Cell Phones Deliver Social Assistance Funds Effectively

November 12, 2012


Salma Riaz, right, assistant director of the Benazir Income Support Program, shows Saba Bibi how to use her new cell phone.

Muzammil Pasha/World Bank

  • The Benazir Income Support Program, supported by the World Bank, provides financial assistance to Pakistan’s poorest families.
  • About 138,000 recipients are being given free cell phones so they can be notified when their funds are available at their bank. The phones are provided through a partnership with a cell phone company.
  • The payments and phones are an effort to improve household welfare, encourage female empowerment, promote financial literacy, and discourage fraud.


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Saba Bibi stares at her new cell phone with a mixture of delight and confusion.

“How is this delivering my family’s money?” she asks, pushing random numbers on the phone until a man from the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) office begins his explanation.

In moments, Saba, 32, is headed out the door, confident that she can not only collect her government social assistance funds, but also join society’s technological revolution. “Soon, I am calling my family and friends,” she says with obvious pride.

Saba is one of about 138,000 women in Pakistan getting free cell phones as part of a new program that aims to simplify the collection process for BISP payments.

Created after the financial crisis of 2008, this social safety net initiative has been giving impoverished families 1,000 rupees (about $10) each a month to help them buy food, clothing, medicines, and other necessities. The development of the requisite targeting and delivery systems and expansion of program’s coverage is financed in part by the World Bank.

" I am using it for collection of BISP payments and it is very important to us. "

Saba Shabbir

Benazir Income Support Program recipient

Cell phones discourage fraud

Originally, social assistance payments were delivered through money orders, but many clients complained that post office officials were demanding bribes before handing over BISP payments, says a BISP official based at its headquarters in Islamabad.

To bring efficiency and transparency through modern technology, it was decided to try this new system in five urban districts where cell connectivity is most reliable. A cell company partner offered free handsets. Elsewhere, other beneficiaries are receiving bank debit cards to collect their payments through any automatic teller machine or point of sale at the partner Bank’s agent network.

The female representatives of beneficiary families are given the payments and phones in a conscious effort to improve household welfare, encourage female empowerment, promote financial literacy, and discourage fraud, says BISP.

BISP clients must bring their national identity cards and have their thumbprints checked against the national ID registry before receiving their brand-new handsets. When benefit payments are automatically deposited in their bank accounts, women get a text or recorded message notifying them that it’s available for withdrawal.

“It’s an exciting initiative that seems to be working well,” says the BISP official.

Children help read text messages

In Rawalpindi district on the outskirts of Islamabad, Nazia Bibi, 39, says she has used her BISP cell phone for a year without many problems. Her only concern seems to be the cost of getting to town to collect her funds. Being illiterate, she also can’t read text messages that notify her of money deposits.

“But my two sons go to school, so they tell me these things,” says Nazia, whose husband is a sweeper and struggles to support their five children.

Staring at a hole in the roof over their one-room home, Nazia says she’s hoping to save repair money before the monsoon rains start. “Our life is simple, but we are trying,” she adds, gazing around the room barely big enough for one bed displaying a dusty teddy bear.

Another neighbor, Jamila Bibi, 37, says she has used the cell phone system for a year now. Not only does it deliver her money as promised, but she sometimes chats with her brother on the phone.

Pointing to her husband dozing in a corner of their home, Jamila says: “He works as a night guard, so I am alone with the children. It is nice to have this phone for company and safety.”

Jamila says she relies on her daughter, Huma Shafiq, to decipher messages about bank deposits. “She plans to be a teacher,” says Jamila, giving Huma a proud hug.

Down another twisting lane, Saba Shabbir also reports few issues with her phone.
She does worry about the cost of traveling to the bank, but otherwise the system is working well, she says.

Her eldest son, a jewelry maker, does borrow her phone sometimes, but he buys his own phone cards and is careful to return it, says Shabbir. “My husband never asks for it or interferes in any way,” she says. “I am using it for collection of BISP payments and it is very important to us.”