She is in league of her own. Without trying to stand out, she is unique. In a world that functions more on perception and image building than actual work, there is something refreshingly different about a woman whose professional dedication is her signature. Meet Dr Sania Nishtar of Pakistan, who, singlehandedly, has reshaped the stereotype of a person in power being true to the essence of the role of a genuine government representative: focus on people and work for people.
Dr Sania Nishtar is Special Assistant of the Prime Minister (SAPM) of Pakistan on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection, a ministerial position in the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Heading Ehsaas, Government of Pakistan's Poverty Alleviation Programme, Nishtar in 2021 is the manifestation of the power of a magnificent amalgamation of good intentions, good policies, good implementation and good results. Low-key, dignified, graceful, Nishtar belongs to that tiny club of public figures who are fortunate to not just have unadulterated public admiration but also bipartisan respect from opposing political spectrums.
In the words of Aon Abbasi Bappi, Managing Director, Pakistan Bait-ul-Mal, Dr Sania Nishtar “is one of the finest people I have come across. She has a deep understanding of her field of work, and her passion to deliver is exemplary. Her Ehsaas programme has become a flagship [initiative] of the PTI government. I have been working with her for the last two years; Dr Nishtar is a great team leader with the perfect acumen required to run her ministry. And that makes her work a truly great success.”
On May 14, 2019, Dawn reported that Prime Minister Khan appointed “Dr Sania Nishtar, a renowned health expert and activist to the post of special assistant to the prime minister on social protection and poverty alleviation with the status of federal minister.” Dawn also reported: “Dr Nishtar possesses impressive credentials, with broad-ranging experience in civil society, government, international development, policy and advocacy, humanitarianism and development, institution building and reform and with firsthand experience setting up institutions, fundraising and partnership building.”
When I write on people whose work I admire, for one reason or the other, I try to sift their real achievements from the public’s gushing comments and their peers’ laudatory words. Focusing on their tweets, media statements and speeches, I try to present their story in their own words, highlighting the consistency of their narrative, professional credos and work ethic.
In 2012, Dr Sania Nishtar, then CEO and president of Heartfile, spoke at the Rockefeller Foundation Innovation Forum: “Pakistan has many problems. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening. …huge constituency of people out there who really have no social protection, no fallback. They are really being pushed to the limits to poverty. …I try to improve health systems in Pakistan. I try to make them more equitable, and I advocate for that particular purpose.
It all started when I was publishing my last book, Choked Pipes; it’s about inefficiency of the health system in my country. …I thought about a project which would help protect people against medical impoverishment. If people were running the risk of spending catastrophically on health they could apply. The technology would make it efficient for me to process their requests. The pervasiveness of mobile phone use in the country would make it expedient for them to make the requests. Patients won’t have to line up for medical assistance. They won’t have to visit offices. Their files won’t get lost in piles of paper. We have made the request processing fully automated. Our online interface with the National Database Registration Authority verifies poverty status in fifteen minutes.”
To me the most noteworthy part of Nishtar’s 2012 statement and her work since May 2019 is her concern for the underprivileged Pakistanis, attributing great importance to the concept of attention to their self-respect. Nishtar’s empathy for the dignity of millions of Pakistanis belonging to the low-income or no-income stratum of society is the hallmark of her work. In her tweets, speeches, and personal interactions, her selection of words and body language reflect the consistency of her humility in her position and her regard for the dignity of underprivileged Ehsaas aid recipients or people in need in the time of coronavirus.
Without making any show about it, Nishtar seems to have a deep understanding of people’s agony of vulnerability and helplessness in their acute need of basic essentials, or short or long term assistance when suddenly beset with material hardship. Her help, even from a governmental position, seems sincere, heartfelt.
There is never an air of superiority, there is never an exercise in self-projection. Nishtar’s words, written or spoken, are merely an unvarnished, comprehensive description of her work. In her meetings with people in need, she listens with empathy. Her attention is undivided. And she helps without any fanfare. That quality of quiet execution of her professional responsibilities also makes Nishtar a rarity in the age of unabashed me-myself-I trumpeting.
Nishtar in 2021 is no different than the woman, professional and incredible human being that she was in 2012 and earlier. Her attention to details is meticulous. With the goal of transformation of governmental assistance into a future-based income-generating process, Nishtar’s work is not limited to handing out cash as charity. Her focus is on ensuring that the aid recipients, especially women, became self-sufficient.
Many of Nishtar’s tweets are her information-based responses to the issues and queries of people who contact her on social media. Dr Sania Nishtar is responsive to all appeals and requests made to her on Twitter and in person. Unlike most SAPM and ministers, her posts are strictly apolitical. All her tweets, other than her unwaveringly gracious responses, are a tiny peep into some of her work.
Ehsaas under the guidance of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the leadership of Dr Sania Nishtar is a “programme for the extreme poor, orphans, widows, the homeless, the disabled, those who risk medical impoverishment, for the jobless, for poor farmers, for labourers, for the sick and undernourished; for students from low-income backgrounds and for poor women and elderly citizens. This plan is also about lifting lagging areas where poverty is higher.”
Ehsaas in categorised into various programmes: Ehsaas Roshan Portal (a donor-beneficiary linking system for ration distribution [created in 2020]); PM’s COVID-19 Fund Portal; Data for Pakistan; Ehsaas Emergency Cash; Ehsaas Registration Centres; Ehsaas Scholarships; Ehsaas Langars (Under an agreement with the Saylani Welfare International Trust, 112 langars [free community food] to be set up in bus stands, industrial areas, railway stations, and places where labourers tend to congregate); Ehsaas Interest free Loans; Ehsaas Amdan (assets given to the deserving to enable them to graduate out of poverty); Ehsaas Nashunoma (health and nutrition conditional cash transfer programme that aims to address stunting in children under 23 months of age); Ehsaas Kafaalat (provision of cash stipends to most deserving and poorest women across the country); and Waseela-e-Taleem Digital (Education Conditional Cash Transfer for primary school going children.
On December 14, 2020, Country Director World Bank Najy Benhassine “declared the Ehsaas programme as a flagship social protection programme of the government and a role model for other countries.”
Sir Michael Barber is chairperson and founder of Delivery Associates, a “globally respected firm that works with governments across the world to achieve measurable developmental impact.” His company’s independent report entitled “The Ehsaas Programme: Shift from politics of patronage to politics of performance” states: “Our analysis shows that Ehsaas, by focusing on accountability and impact, has laid the foundations for becoming a globally leading exemplar on how to tackle poverty. I have had the honour of working with successive Pakistani governments throughout my career, and it is fantastic to see Ehsaas embedded at the heart of the current administration. The reforms and structural changes pioneered by the team resulted in the rapid delivery of Ehsaas Emergency Cash to 12 million households against the challenging and unprecedented backdrop of COVID-19. Their work is going to be vital in the coming months and years.”
In Pakistan where Prime Minister Imran Khan “is personally committed to ensuring that no one goes to bed hungry,” the ongoing work and successful implementation and positive results of Ehsaas programmes is because of the brilliant work of Dr Sania Nishtar and her team.
One leader with the right intentions, policies, work ethic and selflessness can make a life-changing difference. Dr Sania Nishtar in an era of half-hearted measures and opportunism is a rare example of that nobility, empathy and ehsaas that make the world a better place.