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HomeISFIRE Vol 5 – Issue 4 December 2015An Exclusive Interview With Marvi Memon

An Exclusive Interview With Marvi Memon

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Minister of State and Chairperson of Benazir Income Support Programme, Government of Pakistan

Marvi Memon was born in Karachi in July 1972. After schooling from Karachi, Paris and Kuwait, she graduated from the London School of Economics with a BSc (Econ) Honours in International Relations in 1993. With internships at Dawn, Newsline, Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, US Commercial Consulate and International Union for Conservation of Nature, during her education years, she started her career as a banker at Citibank Pakistan where she specialized in Marketing and Quality Management for the consumer bank. After this, she launched Pakistan’s first satellite tracking fleet management company Trakker, which established her as an entrepreneur and the youngest woman CEO of a multinational firm at the time. Her next assignment led her to advising the President of Pakistan on media management and later on investments. She served as a Member of Parliament for the first time from March 2008 to June 2011. She was a member of the parliamentary committees on Environment, Information Technology, and Kashmir & Gilgit-Baltistan. Her groundbreaking legislation on acid crime and Pakistan’s first research institute for parliamentarians (PIPS) led her to be the subject of Pakistan’s first Oscar winning documentary. She was one of the first to resign from the parliament, setting new political standards, when her party changed its stated policies. After that, she launched a movement for rights in Pakistan and galvanized rural Sindh’s villages for change. She joined PML (N), now the ruling party in Pakistan, in March 2012 and toured all of Pakistan spreading the PML (N) message for a year during which she set up a new constituency for PML (N) in feudal rural territory of Thatta, Sindh. She was chairperson of the interprovincial subcommittee of the PML (N) Manifesto Committee prior to the May 2013 elections and developed consensus on many inter-provincial harmony issues within the party. Having attempted to get elected from a general seat from Thatta NA 237, she joined parliament as PML (N) MNA on a woman-reserved seat from Sindh. She is one of the first parliamentarians to have pursued public interest litigation in the superior judiciary and being petitioner for many record-making verdicts related to flood management, air crashes, constitutional amendments, higher education and workers’ rights. She has written many research papers and articles on foreign affairs. She is the first parliamentarian of Pakistan to author her parliamentary diaries entitled, “My Diaries,” published in 2012. Her last assignment within parliament was Chairperson for the National Assembly Committee for Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage and Member of the Standing Committee of the National Assembly on Foreign Affairs. Her committee made record recommendations and published record reports in 15 months of her tenure to improve media management and media standards. Her strength is her close contact with the grassroots, youth and discriminated populations of society in all provinces and territories of Pakistan, and she is considered as Pakistan’s most widely campaigning parliamentarian. nflt management compy Trakker, which established her as an entire nge woman CEO of a national firm at the time. Her next assignmeng the resident of Pakistan media management and later on investments. As a Member of Parliament for t  e first time from March 2008 to June 2011. She was a m of the parliamentary committees on Environment, Information Technology, and Gilgit-Baltistan. Her groundbreaking legislation on acid crime and Pakistan’s first research institute for parliamentarians (PIPS) led her to be the subject of Pakistan’s first Oscar-winning documentary.

She was one of the first to resign from the parliament, setting new political standards, when her party changed its stated policies. After that, she launched a movement for rights in Pakistan and galvanized rural Sindh’s villages for change. She joined PML (N), now the ruling party in Pakistan, in March 2012 and toured all of Pakistan spreading the PML (N) message for a year during which she set up a new constituency for PML (N) in feudal rural territory of Thatta, Sindh. She was chairperson of the interprovincial subcommittee of the PML (N) Manifesto Committee prior to the May 2013 elections and developed consensus on many inter-provincial harmony issues within the party. Having attempted to get elected from a general seat from Thatta NA 237, she joined parliament as PML (N) MNA on a woman reserved seat from Sindh.

She is one of the first parliamentarians to have pursued public interest litigation in the superior judiciary and being petitioner for many record making verdicts related to flood managemen , air crashes, constitutional amendments, higher education and workers’ rights. She has

written many research papers and articles on foreign affairs. She is the first parliamentarian of Pakistan to author her parliamentary diaries entitled, “My Diaries,” published in 2012. Her last assignment within parliament was Chairperson for the National Assembly Committee for Informa io Broadcasting and National Heritage and Member of the Standing Committee of the National Assembly on Foreign Affairs. Her committee made record recommendations and published record reports in 15 months of fortenure to improve media management and media standards. Her strength is her close contact with the grassroots,  populations of society in all provinces and territories of Pakistan, and she is consids  Pakistan’s most widely campaigning parliamentarian.

