When cash is what’s needed most: Learning from Pakistan’s emergency cash program

December 2020

Nearly one-third of Pakistan’s 210 million citizens live on daily, piece-rate wages. COVID-19 has dealt a severe blow to the economic resilience of those least able to afford it. This required an urgent response from the government to protect those living in extreme poverty. In March 2020, the Government of Pakistan launched the Ehsaas Emergency Cash (EEC) program as a response to the COVID-19 crisis, which has decimated livelihoods on an unprecedented scale.


The financial resilience of the poorest citizens is also threatened by climate shocks and stresses, which are likely to become more frequent and severe. As with COVID-19, the ability to deliver financial support quickly to the most vulnerable has the potential to substantially increase their ability to recover in the wake of extreme events. The EEC program allocated Pakistani Rupees (PRs) 203 Billion ($1.23 Billion) to deliver one-time emergency cash assistance to 16.9 million families. Covering nearly 109 million people, over half the country’s population, the EEC became the largest and most extensive social protection intervention in Pakistan’s history. So how did the EEC program reach so many, so quickly?

A model for emergency cash disbursement

The EEC program is part of the government’s new multi-sectoral poverty alleviation framework, which pioneered a new approach to social protection. Under the system, payments are biometrically enabled, using fingerprints to identify eligible people. Each family received $75 for their immediate subsistence needs. Within a few days of its launch, the program reached millions of the nation’s poorest population.

The cash disbursement presented unprecedented challenges, in terms of its scale, the needed speed of deployment, and the environment in which distribution was to happen. The government was in a lockdown, markets where retailers operated were closed, and bank staff were transitioning to working from home. With lockdowns in effect and physical distancing measures mandatory, there were concerns about the spread of COVID-19, given the fact that people would have to queue for disbursement and use biometric identification. Other problems included the availability of liquidity, connectivity, cybersecurity, limitations of data-driven messaging, and the potential for overloading helpline numbers.

To overcome these challenges, the EEC program adopted a “whole government” approach, which required the involvement of provincial governments, ministries, the Cabinet, security agencies, and the COVID-19 National Command and Control Center. The program also required daily coordination meetings with banks and ground staff to refine standard operating procedures in real-time, including around infection prevention and security.

A data-driven approach

On top of this, several measures were taken to ensure rule-based decision-making and to build the transparency bedrock. The system did not allow for human discretion in the selection of beneficiaries—it was an end-to-end data-driven, automated, and rules-based process. Details about criteria and procedures to be adopted were made public in a video message before the launch of the initiative. This was disseminated widely to the public using print, electronic media, and a series of press conferences. Furthermore, an information portal was launched, which outlines details about disbursements down to the Tehsil level (third tier at the sub-national level), concerning the number of beneficiaries, bank disbursement details, accounts credited, and money withdrawn.

EEC program has helped the country to respond to the immediate crisis of COVID-19 by providing financial relief to the poorest households and putting in place critical building blocks for deeper financial inclusion of the disadvantaged populations. It is understood that COVID-19 will have lasting health and economic impacts beyond the immediate and direct effects of the virus itself. The poorest have been hit hard. While the suffering will be difficult to quantify, measures like this helped alleviate at least some of the damages caused by the pandemic.

UCCRTF is supporting several cities in Pakistan to build resilience under TA 48317-004 Promoting Urban Climate Change Resilience in Selected Asian Cities - Development of Pilot Activities and Project Development Support (Subproject 3).

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  • Tassadaq Shah
    UCCRTF Country Resilience Officer for Pakistan