Senator Dr Sania Nishtar
Senator Dr Sania Nishtar, Special Assistant of the Prime Minister of Pakistan on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection. Image Credit: Supplied

She handles her position with humility. Her words enunciate her empathy. There is kindness in her eyes for those in need. Her initiatives speak volumes about her commitment to make ours a better world. The simplicity of her personality stamps her work with an impossible-to-impersonate authenticity. Senator Dr Sania Nishtar, Special Assistant of the Prime Minister of Pakistan on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection. In a world ruled by politicians, Dr Nishtar works in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government with values that place her in a league uniquely her own.

It is the way in which Dr Nishtar talks to the underprivileged people who approach her with their issues. It is the ease with which she sits on the floor with the applicants of governmental support, interacting with them fully attentive, visibly empathetic. It is in the language in which she responds to countless queries on Twitter. What Dr Nishtar understands is people’s pain. What Dr Nishtar infuses in her work for people is the utmost respect for their dignity.

Dr Nishtar leads government’s Ehsaas, Pakistan's Poverty Alleviation Programme, and chairs the Benazir Income Support Programme and the United Nations International Institute for Global Health’s Advisory Committee. Dr Nishtar is the former co-chair of the World Health Organisation’s Independent High-level Commission on Noncommunicable Diseases. In 2017, she was one of the three elected finalists for the position of WHO Director General.

In a world overshadowed by rhetoric, falsehoods, and insincerity, Dr Nishtar’s tweets, speeches, and interviews are apolitical, and always about her work. Dr Nishtar is the perfect example of a technocrat who with a deep understanding of her subject and empathy for the underprivileged Pakistani add grace and nobility to the position of a minister.

Dr Nishtar’s work ethic is an inspirational lesson on how much good one person in the right position can do.

For Gulf News, I asked Senator Dr Sania Nishtar a few questions:

Under your leadership, how many people have benefited through the Ehsaas programme?

More than 15 million families have benefited from Ehsaas so far. Which means over 100 million people—more than 45 percent of the country’s population.

As millions of Pakistanis struggle to survive, countless affected because of the ongoing pandemic, what is the criterion for the eligibility for governmental support through Ehsaas? Is there a plan already operational or in the pipeline to help those who are not covered in the Ehsaas programme?

The eligibility criterion is based on Ehsaas’ National Socio-Economic Survey, which we have just completed. This was a massive national exercise involving data collection, door to door, totally through digital means. All socioeconomic targeting under Ehsaas uses the proxy means test (PMT), which is derived from the National Socio-Economic Survey. PMT is a proxy for a household’s socioeconomic/welfare status.

All the surveyed households are scored on a scale of 0-100; the higher the score, the better is the wellbeing of the household. On the basis of the available fiscal space, the eligibility cut-off is determined anywhere between 0-100. We make sure that we use objective means of eligibility ascertainment, so that there is absolutely no human discretion and space for manoeuvrability.

What are the goals of the Ehsaas Education Stipends programme?

Education is one of the most powerful tools for lifting communities out of poverty. Educated citizens, especially girls and women, are more likely to join formal labour markets, make healthy choices and support their community. The Ehsaas Education Stipends programme aims to give this opportunity to Pakistan’s most vulnerable by providing families with cash stipends for sending their children to primary, secondary, and higher secondary schools.

We are also trying to level the playing field by ensuring girls get a higher stipend across all age groups to encourage parents to give daughters the same opportunities as sons.

Do you have any plan under the Ehsaas programme for not just temporary relief but long-lasting, if not complete, alleviation of poverty in Pakistan? Which, if any, measures are planned in the short, medium, and long term?

Ehsaas aims to tackle the acute needs of Pakistan’s most vulnerable while laying the groundwork for long-term equality and prosperity. By tackling multidimensional poverty through nutrition, health care, job creation, education and more, we’re creating resilient communities that can better withstand shocks to economies and societies. Several sets of interventions in the Ehsaas umbrella promote livelihood building and are hence aimed at long lasting impact.

Our financial access to education programmes—both Ehsaas school stipends (from Grade 1-12) and the Ehsaas Undergraduate Scholarships (Grade 12 onwards) strengthen children and students from underprivileged families with education, which is most empowering in the long term.

The health and nutrition conditional cash transfer programme, Ehsaas Nashonuma, helps prevent stunting, and the cognitive decline that is a consequence of stunting. It is a very long-term empowering tool.

Under the Ehsaas Amdan, assets are given for livelihood promotion, and Ehsaas loans help build livelihoods. Access to financial tools such as bank accounts for women provide beneficiaries a life-altering security. Also, in terms of cash transfers it can be argued that social transfers are potentially the most progressive option for fiscal stimulus in emerging markets and low-income economies.

To address the immediate needs of those worst impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ehsaas provided US $1.2 billion of emergency cash transfers to 15 million families. A report by the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth found that this was pivotal in preventing a catastrophic explosion in poverty during the pandemic.

Your empathy for the underprivileged is a hallmark of your pre-governmental work, and now as PM’s Special Assistant on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection. What is the most important inspiration for your professional ethos?

My inspiration comes from the plight of the people, the scale of the challenge, the wide chasm between what-is-possible and what-has-been-done, the clear potential to transform lives through governing well, and although this has become clichéd, “doing the right things for the right reasons.”