The Ehsas School Stipends scheme announced in September seems promising, but fundamental policy questions remain unanswered. Will this intervention be able to utilize its allocated resources without the risk of the funds remaining underspent?
While the resources on education development remain low or under-spent at provincial and federal levels, we must appreciate whatever little this government is doing for education development and improving access. The Prime Minister himself admits that there are over 20 million children out of school across the nation. The government’s timely announcement to incentivize poor households with education stipends for children aged 4-22 years is a welcome and a desperately-needed step. The program, officially named as “Education Conditional Cash Transfers”, has been rolled out this September under the government’s Ehsas Initiative led by Dr. Sania Nishter. It is an evolved and improved version of the former BISP-run (Benazir Income Support Program) named “Waseela e Taleem”, which was implemented in 2012 in a select few districts.
The good thing about this initiative is that the girls’ stipends have been increased and the scope of its implementation has also been widened. The government also claims that it has reduced the high administrative costs by re-institutionalizing this program and the expensive reliance on NGOs has now been greatly reduced. Under this program, the processes have been digitized to make cash-transfers more convenient and lower the risks of exploitation. Given below is the summary of how the stipends will be distributed:
- Primary classes – Rs1,500 for boys and Rs2,000 for girls
- Secondary classes – Rs2,500 for boys and Rs3,000 for girls
- Higher secondary classes – Rs3,500 for boys and Rs4,000 for girls
The stipends will be transferred to the parents instead of schools.
While there are previous (eg. BISP-Waseela e Taleem) and on-going initiatives (Education Voucher Scheme in Punjab) of the sort already in place, we raise the two fundamental policy questions on this important intervention:
Will it remove Cultural-barriers for Girls?
The government officials and the Prime Minister himself acknowledged the reluctance of families (for cultural, logistic or other socio-economic reasons) in sending their girls off to schools. This leaves the policy-issue of making schools safe, accessible and appealing for girls and the marginalized remains unresolved. The cultural privileges of mobility and logistics that the boys enjoy while going to schools are often denied to girls, and in this regard, little has been done to persuade the parents otherwise. Hence, the pre-existing situation for girls whose out-of-school and drop-out ratio remains unchanged. This raises questions whether a mere increase in stipends for girls is persuasive enough to remove staunch traditional barriers to education. It further propels us to ask from the government on what lessons were learnt from previous similar initiatives that have directed this new policy.
Will Digitization of Cash Transfers be of Use to Underprivileged Families?
Secondly, in terms of digitization of money transfers, the parents belonging to economically disadvantaged groups are usually unable to understand and utilize technology-based devices. While the intervention relies on digitization of processes, we should be asking as to how this policy will be able to utilize resources allocated for it without the risk of its funds remaining underspent.
There are other dimensions of education barriers in Pakistan that the policy makers at state level often ignore or fail to recognize. The reason to understand why we lack rationalization of resources and meaningful interventions is because of an information lapse on the types of obstacles that marginalized communities actually face here.