She was appointed Chairperson of Benazir Income Support Programme with the status of Minister of State on Feb 25, 2015. In the contemporary Islamic world, there are only a few women who enjoy global recognition as leaders in their respective areas of expertise and practice. Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz has been hailed as one of the most powerful governors of a central bank in the OIC countries. Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Almissned of Qatar is known for her passion for education and philanthropic efforts. In the practice of Islamic banking and finance, the likes of Raja The Maimunah, CEO of Hong Leong Islamic Bank, are shining examples of success and leadership in the Muslim world. Benazir Bhutto and more recently Malala Yousufzai are the two women from Pakistan that created ripples in the international communities. The role of women in the Muslim communities is by no means a recent phenomenon. Khadija Bint Khuwailad, the first wife of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), was a successful businesswoman who was actually a business partner of the Prophet before he married her. To breed excellence amongst Muslim women around the world, it is important to project women’s achievements in different fields of life. In view of this, ISFIRE interviewed one of the rising stars in Pakistan politics, Marvi Memon, to exemplify women leadership in the Muslim world. Marvi Memon, a Minister of State and Chairperson of Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) in Pakistan, is emerging on the global horizon as a champion of financial inclusion and women empowerment. Her current role as chairperson of BISP allows her to spend considerable time with thousands of the least privileged women throughout the country. She travels to farflung areas, where security threats are significant, to personally meet and spend time with beneficiary households of BISP. “Having come from a privileged family background, I had no first hand experience of poverty, and meeting the families from the lowest rung of the society has indeed been an enriching experience for me,” she said in an exclusive interview with Professor Humayon Dar who conducted a one-on-one conversation with her at her government office in Islamabad. Marvi Memon not only commands full authority over her staff but also enjoys huge respect from her senior colleagues and other staff of around 2,000 employed by BISP throughout the country. She has a “can do” attitude and is not afraid of pushing the boundaries of bureaucratic culture to ensure what needs to be delivered is not only delivered but is actually delivered on time.

HD: How do you define poverty in Pakistan and how it affects the selection of beneficiaries of BISP?

MM: Of course there are different measures of poverty, the most widely used benchmark being the World Bank’s poverty line of US$1.25 per capita per day. However, we felt a need for taking a more comprehensive look at poverty, specific to socio-economic environment in Pakistan. We started with a very subjective and rightly objectionable approach to poverty. When the programme was started by the last government, it initially attempted to identify the most vulnerable and poor individuals and families in localities through members of parliament who were asked to provide lists of those who could be provided with income support. However, the need for a more scientific approach to identification of poverty was felt, and a very comprehensive nationwide survey of households, called the Nationwide Poverty Scorecard Survey, was conducted to quantify incidence of poverty in Pakistan. This ensured that the income support was disbursed to those who really deserved, without any significant political interference.

HD: Are you saying that there is no political agenda behind BISP?

MM (smiling): Let me finish first. The approach we have adopted in Pakistan for poverty measurement and its geographical incidence is without an iota of doubt one of the most sophisticated methodologies being employed throughout the world. Our poverty scorecard survey was the first such attempt in Asia and to date remains one of the largest such activities in the whole world.

When we started supporting low-income families in Pakistan, the scorecards were actually given to the parliamentarians who then gathered information on the most vulnerable and the poorest in their respective constituencies. We, however, realised that it was not the most scientific way of doing things, and hence conducted the largest survey of the households in the history of Pakistan to determine the incidence of acute poverty in the country. Today, we are a data-driven organisation and attempt to implement the recommendations of scientific studies and surveys that capture the ground realities.

Coming back to your question on the political agenda of BISP. We certainly have a legitimate political agenda, and that is to increase welfare of the most vulnerable segments of the society. In a country like Pakistan if that was not part of the political agenda of any government, I would have been extremely disappointed. Having said that, I must clarify that discrimination of any sort with respect to political affiliation of the beneficiaries is not tolerated.

HD: What is the relevance of the teachings of Islam to your approach and endeavour to alleviate poverty?

