this exercise strengthens the federation and democracy rather than stirring ethno-lingual factionism, which is detrimental to good governance.

As a starting point, it must be appreciated that a province/state – in other words a sub-national and, indeed, a federating unit – has a specific status and purpose in a federation. A federation (as opposed to a unitary or confederal style of political state) is characterised by a union of partially self-governing sub-national units under a central/federal government where power-sharing between the federal and the provincial governments is constitutionally entrenched. Pakistan is one of the 27 federations in the world where the power-sharing formula between its federal and provincial governments is stipulated in its constitution. Power-sharing was altered in favour of the provinces by the 18th Amendment and the 7th National Finance Commission Award less than a decade ago.

Federations can either be as large as Russia; Brazil; and the US or as small as Saint Kitts, Nevis and Micronesia. Regardless of their size, the federating units in all federations need to have an incentive to stay in a common economic union. Contrary to popular belief, the creation of more provinces on an ethno-lingual basis could end up strengthening the federation. Allowing people to own their identity helps them become part of the mainstream, and feel less dominated and, therefore, not alienated – attributes that are vital to the viability of a federating country.

There is also a structural justification for increasing the number of provinces in our country. Pakistan has a unique situation as one of its provinces (Punjab) is larger than the sum of all others combined in terms of population size. There are difficulties inherent to the functioning of a federation when this is the case. However, we need to be mindful of the objective here. While increasing the number of provinces could potentially strengthen a multi-lingual/multi-ethnic federation, if apolitically and effectively managed, it cannot ensure improvement in the performance of governments until it is coupled with appropriate governance reforms and systemic safeguards against corruption.

To enhance the government’s performance and its capacity to govern, we must institutionalise checks and balances, and rule-based control on how the government functions and root out arbitrariness; politicisation; and bureaucratic political allegiances.

A culture of evidence-based decision-making; accountability; transparency; respect for merit; integrity; ethical conduct; and conflict of interest safeguards are critical to any meaningful attempt aimed at improving the performance of the government. The creation of more provinces will do little for the government’s effectiveness and its ability to deliver if these attributes aren’t well-institutionalised.

The creation of more provinces should also be viewed in the context of the federal-provincial relationships in the post-18th Amendment context. Eight years on, there are still countless unresolved matters; elements of mistrust; and tenuous relationships. This was also evidenced recently in the impasse during the meeting of the Council of Common Interests in relation to the federal-provincial differences over development budgets. With such unresolved matters and the lack of evidence to inform the next steps, culling out more provinces is unlikely to be effective.

In terms of the way forward, it would be important to plan incrementally. First, there is need to draw on evidence to ascertain the impact of the 18th Amendment on provincial governance and federal-provincial interface-functioning. Problems highlighted through this exercise need to be resolved as a matter of priority. A plan for a prototype model of ideal provincial and district functioning can then be drawn up in an evidence-based manner. It is critical for such a model to be grounded in a rationalised approach to recurrent fiscal implications, with cost-effectiveness as its yardstick and capacity-building inherent to its framework. This would also be an opportunity to usher in a digital transformation of the government with appropriate incentives to reshape behaviour.

Such a plan can be implemented with multi-partisan and civil society oversight. A roadmap can be developed to launch a pilot and adapt learnings. Once it is known to be effective, it can be applied on a broader scale.

This process will, however, require careful consensus-building at the national level. The implications of more provinces on administrative and fiscal matters need to be thought through carefully. Other matters, such as provincial representation in the Senate, will need political consensus. But we need to be mindful that all this will be futile if not paralleled with tangible governance reform. Increasing the number of provinces is justifiable. But we need to be mindful of the objective. Rather than a means of politicking and whipping up ethno-lingual zeal as a short-term election objective, the focus should be on using this reform as a means of strengthening the federation and improving governance. In order to achieve this, careful planning; execution; and the right motivation are needed.


Twitter: @Sanianishtar

The e-voting challenge

The e-voting challenge Published in The News International, April 13, 2018

Discussions on e-voting have re-emerged as the election draws closer and the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) gears up to present its plans about the three-tiered Internet Voting System for overseas Pakistanis, this week. Since I came across this subject in my capacity as a federal minister in the 2013 caretaker government, I am sharing a few insights for the planning currently underway.

