Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) is the largest Social Safety Net System in the South Asia Region.  It is a unique well functioning public sector program that has helped in the transformation of the social protection sector in the country. Established in 2008, one of BISP’s greatest accomplishments is the development of  an objective targeting system using a Proxy Means Test based door-to-door census in 2010-11, which has built a credible National Socio Economic Registry (NSER) with a database of 27 million households (approx: 170 million people) for the first time ever in South Asia. The NSER has been acknowledged by all federating units as a national platform to improve pro-poor targeting efficiency of social expenditures with enhanced Federal and Provincial coordination. Its targeting performance compares well with world’s top ranked programs of similar nature with almost half of its beneficiaries coming from the bottom 20% of the population (see graph). Presently, more than 38 federal and provincial organisations are already using this registry to improve pro-poor orientation of their respective social sector programs. BISP has recently launched an update of the NSER with the objective of transforming it into a dynamic registry to ensure that it remains the most credible database on the socioeconomic status of the households in the country.

During its initial days BISP adopted the Parliamentarian system of beneficiary identification, given the absence of any database on poor households. Under this system, forms were distributed to MNAs/MPAs/Senators to identify the poor in their constituency and after verification by NADRA they were to become eligible for BISP benefits. However, this was contrary to international best practice of using objective and verifiable poverty targeting approach. Therefore, BISP decided to have a more robust method of targeting eligible beneficiaries and, with the technical support of the World Bank and DFID,  collected a set of household socio-economic indicators through a national door-to-door census during 2010-11that led to the evolution of Pakistan’s first NSER. Only those socio-economic indicators were selected from the 2007-08 Pakistan Household Integrated Economic Survey (HIES) that correlate significantly with households’ consumption. This method of assessing the welfare status of households, known as Proxy Means Test (PMT), is widely used by safety net programs around the world to target their beneficiaries. The main advantages of this method include simplicity and cost-effectiveness in obtaining a reliable measure of household level welfare status by using only a limited amount of information collected through a simple questionnaire and transparency, objectivity, and verifiability.

The PMT formula has worked well over the years. Its performance was initially estimated using the 2007-08 HIES. At that time, the program was expected to cover about 40 percent of the poorest quintile. It was also estimated that about 60 percent of beneficiaries will belong to the poorest quintile – a performance similar to most well known PMT-targeted programs. The design of the PMT formula was assessed again using the 2010-11 HIES data, and it was found that the BISP PMT is designed to be pro poor, with a good targeting performance. The BISP targeting performance in practice does not deviate much from what was expected according to the design. The 2013-14 HIES data shows that about 48 percent of BISP beneficiaries are coming from the poorest quintile (compared with 55 ‘by design’), and 75 percent are coming from the bottom 40% (compared with 82 ‘by design’). The BISP targeting performance compares well with similar programs, including Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, Mexico’s Prospera (formerly known as Oportunidades) and Philippines’ 4P. 

As per international best practices, updates of registries are usually undertaken every 4-5 years. Accordingly, the BISP Board recommended in 2015 that the NSER is updated and later the Government of Pakistan approved the launch of the update with a test phase in 15 districts and one FATA agency that started in June 2016. There were many factors that necessitated the update. More specifically, the socio-economic landscape of Pakistan has faced changes in the past years whereby potentially more households have been pushed into poverty. Similarly, the rising level of vulnerabilities to shocks, recurring natural disasters in major poverty-stricken areas, pockets in the country that have seen major displacement due to conflict/ongoing insecurity may also have pushed a substantial number of households below the poverty line. Given the static nature of the current NSER, these changes in socio-economic characteristics of households have not been captured. Hence, it becomes important to reassess the status of current beneficiaries and identify new households that fit the criteria for the program but currently are not benefiting from the program.

BISP adopted a highly participatory process to guide the update process and established an Advisory Committee as a Technical Committee to guide the update process. They comprise of provincial representatives, economists and poverty experts and civil society. The World Bank is providing technical, operational, and financial support to BISP in completing this nationwide exercise in accordance with international best practices and has helped in revising the PMT formula using HIES 2013-14, refining the targeting instrument (Poverty Scorecard) and assessing the Value for Money (VfM) of the two survey approaches: self targeting (desk approach); and door-to-door survey. While the previous survey was paper based, the present update is CAPI (computer assisted personal interview) based which minimizes human error and expedites data processing. Once the nationwide data collection is completed in early 2018, the present NSER will be transformed into a dynamic registry to ensure that it remains a national asset being the most credible database on the socioeconomic status of households in the country and used by social programs in the country to deliver the services to those who are in need.

What Pakistanis need to realise is that NSER is a national asset bigger than BISP. Infact BISP is its biggest customer and custodian. It is an analysis of households beyond the poorest of the poor. After all the last survey captured not just the poor upto cut off point of 16.17 but upto 100 thus capturing a large percentage of the population. BISP has been mandated by the present PMLN government to undertake this survey yet again after the international success of the last one in 2010-11. Except this time the PMLN leadership, the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister expect that Pakistan will clinch the number one position internationally. Additionally the expectation is that domestically the NSER will cater to the needs of all. Its objective is to provide all levels of governments and private sector in Pakistan with the demographics of a population waiting for goods and public services. The NSER is all of Pakistan, thus the best way to describe it is – Hum hain Pakistan (we are Pakistan). It is the answer to the government’s challenge of tackling identification of poor and others so that not just poverty alleviation is managed but development is better managed through scientific database. For the NSER to be successful YOU meaning all of Pakistan need to take part in it when it reaches your district, city and village. We are counting on you to be part of the development of Pakistan by taking part in the NSER.