MM: I am not a Shari’a scholar in any way but what I know for sure is that Pakistan is an Islamic republic with the second

largest Muslim population in the OIC block. Poverty is ugly and no Muslim would like to see it associated with the beauty of Islam. For me the widely observed correlation between poverty and Islam is incidental with a historical path that runs through a dark period of colonisation of almost the whole Muslim world in the past. The current government in Pakistan has taken a deliberate and systematic approach to gradually alleviate poverty in the country. This is part of a wider agenda to make Pakistan a truly representative Islamic welfare state. Our constitution does not allow doing any thing that goes against the teachings of Islam.

The establishment of BISP by the previous government and our continued commitment to strengthen it and to widen its scale and scope should be considered as part of Islamisation of Pakistan economy.

HD: What I gather from you is that you refer to poverty as a secular phenomenon, this should then necessitate a secular approach to poverty alleviation. What is then the relevance of Islamisation of Pakistan economy to the efforts of BISP?

MM (smiling): I stand risk of being misunderstood here. It is certainly true that Islam has nothing to do with the widespread poverty in the Muslim world. However, it is absolutely imperative to keep in mind that poverty alleviation and removal of hardship is very much in the spirit of Islam. Therefore, any attempts to reduce incidence of poverty must be deemed as Islamising Pakistan society and economy.

HD: Is there a link between poverty and religious extremism?

MM: I don’t think so. The poor people have so many of their economic worries and a vast – and by vast I mean 99.99% of them – have no time to get involved in any form of religious extremism. Having said that, I can share with you an interesting aspect of the link between conflict and incidence of poverty. When we conducted our first poverty scorecard survey in Pakistan, we had to exclude the conflict-inflicted areas. Consequently, the vulnerable families from those areas were excluded from our database. Unfortunately, such families did not get any income support from us. As a result of that, the incidence of poverty in those areas has actually increased. Therefore, in my opinion, the causality runs from conflict (whether it is due to religious extremism or other reasons) to the incidence of poverty. The removal of conflict will definitely help us in combating poverty.

HD: On a lighter note, who between your parents influenced you more, mother or father?

MM: Actually, I can’t pick one over the other, as both of them had their own mark on my personality. Both of my parents were accomplished in their own fields. I have got a lot of things from my mother. Despite having been heavily involved in politics with very busy schedule, I enjoy cooking. Anyone coming to my home should be rest assured that they get the authentic Marvi cuisine (smiling). I enjoy cooking with the beneficiary families I visit four corners of the country…

I was definitely influenced by my father in terms of choosing a political career. I was into banking and finance (an ex Citi banker), but my father’s political engagements pushed me to politics. My father had a huge passion to serve Pakistan and this is what I have inherited from him. I want to make a real difference to the welfare of people of Pakistan, especially women and the least privileged segments of the society.

I am thankful to my Prime Minister and Finance Minister for choosing me to head BISP. It is so rewarding professionally and enriching spiritually. For someone like me who comes from a privileged background, it was not possible to be so close to the poorest of the poor without getting involved in BISP. It is so uplifting to know that Rs1,500 that go to a woman in a small village in a remote area of the country can make so much difference in terms of bringing food and milk to the family, without which they would have suffered malnutrition. It is so elating to know that Rs250 this woman is receiving from us on a monthly basis is keeping her son or daughter enrolled at school. This is a spiritual journey and I am so fortunate to have my team headed by Saleem Ranjha, Secretary of BISP, who is known for his dedication to social causes in this country.

When a woman stands up for a cause or for herself, no man can stop her achieving whatever she wants to achieve. This is more true in the Muslim world, and especially in Pakistan, where women in general enjoy more respect than men. A woman can enter any house in the country, whether in a cosmopolitan city like Karachi or a remote area on the Afghan-Pak border. This is a huge advantage that I have experienced as a woman politician” – Marvi Memon

HD: Can you please share with us some of the heart-touching stories you came across during your numerous visits to meet with beneficiaries of BISP?

MM: Poverty brings misery. The mere sight of people living in extremely poor conditions is disturbing. Millions of families don’t live

in proper shelters and are without access to basic needs. My visits to such families are not window-dressing. I spend quality time with the families I visit. I cook with them, eat with them and listen to their problems. To understand what I mean one must experience this first hand. I spent the whole first day of the past Eid Al-Adh’ha with our beneficiaries. While in cities people take eating meat for granted, there are millions of families out there who have to wait for Eid Al-Adh’ha to taste meat. As a mother myself I can relate with the women who receive support from us to keep their children enrolled at school.

HD: As a woman politician, have you ever faced difficulties in competing with men?

