ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan has introduced an ambitious poverty alleviation plan that he says would help the country’s poorest gain better access to health care, education, and employment.
Mr. Khan said his government would allocate 80 billion rupees — more than half a billion dollars — for an anti-poverty plan known as “Ehsas,” or Empathy, and raise it to 120 billion rupees by 2021.
“No Pakistani government has spent so much money on alleviating poverty in the past,” Mr. Khan said Wednesday during a ceremony in Islamabad, the capital. “The government has launched a war against poverty.”
Pakistan has an estimated population of 207.2 million people, almost a quarter of whom live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Fighting poverty was a central issue of his campaign when he won the general elections in July. But implementing that promise — and particularly the Ehsas plan, which is at its heart the establishment of a welfare state — will be exceptionally difficult, given the country’s economic crisis.
Pakistan is facing a worsening balance-of-payments crisis and is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package. Pakistan has also looked for financial support from China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The I.M.F. has said that Pakistan has low international reserves and a high fiscal and current account deficit. Talks between Pakistan and the I.M.F. have continued for months and are now at the final stages, officials said.
Despite the challenges, Mr. Khan insisted that the welfare program should proceed. “I know the economic conditions are difficult,” Mr. Khan said.
The program would include extensive aid so that the poor could afford health care, and would include easier loan terms for families seeking to build or buy homes. The plan also includes several economic empowerment measures for women, including savings accounts and mobile phones for an estimated 5.7 million poor women.
Mr. Khan has proposed a constitutional amendment that would make basic necessities such as food, housing, education and health care a fundamental right. The amendment would require the approval of Parliament.
Analysts were skeptical that much of the program could be enacted. But many praised Mr. Khan for at least focusing national attention on the country’s poverty.
“In his first address to the nation, Mr. Khan surprised many critics when he spoke at length about nutrition, child protection, education and maternal and neonatal health,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, a public policy analyst. “In launching the Ehsas anti-poverty plan, he has given concrete shape to his longstanding human development ambitions.”
“With an unprecedented shortfall in tax collection and a major new incoming I.M.F. program, the freedom to spend public funds on the poor will likely be even more curtailed,” Mr. Zaidi added. “How P.M. Khan manages to balance between his pro-poor instincts and the shrinking wallet available to him will be crucial to the initial success of Ehsas.”
Decades before entering to office, Mr. Khan, a former cricket star who made philanthropy a central part of his public appeal, led an effort to finance and build the country’s first dedicated cancer hospital, which treats poor patients for free. In his speech on Wednesday, he pointed out that at the time of its inception, no one thought the hospital campaign could work.
“If I had gone by logic, I would never have been able to complete this project,” he said, referring to the cancer hospital.
“When a nation decides to help its poor, God finds ways for it to succeed. The real thing is to have honest intentions,” Mr. Khan said. “It is my belief that, God willing, one day you will see that we would be successful in eradicating poverty.”
“I also want to give a modern day example of China,” Mr. Khan added. “Who would have thought 30 years ago that a country could pull 700 million people out of poverty? It has never happened in the world’s history.”
During a visit to China last year, Mr. Khan had said that he was keen to emulate the Chinese example of development and was learning from its experiences.
In announcing his anti-poverty plan, Mr. Khan said that by December the government would complete a new nationwide poverty survey that would help identify the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. He has announced the formation of a new ministry that would bring different social welfare programs under one umbrella.
For women, who face extensive religious, social and economic barriers to advancement in Pakistan, Mr. Khan also envisioned a campaign to provide goats and hens to rural women to help with both food security and personal income sources. The plan also provides financial support to those widows who have no sources of income.
Mr. Khan also said 50 percent of women would receive scholarships and education vouchers.
The government, he said, “will ensure that the invisible but hard work of rural women is recognized, that they have equal wages, and that domestic work is covered under legislation.”
The plan also includes a partnership with aid groups to support street children, transgender people and daily-wage workers. And it would feature new availability for cash grants and pensions, and higher government spending on education and health care.
“There isn’t a single formula to eradicate poverty,” Mr. Khan said. “Many steps have to be taken.”
Orignially published in NYT.