How cash transfers prevent lockdown tragedies
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How cash transfers prevent lockdown tragedies

In 2017, I was a candidate to become the next director-general of the World Health Organization. At the 70th World Health Assembly, I stood before health ministers from around the world and warned that three things could destroy the planet: a celestial event, a third world war or a pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic may not have destroyed the planet, but it is certainly putting public and private institutions to a harsh test. In addition to its dire health consequences, it has decimated livelihoods worldwide, squeezing the middle class and pushing low-income households into abject poverty.

In Pakistan -- the world's fifth-largest country by population -- 24 million breadwinners rely on daily wages or are self-employed in the informal economy. For them, life came to a standstill with the imposition of a lockdown in March, causing a widespread loss of income, which led to civil unrest and rioting.

To mitigate the socioeconomic damage from the pandemic, the government of Pakistan created Ehsaas Emergency Cash, the largest social-protection programme in the country's history. Rolled out 10 days after the lockdown began, it is delivering one-time cash grants totalling more than $1.2 billion to more than 16.9 million households, covering 109 million people -- approximately 50% of the country's population. Recipient families are given 12,000 rupees (US$75) to cover immediate subsistence needs.

Prior to the delivery of Ehsaas cash, I saw unspeakable suffering among people from many walks of life. They included day labourers and hawkers, hotel and restaurant staff and domestic servants, security guards and drivers. There were also laid-off public-transport employees, fishermen and miners, beauticians and barbers and millions of shopkeepers -- all on the verge of hunger, with their savings used up.

They, along with private-school teachers, electricians, welders, painters, carpenters, plumbers, car mechanics, taxi drivers and construction workers, did not know where their next meal would come from.

These stories were repeated across industries and regions, with even those used to earning a decent living suddenly wondering if their finances would ever add up again. But the handouts brought stability and comfort to millions of families, and countless tragedies were averted.

Beyond the immediate crisis, the success of Ehsaas Emergency Cash offers Pakistan and other middle- and low-income countries invaluable experience in speedily delivering a massive national programme in a complex and uncertain context.

The government recently released a report describing the knowhow gained through the programme's design and implementation, as well as the operational challenges encountered and how they were addressed.

The programme's end-to-end digital approach, with transparency hard-wired into its design, offers lessons about how to use personal identification systems. By combining phones, internet connectivity and national IDs, a digital, demand-based social-protection system can be created to enable those in distress to seek support during crises.

For Pakistan, this was a watershed moment in terms of government functioning. The crisis compelled the government to be more responsive, data-driven, experimental and ambitious.

Cost-effective digital methods of working, new ways to coordinate the activities of multiple stakeholders, and a whole-of-government approach have been institutionalised. These measures could transform policymaking in a post-Covid-19 world.

Finally, the legacy of the programme goes beyond short-term relief. Built into its design are long-term goals to strengthen the safety net and increase financial inclusion, both of which will bring lasting benefits to recipients and to Pakistan as a whole.

Alongside this is a commitment to transparency and accountability, which is the underlying motivation for the publication of the report. In order for democracies to ensure progress, a culture of integrity and openness must be ingrained in government institutions and processes.

History shows that disasters and their tragic consequences can be a catalyst of large-scale social change. Covid-19 has presented Pakistan with an urgent and unprecedented challenge, which could be met only by a programme with the scale and ambition of Ehsaas Emergency Cash.

In the wake of the pandemic, we must embrace the once-in-a-generation chance to replicate this ambition globally and build a fairer world that overcomes poverty, inequality and the climate crisis, with social protection as a core pillar of that effort.

Sania Nishtar is a special assistant on poverty alleviation and social safety to the Prime Minister of Pakistan with the status of a federal minister. ©Project Syndicate, 2020.

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