MM: There is no doubt that Pakistan is a male dominant and chauvinistic (with huge emphasis in her tone) society and it is difficult for majority of women to fairly compete with them. But let me tell you and through ISFIRE all the women out that when a woman stands up for a cause or for herself, no man can stop her achieving whatever she wants to achieve. This is more true in the Muslim world, and especially in Pakistan, where women in general enjoy more respect than men. A woman can enter any house in the country, whether in a cosmopolitan city like Karachi or a remote area on the Afghan-Pak border. This is a huge advantage that I have experienced as a woman politician. While I can enter any house anywhere and talk to men and women in my election campaigns, my male opponents do not enjoy this kind of freedom.

HD: What is a typical day of Marvi Memon like?

MM (laughing): Is there a typical day of Marvi Memon? Every day is different with very different kind of challenges. As a busy politician and a state minister with portfolio of BISP, I have all kind of issues and challenges at hand on a daily basis. I must, however, say that most of my time is spent on resolving issues related with welfare of our beneficiaries. I visit the beneficiary families very frequently. I also have a habit of going out on unplanned and unannounced visits to our different centres around the country to ensure that the programme is run efficiently.

On a personal level, I prefer to start my day with horse riding. This is the most refreshing way of starting your day.  

After taking breakfast, I have to reach office at 9 am sharp, if not before that. This involves scores of meetings related with BISP and also my political engagements. In between meetings, I keep an eye on the TV screen, as on almost daily I have to represent the government and my party – Pakistan Muslim League (N) – on talk shows run by different TV channels.

My day ends very late at night. When I am lucky enough to reach home early, I would like to invite a few friends and colleagues for dinner. That gives me an opportunity to show off my culinary skills (smiling).

Cooking is something I enjoy with the beneficiary women on my visits to the rural areas. Instead of just talking to women, I prefer sitting with them and helping them in cooking if they happen to be preparing food at the time of our visits.

In the recent past, I have taken a lot of time before the start of the day and after the work to work on my memoires. Thankfully, the book has now been published, giving me more time for other political and official activities.

I consider myself a very good painter. I enjoy painting. During the last Ramadan, I painted a whole series of paintings around the central theme of poverty. These paintings were exhibited and sold, and part of the proceeds went to a charity.

HD: ISFIRE is a magazine distributed amongst Islamic banks and financial institutions throughout the world, and our readers will be interested to know how much do you know about Islamic banking and finance.

MM: Honestly, I don’t know much about Islamic banking and finance other than that it exists in the world and that it is growing. I know only one thing, that is, paying and charging interest is forbidden in Islam, and this is something we adhere to once the funds enter the BISB account. We can easily claim to be the largest interest-free income support programme in the Muslim world. All our cash is kept in the interest-free accounts and we do not receive any thing back from our beneficiaries. One may want to call it the largest qard hasan programme in the world.

BISP comes under Ministry of Finance, and I am happy to mention here that our Finance Minister, Mr Ishaq Dar, was presented with a GIFA Special Award at the recently held Global Islamic Finance Awards for his advocacy role in developing Islamic banking in Pakistan.

I would like to see [BISP] making headlines in the international media so that we are able to export it to other countries of the world

HD: What inspires you?

MM: In different phases of one’s life one gets inspired by different people. I was greatly inspired by my father to enter into politics. My 18 year old son Murtaza and his quest for change in Pakistan inspires me. After assuming the charge of BISP, I find myself in this wonderful situation wherein an apparently Western-educated womanlike me gets a lot of inspiration from some of the poorest of the poor women benefiting from BISP. It is really inspirational to see how a woman in a remote rural area in Pakistan manages her family better by getting a small additional amount of money she receives under BISP. PML (N) government’s leadership and its policies to help the marginalized inspire me. However, my biggest inspiration is Bhittai, the sufi saint whose character I am named after. It’s a lifelong mission to serve and sacrifice for my people. I live his mission on a daily basis through my work.

HD (interrupting): What is the monthly income support provided to the beneficiary women under BISP?

MM: It is Rs1,500 per month, an amount increased from Rs1,000 when we took over the government in 2013. This is certainly a small amount, but it is amazing to see how a mother can effectively use such a meagre amount to uplift her family. For a poverty- ridden family, Rs1,500 is a significant amount. It can bring them additional amount of some basic necessities like flour, which is staple food in most of the areas in Pakistan. I get amazed to see how a woman uses some of this small amount even to spend on education for her children.

