Muhammed Muheisen, Associated Press
KALLAR KAHAR, Pakistan — Clutching photocopied ID cards in bony fingers, a roomful of Pakistan's poorest women sit on gray plastic chairs and wait in silence for something many have never experienced: a little bit of help from the government.
It comes in the form of a debit card that is topped up with the equivalent of $30 every three months, enough to put an extra daily meal on the table, buy a school uniform or pay for medical treatment in a country where soaring food and fuel costs are hurting millions who already live hand-to-mouth.
The program is something of a success story for a government widely seen as corrupt and inefficient, as well as for international donors that help implement and fund it. But the very need for the scheme highlights the poverty stalking a country whose stability is seen as key to the fight against Islamist extremism.
Other cash-transfer programs in Pakistan have been plagued by graft and allegations that only supporters of the party in power received the funds. Many feared this program, named after Benazir Bhutto, the late wife of President Asif Ali Zardari, would go the same way.
But that hasn't happened, at least not significantly. The Benazir Income Support Programme is modeled on similar efforts in Africa and South America, part of a quiet revolution in the way countries and development agencies are helping the poor. Initial concerns that recipients would fritter away the money have proven unfounded, and giving cash is now accepted as a vital and cost-effective aid tool.
"I spend the money on my kids, what else would I do?" said Rifat Parveen, a mother of five who sometimes has to serve only bread and boiled chili peppers for the evening meal. "Even if a poor person gets 10 rupees (5 cents), he or she will be grateful."
When a woman is called, she goes to a room where her identity is checked against an electronic database and her thumb print taken electronically. A bank employee then gives her the card — and a crash course in how to use it — before she returns to her village.
As they do elsewhere in the world, women in Pakistan must receive the money on behalf of their families because research shows they spend it more responsibly than men do. They must also first obtain a valid identity card to be eligible. Both requirements have been credited with pushing women, discriminated against in Pakistan, a little into the mainstream.
Recognizing that giving money doesn't address the underlying cause of poverty, many schemes make the money conditional on certain actions by the recipient, such as sending one or more children to school or getting them vaccinated. The Pakistani program, which has so far handed out $1.3 billion to 5.2 million people, doesn't do that, but plans to make some of the money conditional on school attendance.
The scheme has undergone several changes since it began in 2008.
Initially, local parliamentarians chose the beneficiaries and the money was distributed through the postal system.
Amid concerns that both systems had potential for abuse, the government surveyed 27 million households nationwide two years ago using a "poverty score card" to establish who qualified for the help.
Workers carried out detailed questionnaires on family size, salary and assets. They noted GPS coordinates of each household and whether the occupants had toilets, televisions or geysers to heat water. The data was then entered into a national computerized system. Beneficiaries are now being given debit cards, replacing the postal workers.
The U.S. government has provided $160 million, enough to provide two years of benefits to some 565,000 families — though it no longer funds the program and never intended to make it a long-term commitment.
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