Inaugural Speech by Ms. Marvi Memon, MNA & Chairperson BISP, on “Poverty Alleviation and National Security”

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Roundtable Discussion on “Poverty Alleviation and National Security”

Inaugural Speech by Ms. Marvi Memon, MNA & Chairperson BISP

April 22, 2016

Poverty management and its affect on national and regional security.

Poverty threatens national security and, overtime, regional and Eventually international peace and security. Several studies have used empirical data to demonstrate that poverty weakens nations,  plunges them in internecine conflicts or transnational strife, and attenuates a state’s capacity to ensure its security.

Countries plagued by poverty are unable to fight disease, protect environment and respond to disasters effectively. We have seen time and again that poverty makes affected individuals and families vulnerable to crimes and terrorism.  Terrorist masterminds and criminals lure young, poor people to recruit them for acts of terrorism and violent extremism, as well as for drugs, arms and human trafficking.   It is no coincidence, for instance,  that  Al Qaeda chose the most impoverished and conflict-ridden countries and spaces for recruitment and training.

There is, however, an inadequate realization of how abject poverty escalates tension among nations and threatens regional and international peace and security. The UN Charter therefore might well have written in its Preamble “… to save succeeding generation from the scourge of poverty…” along with the “the scourge of war”. It is time that poverty is recognized as a major driver of conflict within and among nations.

Poverty engenders fragility in states and makes their economies anemic. Poverty alleviation strategies should therefore not only  aim at pulling poor people out of the vicious cycle of poverty and bringing them just above the poverty, but create conducive environment for the full growth of the individuals and communities. These strategies should be linked firmly to the overall economic development strategy because, as we know, security and development are closely linked.

A review of the Sustainable Development Goals has shown that societies  with high incidence of poverty and  driven by violent conflicts were unable to make much progress.  We should therefore make collective efforts to meet the combined challenges of poverty, disease, illiteracy and climate change in our own states, regionally and then internationally.

For poor people, security means access to means that would provide them food, safe drinking water and jobs. Once these basic requirements are met they would seek opportunities for development through education and attain some dignity. It is axiomatic that human rights and fundamental freedoms cannot be promoted and promoted if poverty persists.  This in turn affects the security of states and our international community.

Study after study has substantiated that inequality and exclusion, of which the poor are the worst victims, aggravate insecurity. It is therefore imperative that a state with a higher incidence of chronic poverty makes direct, affirmative interventions to eliminate poverty and diminish inequalities. As poverty starts decreasing, the confidence among the private sector, from home and abroad, picks up momentum and stimulates growth, and that is good for overall security. In fact one of the ways to bring weak economies out of stagnation and decline is to invest in poverty alleviation so that consumer demand increases and markets become more responsive, dynamic and productive.

National leaders and economic planners, especially of the developing countries,  grapple with these  problems day in and day out. They also recognize the above realities whilst formulating policies. In Pakistan the current leadership PM NS and FM S I Dar have clearly taken the economy to a stage where 22 international agencies are endorsing our economic achievements which in turn have created fiscal space for funding our BISP the largest social safety net and giving it budgets it never had before. Inflation down to 4 53%. World economists like Jim o Neil have said in their report that Pakistan has the potential to become the 18th largest economy by 2050.

On the commitment by Pakistan’s leadership to the social safety net namely the organization I represent, the Benazir Income Support Program, our budgets have increased. From the previous government’s  $0.4bn per year to the current $1bn per year is the fiscal commitment. It is clear that this commitment is not just part of the Islamic responsibility of the state to look after the poor but also an acceptance of how when the poor are managed they are not fodder for instability inside Pakistan and outside.

Ladies and gentlemen,

On national security the equation is simple. BISP will give Pakistan its best ever Nser identifying the real poor so that programs targeted towards getting them out of their doom can be made fast and they end up crossing the poverty alleviation versus terrorism lines at the harsh human race grounds.

