by Naseer Memon

The UNDP and Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) have released a report “Multidimensional Poverty in Pakistan” which depicts a grim picture of social well-being in the country.

img_9930The concept of poverty has evolved over time. As knowledge about the complexity of human societies is growing, poverty has found new meanings and coping strategies. Starting from the more banal concepts of nature’s curse, inadequate calorie intake and lack of income, the concept has evolved to a lack of choices in various spheres of life. Since poverty has been recognised as a societal and political issue, it has found a central place in the public policy discourse.

Chronic resource exploitation, discriminatory political treatment, failure of governance, skewed development priorities, inequalities, unrelenting conflicts, frequent natural and human-induced disasters, protracted denial and violation of human rights and elite-controlled public policy have been recognised as more complex causative factors behind the existence of poverty.

The first Human Development Report (HDR) released in 1990 introduced the Human Development Index (HDI). Hence, human poverty was analysed through a more comprehensive framework of human development which is not confined to income and calories intake only.

Research has proven that an uptick in the average per capita income does not reflect the true picture of the state of human development in a society. Average income is rather a devious interpretation of social well-being which masquerades pockets of human poverty. Pakistan itself is a case study in this regard. Introductory chapter of the report provides an insight by juxtaposing performance on some of the vital indicators of human development with increase in the income levels.

Between 1990 and 2013, Pakistan’s GDP per capita (in constant 2005 US Dollars) increased from USD 542 to 793, with growth rates averaging around 4 per cent per year. Until 2003, Pakistan was ahead of both India and Bangladesh in terms of its GDP per capita. Moreover, income-based poverty fell sharply in the country, with the percentage of the population living below the national poverty line decreasing from 64.3 per cent in 2001/2002 to 29.5 per cent in 2013/2014. However, all these financial gains could not improve vital social indicators.

According to World Bank’s World Development Indicators, despite rapid improvements in immunisation, Pakistan still lags behind coverage rates in South Asia. Compared to Bangladesh, Pakistan started out much better in terms of life expectancy (60 years in 1990) and was second only to Sri Lanka in this respect. Yet, by 2014 life expectancy in Pakistan had merely increased by 2 years. By contrast, life expectancy in Bangladesh rose from 58 to 72 years in the same period.

Similarly, Pakistan’s infant mortality rate (IMR) was slightly above that of Bangladesh in 1990, at 106 deaths per 1,000 (as opposed to 100 in Bangladesh). Unfortunately, by 2015 Pakistan was still registering the deaths of 66 infants in their first year, as opposed to 31 in Bangladesh. In fact, Pakistan along with Afghanistan currently has the highest IMR rates of any country in South Asia, all of which register fewer than 50 infant deaths per 1,000. Comparable patterns hold true for maternal mortality, as Pakistan began ahead of all other South Asian nations — with the exception of Sri Lanka — but now it has higher rates than most of the other countries in the region.”

Discrepancy between the economic growth and improvement in human development indicators is also corroborated by other similar reports. Human Development Report 2015 revealed the ignominious state of human development in the country. Pakistan stands second lowest on the life expectancy index with 66.2 years compared to 71.6 years in Bangladesh and 69.6 years in Nepal. Pakistan’s infant mortality rate of 69 per 1000 live births is more than twice higher compared to 32.2 in Nepal, 29.7 in Bhutan and 33.2 in Bangladesh. African countries Congo and Cameroon have lower infant mortality rate of 35.6 and 60.8 respectively.

Forty five percent of Pakistan’s children under five years of age are afflicted by malnutrition. The proportion is higher than Bangladesh (41 percent), and Nepal (40 percent). This coincides with higher child mortality rates in the same age group. Pakistan’s child mortality rate of 85.5 per cent is more than twice than that of Nepal (39 percent), Bangladesh (41 percent) and Bhutan (32 percent).

The situation in education sector is equally deplorable. Pakistan’s literacy rate 54 percent is lower than that of Bangladesh (58 percent), India (62 percent) and Nepal (57 percent). Similarly, gross enrolment ratio of Pakistan is only 92 per cent, which is the lowest in the region compared to 113 percent in India, 114 percent in Bangladesh, 133 percent in Nepal and 106 percent in Afghanistan. Primary school dropout ratio of Pakistan is 37 percent which is higher than 33 percent in Bangladesh.

The multidimensional poverty report has also exposed that rural areas are enduring higher levels of poverty compared to urban areas. The fact is glaringly evident in all provinces. The table explains the incidence of rural and urban multidimensional poverty in every province/region.

This disproportionately higher prevalence of poverty in rural areas is a consequence of decades-long misdirected development priorities. Human settlements do not have impervious borders. Urban areas cannot remain insulated of cascading effect of rural poverty. Privation of this staggering proportion in rural areas entails serious socio-political ramifications for urban areas.

The prevalent malaise in urban areas is a repercussion of rural exodus. Toxic effects of socio-economic inequalities have already plagued urban centres. A small number of relatively developed cities are exposed to an unsustainable influx of rural communities. Deficit of civic amenities such as education, health and jobs have propelled the exodus of rural population to urban areas in droves. Karachi is a perfect example of this dilemma.

In 1941, the total population of Karachi was 0.7 million which swelled to 9.8 million in 1998. A quarter of this population migrated to the city from other areas. Almost two decades on, no census has been conducted yet a conservative estimate suggests that Karachi’s population has dwarfed the 16 million mark. The city is bursting at the seams. Civic services structure has nearly collapsed. From water supply to garbage removal, nearly all services are managed by informal entities. Crime, lawlessness and mafias characterise the commercial spinal cord of the country. Hyderabad, Sukkur and Larkana are some other examples in Sindh.

With rural poverty astoundingly surpassing 75 per cent households, a large rural population has moved to these urban and semi-urban centres. Once known for their neat and inhabitable neighbourhoods, these towns have turned into squalid areas. Haphazard population growth, bad governance, inefficiency and corruption have trounced the system of basic services and rendered these towns insalubrious.

Since the government does not improve rural infrastructure and basic services, people tend to migrate to the nearest urban settlement. Health, education and employment are the key drivers of this outflow of population from rural areas. Protracted absence of local government system has further exacerbated the situation.

While urban areas depict a relatively rosy picture, urban inequalities are often obscured by the averages of income. An urban society is far more stratified with heavily skewed control of assets and wealth by a few. After migration, rural middle class is gradually mutated into urban poor. An illusive land of opportunities soon turns out to be a quagmire as most of the immigrants who contrive to find a toehold in cities experience social and economic trauma within a short span of time. As a corollary, today a large proportion of urban population comprises daily wage earners. The next larger segment is the salaried class that keeps jostling for scarce opportunities and faces frequent haemorrhage of their meagre savings due to unanticipated shocks such as morbidity, robberies and extortion.

Multidimensional poverty needs an entirely different political approach. It cannot be addressed through frivolous handouts and charity packages branded as social security and poverty alleviation. Unless governments adopt robust strategies and make sustained investments to improve basic service delivery especially in rural areas through an empowered local government system, bruises inflicted by multidimensional poverty cannot be erased.

Earmarking whopping sums for charity programmes ought to be veered towards economic activity to generate more jobs and livelihood opportunities for impoverished people. Exploitative and unbridled informal and private sectors are thriving on a spiralling poverty stoked by a chronic governance failure.