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Reaching the Poorest through Cash Transfers

World Bank
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Supported by IDA’s technical assistance since 2009, Pakistan has established the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), a flagship national safety net initiative that provides income support in the form of cash transfers of US$12 per month to 3.5 million of the poorest families. To determine eligibility, the program uses an objective ‘poverty scorecard’ that has been rolled out through a door-to-door national census, collecting information on more than 27 million households in Pakistan. The information yielded through this initiative, which was validated through Pakistan’s National Identity Database, has helped the government to set up a National Poverty Data Registry; the first in the South Asia region.


Around 25 million people (15 percent of the population) live in extreme poverty, and from 2008 onwards, the adverse impacts of global financial, food, and fuel crises posed multiple challenges to Pakistan’s rapidly evolving social protection sector. The militancy crisis, as well as recurring natural disasters, further exacerbated the situation by exposing an even larger number of Pakistan’s vulnerable population to the risk of falling into abject poverty. The nation’s main safety net programs (i.e. Pakistan Bait-ul-Mal, and the Zakat) were hampered by a number of factors. They had limited coverage (reaching only. approximately 5 percent of the total population) and were poorly targeted, as around 25 and 32 percent of resources distributed by these programs, respectively, was going to non-poor households). Additionally, benefit levels were small, payments were infrequent and irregular, administration arrangements were inadequate, and implementation and monitoring and evaluation capacity were both very weak. Consequently, these programs had little impact on addressing the issue of poverty and vulnerability.


To address the above challenges, the Government of Pakistan launched the BISP during the second half of 2008 as its flagship national social safety net initiative. The short-term objective of the program was to cushion the adverse impact of the food, fuel, and financial crisis on the poor, but its broader objective was to provide a minimum income support package to the very poorest and to those who are highly vulnerable to the future shocks. Since 2009, the World Bank’s Social Safety Net Technical Assistance Project assisted the BISP in implementing of a proxy means test-based targeting instrument – the Poverty Score Card – to objectively identify the poor as program beneficiaries, and to set up a unified targeting registry for the country. In addition, the project assisted in the strengthening of operational processes, institutional development, and controls and accountability for program administration. To date, the national rollout of the Poverty Score Card through door-to-door census is nearing completion, covering approximately 27 million households. So far, around six million families have qualified for cash transfers under the eligibly cut-off score. In addition, the institution of BISP has been established as an autonomous authority under an act unanimously approved by Pakistan’s parliament. Additionally, the program’s management information system has been made operational, a technology-based payment system has been tested and is now being taken to scale, and a number of third party evaluations and spot-checks have been instituted to strengthen control and accountability. The program has now set the foundation for provision of integrated and coordinated support to the poor to promote, over the long run, the development of the target population and to enable their better access to economic opportunities..


Since its creation in August 2008, BISP - with support from the Bank’s technical assistance and the Social Safety Net Project - has accomplished the following:

  • Achieved the goal of redistributing support by moving from general subsidies towards targeted cash grants—to date, the BISP has disbursed more than US$1 billion in the form of cash grants to 3.5 million beneficiary families in all regions and areas of the country, benefiting more than 20 million people directly.

  • The program is empowering women by disbursing the cash only to the female representatives of the eligible families. At the same time, the program has encouraged women to register with the National Database Registry Authority for a national identification card; since the introduction of BISP, a 40 percent spike has been observed in female registration of Computerized National Identity Cards (CNICs), which can potentially open avenues for their socio-economic and political empowerment.

  • The BISP has established a credible foundation for a national poverty registry as initial results of spot-checks show the accuracy rate of the poverty scorecard survey as 95.4 percent.

  • The payment through debit cards was initiated in April 2010 and, by October 2011, 176,072 cards had been distributed with a total sum of US$ 225 million disbursed to beneficiaries. Based on the experience of this pilot, BISP is now rolling out the debit card payments nationwide, presently making these electronic payments to about 800,000 families.

  • As of October 2011, 60,000 BISP beneficiaries have registered for mobile phone-based payments.


Ever since I started receiving a cash grant, I have something to lean on for survival and am thankful for the help to pull trough my difficult life. — Faiz Begum, Project Beneficiary

Bank Contribution

The World Bank supported the BISP through the Social Safety Net Technical Assistance Project with US$60 million (IDA), approved by the Bank’s Board in May 2009. Given the success of BISP in establishing itself as the national safety net platform, and in continuation of the sector reforms begun by the project, a proposal for US$150 million (IDA) in additional financing was approved by the Bank’s Board on February 7, 2012. This additional funding would support the expansion of BISP’s Cash Transfers program and support its evolution towards CCTs, linked to enrollment and attendance of primary school-aged children of BISP beneficiary families.


In 2009, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) approved a World Bank-managed trust fund to support the test phase of the Public Score Card and to set up the initial organizational and operational arrangements for implementing the BISP. Following support from the World Bank, other donors such as the Asian Development Bank and the US Agency for International Development also provided US$150 million each to finance cash transfers to beneficiaries identified through the Public Score Card targeting system. The partnership between World Bank and DFID, as well as coordination with the other development partners, will continue throughout the additional financing of the Social Safety Net Project, for which DFID will initially mobilize up to US$140 million, with the possibility to increase funding if results of school enrollment and attendance through the BISP-managed CCT component become available.

Toward the Future

BISP management has decided to introduce co-responsibilities linked to primary education for the BISP beneficiary families. In partnership with the provincial governments, BISP is preparing to launch the Co-responsibility Cash Transfer (CCT) Program in September 2012 to link cash benefits to primary school enrollment and attendance of BISP beneficiaries’ children. Given that around 70 percent of children of BISP beneficiaries are out of school at the moment, this advanced modality is expected to have a huge impact of getting and keeping millions of Pakistani girls and boys in the schools. International evidence suggests that CCTs can contribute towards reducing the transmission of inter-generational poverty through better educational and thus employment opportunities, translating into higher life earnings that commonly result from investments in human capital development. Moving ahead, BISP’s challenges will be to expand the program’s coverage to seven million identified beneficiaries, introduce co-responsibilities such as primary education, entrench its operational systems and strengthen public communication and outreach, and proactively engage with provinces for achieving ease in implementation and sustainable impact at the grassroots level.