It is such poverty management efforts within the region which need better regional linkages.  Our neighbors are ours for life. We need to accept that despite our conflicts with them we need to join hands to save our poor so that we can add value to the stability zone which needs to be created by them at the bottom of the security pyramid versus otherwise.  Regional poverty management and alleviation programs should be the important CBMs for dispute resolution as well as learning grounds for how we can treat our poor as a larger subset of the same instability fodder. Once this realization is created that our destinies are shared and that we can jointly work to implement workable successful poverty management and alleviation strategies in the region, then only can we move on the larger regional development mega projects like the China Pak Economic corridor or TAPI, with some trust and confidence. It is an acceptable fact that regional economic connectivity is the only way forward for the prosperity of our people and for eventual dispute resolution of some of our sticky historic territorial disputes. However what is not an accepted reality is that before that we need to undertake knowledge sharing on what works and what doesn’t in terms of poverty management and alleviation in a region which shares so much culture history and ethos.

We in Pakistan are conscious that the symbiotic nexus between poverty and insecurity will be attacked most effectively through the propagation  of the rule of law and access to justice.  These two tools empower all, but especially the poor, and within this segment especially women. Poor women would be empowered if they have access to financial tools and if they acquire skills and this is precisely what Pakistan’s largest social safety net, the Benazir Income Support Program is trying to do. BISP’s efforts are producing results inside Pakistan.

I would like to briefly share what kind of a poverty management and reduction journey we are on inside Pakistan.

