KALLAR KAHAR, Pakistan — Clutching photocopied ID cards in bony fingers, a roomful of Pakistan's poorest women sit on gray plastic chairs and wait in silence for something many have never experienced: a little bit of help from the government.
It comes in the form of a debit card that is topped up with the equivalent of $30 every three months, enough to put an extra daily meal on the table, buy a school uniform or pay for medical treatment in a country where soaring food and fuel costs are hurting millions who already live hand-to-mouth.
The program is something of a success story for a government widely seen as corrupt and inefficient, as well as for international donors that help implement and fund it. But the very need for the scheme highlights the poverty stalking a country whose stability is seen as key to the fight against Islamist extremism.
Other cash-transfer programs in Pakistan have been plagued by graft and allegations that only supporters of the party in power received the funds. Many feared this program, named after Benazir Bhutto, the late wife of President Asif Ali Zardari, would go the same way.
But that hasn't happened, at least not significantly. The Benazir Income Support Programme is modeled on similar efforts in Africa and South America, part of a quiet revolution in the way countries and development agencies are helping the poor. Initial concerns that recipients would fritter away the money have proven unfounded, and giving cash is now accepted as a vital and cost-effective aid tool.
"I spend the money on my kids, what else would I do?" said Rifat Parveen, a mother of five who sometimes has to serve only bread and boiled chili peppers for the evening meal. "Even if a poor person gets 10 rupees (5 cents), he or she will be grateful."
When a woman is called, she goes to a room where her identity is checked against an electronic database and her thumb print taken electronically. A bank employee then gives her the card – and a crash course in how to use it – before she returns to her village.
As they do elsewhere in the world, women in Pakistan must receive the money on behalf of their families because research shows they spend it more responsibly than men do. They must also first obtain a valid identity card to be eligible. Both requirements have been credited with pushing women, discriminated against in Pakistan, a little into the mainstream.
Recognizing that giving money doesn't address the underlying cause of poverty, many schemes make the money conditional on certain actions by the recipient, such as sending one or more children to school or getting them vaccinated. The Pakistani program, which has so far handed out $1.3 billion to 5.2 million people, doesn't do that, but plans to make some of the money conditional on school attendance.
The scheme has undergone several changes since it began in 2008.
Initially, local parliamentarians chose the beneficiaries and the money was distributed through the postal system.
Amid concerns that both systems had potential for abuse, the government surveyed 27 million households nationwide two years ago using a "poverty score card" to establish who qualified for the help.
Workers carried out detailed questionnaires on family size, salary and assets. They noted GPS coordinates of each household and whether the occupants had toilets, televisions or geysers to heat water. The data was then entered into a national computerized system. Beneficiaries are now being given debit cards, replacing the postal workers.
The U.S. government has provided $160 million, enough to provide two years of benefits to some 565,000 families – though it no longer funds the program and never intended to make it a long-term commitment.
The American aid was part of an expansion in U.S. spending in Pakistan to help stabilize the country, reduce anti-Americanism and steer it away from Islamist militancy. The U.S. aid effort in general has been criticized for failing to achieve its objectives, inefficiency and lack of coordination.
There have been a few reported incidents of people missing out on the money, or local politicians trying to direct its distribution. But the system that has been put in place makes it very hard for systematic abuse and those who feel they have missed out can, and do, appeal, said opposition politicians, diplomats, analysts and those working on the scheme.
"I really think that in comparison to what came before it, this program has done significantly better," said Shazna Khan, a development consultant who has studied the scheme. "But there is always room for improvement."
Kaiser Bengali, the economist who designed the initial program but is no longer affiliated with it, said it was so hard to steal from that some "shameless" local lawmakers "came and told me you have left nothing for us."
Since taking office, Zardari has used every opportunity to play up his association with Bhutto, the daughter of an iconic Pakistani prime minister who founded the party he inherited on her death. Naming the program after Bhutto, and having her image featured prominently around the program, including on the debit cards, is an attempt to win votes on the back of the program.
Farzana Raja, the head of the program, a close friend of Bhutto and a member of Zardari's Pakistan's People's Party, said like any government anywhere in the world, it wanted credit for its achievements. But she said the money was not being used to get votes in elections, which are likely to take place this year or early next.
"We have not, and we will not, use these funds for political reasons. That is crystal clear," said Raja. "Transparency is why donors are attracted. We are doing everything according to international standards."
Many of the recipients had to get identity cards for the first time to claim the money, meaning they are now eligible to vote. Women voters are believed to be more inclined to vote PPP, so the party is expected to pick up some support from them.
Still, Ayaz Amir, an opposition legislator whose constituency includes the Punjabi town of Kallar Kahar, said neither he nor any of his colleagues had concerns about the program.
"Some of the recipients might be more inclined to vote PPP, but it will not have much of an impact on the electoral dynamics," he said.
Most of the criticism in Pakistan mirrors that of similar projects elsewhere in the world, namely that it's better to give training, work opportunities or tools to the poor rather than cash handouts, which some say encourage a "beggar mentality." But Raja said that reasoning ignores the fact that for many the money is a life saver, and there is no evidence it has been a disincentive to work.
Looking ahead, there are concerns the government will not have enough money to keep up the payments and cover the continuous testing to ensure targeting is accurate. The scheme is also branching out into other areas, including microfinance and health insurance, raising the possibility that it might lose focus.
Those concerns mean little to Khulsoom Bibi, who lives in a one-room, dirt-floored shack with her eight children in a Kallar Kahar slum. She, along with others in the district, is a grateful recipient of the funds. She pays about $10 a month in rent, and her husband's wages as an occasional fruit picker are not enough to feed her family.
"We don't even have flour some of the time," she said as a child played at her feet, chewing on a filthy broken toothbrush. "I will give my vote to Benazir's party. She has made us happy."