E-voting for overseas Pakistanis was a subject of much discussion during the initial days of the 2013 caretaker government. The Supreme Court had issued a directive in response to a petition about the establishment of an e-voting system for overseas Pakistanis and had directed that this be expedited. Within this context, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) convened a meeting of government functionaries for the process to be facilitated, which is how I and other ministers were invited to the table.

After the first meeting it became clear (at least to me) that it would be practically impossible to turn around the task in eight weeks due to time limitations. Although Nadra had developed a customised application and had demonstrated its use during presentations at the ECP, several steps were needed to be completed before the software could actually be deployed. Perhaps the most important was that it needed testing in real life situations overseas, along with quality and integrity audits, which are time consuming.

The procurement process of the hardware, on which the application was to run, was yet to be initialised. To ensure the system functions in Pakistan’s missions abroad, human resource was needed to be hired and trained, and their visas and travel arranged. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been pursuing permissions from the nine countries that the Supreme Court wanted this system to be functioning in. There were huge implications for Pakistan’s missions abroad in terms of physical requirements, awareness creation and compliance with local procedures. Eight weeks was nowhere near enough time to develop a foolproof system. A half-baked attempt could have been catastrophic. I volunteered to appear before the Supreme Court to explain the situation.

I narrate this story because as per the Supreme Court’s decision, e-voting for overseas Pakistanis is to be implemented this time round. I would like to flag two points in this regard. First, there are differences between the 2013 and 2018 Pakistani e-voting pilot systems. In 2013, Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were developed for deployment in Pakistan’s missions abroad but the project could not come to fruition. The EVMs were later used in the NA-4 by-elections in October 2017, and important lessons were learnt about their limitations. However, the system is not going to be used for the upcoming 2018 elections.

In contrast, the 2018 envisaged e-voting system allows voting from remote locations using internet, rather than at polling stations, and is being developed for overseas Pakistanis. Although each option has its own inherent challenges, one key lesson is that every new system needs adequate time and planning for conceptualisation, deployment, integrity checks, piloting and ploughing back lessons to refine the model. Other supporting factors – procedural, administrative and legislative – need to be taken into account when planning, as technology is only one cog in the process chain.

When I stepped down from my role as federal minister in 2013, I had reiterated in my Handover Papers the need for the next government to take this matter up in a timely manner and examine implications carefully. I am not privy to details as to how the matter was dealt with over the last five years, but if a demonstration is being given now, the process must be in its pre-pilot stages.

Second, there are important lessons to be learnt from the e-voting experience of Estonia. Estonia became the first country in the world to offer internet voting nationally – in local elections in 2005 and later for parliamentary elections in 2007, which is when 30 percent Estonians voted through the internet. Lessons from the Estonian example are critically important since Pakistan’s infrastructure of digital identities is somewhat similar to the Estonian model.

In 2016, an independent assessment of the procedural components of the Estonian Internet Voting System was conducted by the Cyber Studies programme of the University of Oxford. The evaluation highlighted the importance of the Estonian experience in conducting electronic elections for the last eleven years. However, while praising the system, the evaluation highlighted the unique circumstances under which Estonia has been successful and questioned the ability of the systems’ procedural controls against sophisticated cyber-attacks. The threat of cyber security is so real and pressing that in Brazil, the Brazilian Supreme Electoral Court has gone so far as organising ‘hacking competitions’ to create additional confidence in the technology. Recognising security challenges, several European countries including the UK, Germany, Netherlands and Norway cancelled e-voting systems or have decided against its large-scale use.

On balance, internet voting is feasible, which if effectively deployed, could improve accessibility for voters, especially those that are overseas and others for whom access is an issue, such as the disabled. It could also potentially save costs and time. However, in practice, the most important thing is that there needs to be a high-level of confidence in the system. Success depends on the expertise and experience of the team. There must be adequate time for the system – and not just the technology – to develop and undergo rigorous integrity checks.

Designing effective operational and procedural controls and safeguards against the risk of tampering is fundamental for the success of the programme. Estonia is grappling with this issue after two decades of having commenced on this journey. Pakistan’s institutions mandated with e-voting should ascertain where they stand in this process, and the implications a fallout would have on the credibility of the election. More broadly, they should assess how this relates to the provisions of ‘secrecy of ballot’ and ‘anonymity of voters’, which are enshrined in our constitution. As democracies around the world struggle to deal with hackers, fake news and twitter bots, would now be an optimal time to use limited resources on rolling out a lightly tested internet voting system?


Twitter: @Sanianishtar