HD: What is the most important non-financial impact of BISP?

MM: As a woman I take pride in the fact that BISP is giving a formal identity to women in the society. All the women are required to register themselves with NADRA (National Database and Registration Authority)and receive the National Identity Card before applying for the income support. In this way, the programme is bringing a true formal identity to women. And thus they have voting power too, which is truly revolutionary for women empowerment.

HD: In 10 years, where would you like to see Marvi Memon?

MM (smiling): 10 years is a long time. Let me divide it into shorter periods. As Chairperson of BISP, I would like to develop the programme as a pride for Pakistan by making it a world-class institution and the largest public sector income support programme in the world.

I would like to see the programme making headlines in the international media so that we are able to export it to other countries of the world. I would like to develop a League of social safety nets with Pakistan taking an active lead in it.

Beyond that, it is my lifetime commitment to social responsibility – not for 10 years or for the duration of stay as Chairperson of BISP. My life is dedicated to my people and I intend serving and sacrificing in whatever capacity possible.

HD: Any message for young women in Pakistan and elsewhere?

MM: What I have personally experienced is the fact that a woman even in Pakistan is stronger than a man. It takes a woman to just stand up to a cause and success follows immediately. The chances of success for a woman are much higher than a man when she decides to stand up for a cause. As I said earlier, women have access to a larger segment of the society as compared to men. The young women must explorean increasing number of opportunities in Pakistan and elsewhere. I can see a bright future for everyone including young women in Pakistan. Consistency, passion, belief and hardwork are the key for any woman to be successful.

M. Saleem Ahmed Ranjha Secretary, Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP)

Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) was launched in July 2008 with an immediate objective of consumption smoothening and cushioning the negative effects of slow economic growth, the food crisis and inflation on the poor, particularly women, through the provision of cash transfers of Rs1,000/month to eligible families. Its long-term objectives include supporting the achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to eradicate extreme and chronic poverty, to empower of women and to achieve universal primary education. The monthly instalment was enhanced to Rs1,200/- per month in July, 2013 by the present government and has now been fixed at Rs1,500/-per month since July, 2014.

Since its inception in 2008, BISP has grown rapidly and is now the largest single social safety net programme in Pakistan’s history. The number of beneficiaries has increased from 1.7 million households in 2008-9 to approximately 4.7 million as of 31 December 2014, and BISP’s annual disbursements have risen from Rs16 billion in 2008-9 to Rs65 billion in 2013-

  1. This fiscal year, disbursements to beneficiaries are expected to reach Rs95 billion.

This period of growth and consolidation in BISP is characterized by two major transitions. In initial phase of BISP (2008-09 to 2010-11), beneficiaries were identified by parliamentarians while in 2010-11 a major transition occurred and poor households have been identified through a poverty scorecard survey based on household demographics, assets, and other measurable characteristics. The Nationwide Poverty Scorecard Survey, the first of its kind in South Asia, enables BISP to identify eligible households through the application of a Proxy Means Test (PMT) that determines welfare status of the household on a scale between 0 and100. The survey was started in October 2010 and has been completed across Pakistan except in two agencies of FATA. The survey has the following features:

  1. Creation of a large and reliable national registry of the socio-economic status of almost 27 million households across Pakistan;
  2. 7.7 million families are identified living below cut-off score of 16.17; and
  3. GPS coordinates of all the households visited are available to map the data of the entire country.

Benazir Smart Card and Mobile Phone Banking have also been launched on test basis in nine districts across the country. After running pilots, BISP rolled out Benazir Debit Card across Pakistan. Now, around 94% of the beneficiary households are receiving payments through technology-enabled innovative payment mechanisms.

An important development in BISP was the appointment of Muhammad Saleem Ahmad Ranjha as the Secretary of the programme in 2015. Mr Ranjha is a veteran philanthropy and social sector activist in Pakistan, and has played an instrumental role in institutionalizing charity and giving for the uplift of the most vulnerable segments of the Pakistan economy.

Saleem Ranjha has brought the real passion and compassion amongst the employees of BISP. Immediately after assuming his job as Secretary of BISP, he initiated a weekly seminar series at the BISP Secretariat as part of a human development drive and also to enhance the commitment of his staff to social responsibility. “The real driver of change and motivator factor on a personal level is commitment to a cause,” says Saleem Ranjha. “Commitment to charity changed my life and I want everyone amongst my staff, friends and family to commit themselves to a social cause of their choice.”

 

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