  • We at BISP have the humbling responsibility of being custodians of the poorest most vulnerable Pakistanis.
  • Our real life revolution is that 5.2 mm of the poorest women of Pakistan who have been identified through an internationally acclaimed poverty scorecard are being given cash stipends worth $47 every 3 months through electronic debit cards.
  • Our annual budget of $1bnn is 90% from Pakistan’s own resources. Our strength is our database of the poor, Pakistan’s only National Socio Economic Registry.
  • Being custodians essentially means protecting our vulnerable from hunger, giving them dignity, empowering them, and ensuring that they have a new meaning to life.
  • It is nothing short of a revolution which is going on in Pakistan because we are trying to lift the bottom of the pyramid out of gloom and giving them the chance to live productive lives.
  • As a first step we are obligated to save them from hunger and death by ensuring they have enough to eat.
  • Third party evaluations of BISP show that maximum amount of the cash stipend received by our vulnerable goes into buying basic food for the entire family. The cash is thus a life saving necessity without which millions of lives would be at stake.
  • Being custodians of the poor also entails ensuring they live healthier lives
  • Whilst we are offering health insurance to the poor as a new initiative, we are very keen to introduce them to family planning, nutrition supplements, and nutrition advocacy.
  • There is perhaps no single cause in Pakistan’s development journey which is more critical than saving our future generations from stunting and malnutrition since this leads to a GDP loss of 3%.
  • Smaller IQs due to lack of adequate nutrition will be the biggest stumbling block in Pakistan realizing its full potential in the future years.
  • Thus its time critical that our vulnerable population which is a drag on the GDP growth becomes an accelerator for it.
  • For this we need the following:
    1. Legislation on fortification of oil, flour and salt and then the actual implementation countrywide of this program to ensure reduced malnutrition. We are actively pursuing this.
    2. Conditional cash transfers to ensure that our women population gets pre natal visits, family planning products, malnutrition supplements, full education on how to cook nutritious meals for their families from basic cheap food products. This will ensure a healthier productive population which can take Pakistan from developing to developed faster. We are looking for grants to be able to accomplish this.
  • We also want our vulnerable to vaccinate their children so that we can safeguard their health. This immunization drive requires advocy and conditional cash transfer incentives which BISP is well placed to deliver in those geographical locations where the rates of immunization are low.
  • Being custodians of the poor also entails giving them their basic constitutional right of education. For now BISP has enrolled its 1 mm children of which 47% is girl enrollment which is another huge enabler for future women empowerment.
  • For a country where children enter the labor workforce, are thrown into early marriages, get encouraged into extremist activities, educating them is a sacred responsibility. For now we have taken care of primary education of 37% of our most vulnerable children in 21% of our districts.
  • If we get more funding we can complete this task for all the districts of Pakistan and then take this conditional cash transfer to Phase 2 by ensuring the mothers receive incentive money for their children’s secondary education also. Only then would we have completed the education circle. Educating the poorest children is an immediate guarantee of future generations not being stuck in the poverty trap.
  • Since we consider ourselves custodians of the poor our responsibilities also extend towards educating our 5.2 mm women most of whom are illiterate. Adult literacy programs are fairly cost effective and were BISP to get funding for this initiative it would be a revolution in terms of women empowerment. Imagine if the most vulnerable mothers were suddenly armed with education. It would transform the country’s gender equality landscape for life.
  • An educated mother would ensure an educated family.
  • Whilst we as parliamentarians have legislated on increasing protection for women when faced with harassment, rape, acid violence (my own law on acid violence is a case in point) we have yet to educate our most vulnerable on their rights. BISP provides a unique platform through its BISP beneficiary committees of doing just this. When women in groups of 25 spread over 45,000 committees in the country will discuss how they have legal protection over any form of discrimination or violence, the word empowerment of women will take a new meaning.
  • Whilst BIPS has a platform and an existing network, it awaits the funds to be able to develop this program. Once executed, there will be no looking back for the women of Pakistan. It will be gender equality journey which will be quoted as trend setting for many other countries.
  • One of the major USPs of BISP is the fact that it is the largest social safety net thus being the largest financial inclusion program of the country. 5.2mm women have CNICs enabling them to vote. They also have debit cards and bank accounts making them financially empowered. For future economic equality this means that BISP is the only organization well positioned into changing the financial landscape of Pakistan. In essence brining the most vulnerable women into the banking system means giving them choices for the first time in life.
  • Let it be clear that this is a country where women from vulnerable backgrounds have never had any independent identity let alone a right to own a financial instrument which gives that the extra decision making in their families.
  • With BISP they now know what having cash in their own hands means. They now spend on their priorities without being bullied into giving away what is theirs. They now have a sense of what to save for and what to spend on. For the first time they have seen what ATM machines look like. For the first time they have left their villages and seen town centres where these financial instruments exist. For the first time they have experienced mobile phone banking and biometric systems.
  • All this means opening doors which never existed before for them.
  • Other than the basic stipend which means the world to them because it is their safety net in a patriarchical society they also have access to easy loans.
  • These loans have led them into the world of self employment and employment giving. From dole takers they have become employment givers. When they take loans they are in essence opening the doors to graduating out of poverty in one leap.
  • This revolution is the ultimate fruit for which we strive 24 by 7.
  • Over 50,000 of our vulnerable have received vocational training and more than 100,000 of them have received interest free loans. These are the success stories because they are no longer in our custody. These need to be shared and used for inspiration as part of the BISP sisters in success plans. They are poverty graduates of our system.
  • We would want these numbers to reach one million by 2018 with adequate funding. Imagine if the poorest were to become self sustained. Imagine when they would encourage others to exit poverty by being role models. Imagine when they no longer need the state but are useful contributors to the GDP growth rates.
  • The force multiplier of 1 mm graduates of poverty will be the turning point and the tipping point in Pakistan’s growth journey. It would not have happened due to any major rocket science other than a belief in and an investment in human capital. BISP e commerce is another game changer car of corporates startups n civil society.
  • It is my firm belief that BISP is Pakistan’s only platform which if fully utilized can help identify the poorest, provide custodianship in every respect to them and then make them graduate out of poverty.
  • The sooner we move this cycle the sooner Pakistan will move from developing to developed and reap the benefits of the demographic dividend versus the demographic disaster.

And now ladies no gentlemen to conclude I would like to emphasize the link between poverty management and regional security. In 2016 whilst Pakistan is well on its way to economic development, undertaking regional economic mega projects and coordinating on regional security apparatus, a bit more emphasis is required on knowledge sharing on how our region undertakes poverty management inside its own borders so that our regional borders are more secure and thus the international community is also more secure.  Perhaps in the entire security debate to date the missing focus has been exactly this… How each country manages its poor cannot be divorced from how regional neighbors manage their poor. It is the basis of how collectively we will address extremist threats. It is the root cause of the problem. It needs more collective attention.

We at BISP in Pakistan offer our platform to share our poverty management learnings with the region and we would like to take the lead in this regional and international journey to collectively secure our most vulnerable populations from becoming fodder for the instability pyramid.