Book Project

Book Project Title:

Being Seen By the State: Social Policy and the Politics of Poverty Relief in Pakistan

Under what conditions do states with fragmented democratic institutions and high levels of corruption and patronage implement programmatic social policies to address poverty and inequality ? What consequences do the design and implementation of these social policies have for previously excluded citizens, who face high barriers in participating in politics and accessing the state. My book manuscript addresses these seminal political economy questions about how public policies can influence politics, by analyzing the political origins and citizenship consequences of Pakistan’s largest social safety net: The Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), one of the largest unconditional cash transfer (UCT) programs targeted at exclusively at women in the Global South.

BISP was established in 2008, during Pakistan’s most recent and tenuous democratic transition. Over the span of a decade (2008-18), BISP has rapidly expanded social welfare coverage to over 5.5 million women and their households nationwide, with a goal to cover 20% of the population. The first part of the monograph examines the political origins of programmatic social policy expansion in Pakistan. The second part analyzes the effect of the BISP cash transfer on beneficiaries’ political participation and engagement with both formal and informal local governance institutions

I use a mixed methods research design, combining a variety of data sources collected during sixteen months of field research in four districts in Pakistan. This research includes a unique quasi-experimental household survey with 2254 respondents, 70 semi-structured qualitative interviews, four focus groups and historical process tracing of social policy expansion over time. Using a variety of research methods has allowed me to collect diverse sources data and triangulate evidence to answer these questions and challenge alternative explanations.

This book’s central argument is that Pakistan’s most recent democratic transition in 2008 and the return to competitive party politics created a favorable policy window that enabled the alignment of political and economic incentives for three successive elected governments to build up a rules-based social safety net that provided benefits to previously excluded citizens and undermined traditional rural patron-client tries. The book examines how the dual pressures of increased political competition at the domestic level and the need for donor aid and signaling credibility, played a significant role in incentivizing three successive incumbents to build a rules-based welfare program, insulated from clientelistic political pressures and local patronage networks. Rules-based welfare has also allowed political parties to claim credit for these popular and welfare enhancing social policies and build linkages with existing and potential voters, in ways that have strengthened programmatic politics, in a setting where patronage based governance is well entrenched.

The second part of the monograph uses household survey data leveraging a natural experiment to examine the consequences of programmatic social welfare expansion for BISP program recipients political participation and engagement with the state. I find that receipt of a BISP cash transfer mobilized female program recipients to become empowered voters and reduced their reliance on traditional rural patronage institutions, such as landlords (zamindars) and informal village governance (panchayats). However, BISP’s top-down centralized implementation has created limited local forums for citizen-state linkages and claim making, indicating the limitations of programmatic cash transfers, in settings where local state presence is highly uneven. While the citizen-state policy feedback loops are weak, I illustrate how BISP enabled new policy feed back and learning within the Pakistani bureaucratic state on how to address issues of poverty and the inclusion of previously excluded citizens.

I conclude the monograph by placing the Pakistani case of social policy expansion in comparative perspective with three other notable welfare programs in new democracies in the Global South: India, Brazil and Mexico. My analysis of the politics of social welfare expansion in Pakistan, seeks to make an original contribution to the study of the political origins and consequences of programmatic social policy expansion, poverty alleviation and state-citizen linkages in new democracies in the Global South.