By Zubeida Mustafa
IN the ongoing violence-stricken election campaign there is a lot of talk about the economy and how that needs to be fixed to improve people’s lives. The political parties in the fray have apparently come to realise that public discontent focuses on the rising level of unemployment, spiralling inflation and growing poverty.
Hence the candidates have responded to popular concerns by making promises that offer the people a heaven on earth. The party manifestos are full of populist rhetoric meant to appease the voters. Those who understand the flaws in the official system and know that structural changes are needed to rectify the wrongs can see through the hollow pledges being made and the inadequacy of the approach adopted. It is therefore not strange that all parties shy away from specifics, and strategies in various sectors are not even defined.
Take the population sector in Pakistan that has emerged as a major concern for economists and sociologists alike. It doesn’t take rocket science to realise that a rapidly growing population strains the resources of a country and poses a serious hurdle in the way of development strategies.
In this context it is interesting to analyse the perception of political parties. Ayesha Khan, a population researcher at Research and Development Solutions, Islamabad (funded by USAID), has taken an in-depth look at the various party manifestos to determine the position adopted by a party on population issues and the specific strategies identified in their manifestos to stabilise the population growth rate.
In a nutshell, Ayesha Khan’s findings do not inspire much hope for change in direction. According to her, only “four out of eight major parties connect the rapidly growing population with economic issues such as joblessness, social unrest and terrorism”. Even the parties that understand the connection between population and all other sectors fail to articulate effective strategies for controlling rapid population growth.
At this rate Pakistan can be expected to continue heading for the fifth position (from the current sixth) in the world population ranking. That will be a disaster for the country.
There are parties which do not even see a link between a fast-growing population and the failure of the government to provide health and education facilities to the people. The demographic factor drags down economic growth and resource expansion. They are the Awami National Party (quite surprising given its people-centric approach), the Jamaat-i-Islami, the PML-Q and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl. The last-mentioned party’s spokesman orally confirmed the party’s lack of commitment to population issues.
Mercifully, four major parties, the PPP, the PML-N, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) are more progressive on the population question. The first three spell out categorically why an effective family planning programme is closely linked to the country’s development in the economic and social sectors.
Thus the PTI’s manifesto acknowledges, “The continuing high population growth rate is a major national concern and a strain on national resources. Rapid population growth means greater development needs and stress on the existing physical infrastructure.”
The PML-N speaks of “the employment challenge” being “closely linked to the rate at which the country’s population is growing”. The PPP that was in office for the last five years and in a position to act in order to slow down the population growth rate but that did nothing, declares in its manifesto: “A rapidly growing population adversely affects the well-being of our people by diluting the impact of economic gains, placing a drain on our natural resources and contributing to environmental degradation.”
The parties have gone further. They have actually set quantitative goals for themselves which are pretty ambitious. The PTI, the MQM and the PPP speak of reducing the population growth rate to 1.6pc. The PML-N does not set any target.
The PPP and PTI are quite comprehensive in spelling out their strategy. The PTI promises to make the population welfare programme an integral part of the health policy and make quality education and modern contraceptive services available to women.
The PPP goes further in specifying its approach. In some respects its manifesto displays a better understanding of the needs of the programme. It thus links family planning to initiatives in health, education, nutrition and poverty eradication. It promises to use the lady health workers for a nationwide outreach campaign to promote women’s access to these services. Most importantly, it promises to functionally integrate health and population welfare and enhance budgetary commitments for family planning services.
The only problem for the PPP is the burden of incumbency that robs it of all credibility. Why did the PPP-led coalition government fail to perform when it had funds as well as a blueprint for a feasible population plan? So dismal was its record that the population growth rate actually went up during the PPP’s term in office. This is further confirmed by the large ‘unmet need’ — women who wanted to limit their family size but had no access to contraceptive services.
Basically, the manifestos’ approach is flawed on account of their failure to link the status of women with population planning. Some speak of educating women because educated women have fewer children on account of their better understanding of contraceptive choices. But that by itself does not change the gender priorities of parents who have a preference for sons. That will change only when women gain social acceptance and recognition.