The battle against backwardness

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

President Pervez Musharraf got it right when he told the inaugural session of a security conference in Islamabad the other day that the world was in a turmoil because of inequalities in economic development. He pointed out that the world was divided between the haves and the have-nots and that there was need to wage a war against illiteracy, hunger, sickness, backwardness, poverty, and social injustice.

This might appear to be stating the obvious. This has been iterated so very often that now it fails to make an impact. The fact is that the gulf between the rich and the poor of the world is so great today that it is difficult to fully comprehend its implications.

Of the 6.1 billion people living on the planet earth nearly two-thirds of them are in the developing countries. Their average population growth rate is also much higher at 1.4 per cent compared with 0.5 per cent for the developed countries. This means that in the future over-crowding in the Third World will grow, bringing with it all the interrelated problems.

Even at present, of the 861 million illiterates in the world 98 per cent live in the developing countries. With a rapidly growing population, the Third World is a victim of poverty, illiteracy and ill-health. The president very correctly pointed out that inequity and disparity bred militancy.

But one may not entirely agree with President Musharraf when he implies that it is for the developed countries to address these ills to ease the turmoil in the world today.

Admittedly, the inequitable economic system and the terms of trade which operate against the poorer countries make it difficult for their governments to pull themselves out of the morass.

But this inequality is not just at the international level. The economic and social disparities within each country are appalling. It is visible to anyone who cares to see that the poor are really impoverished while the affluent are rich beyond belief.

Hence one cannot deny that ultimately it is up to every Third World country and its leadership to mobilize its resources and improve the quality of life of its people. It is counter-productive crying ourselves hoarse and demanding favours from the rich to resolve our own problems, many of them of our own making. Self-reliance should be the underlying principle of our economic policies.

To begin with, take a look at Pakistan’s defence expenditure. The president claimed in his speech that “in the past four years, Pakistan had not increased its defence expenditure”. But what do our budget documents tell us? The table below gives the defence expenditure of the past four years as taken from the budget documents:

2000-2001 (revised estimates) Rs 131.6 b
2001-2002 ” ” Rs 151.6 b
2002-2003 ” ” Rs 160.1 b
2003-2004 budget Rs 160.2 b

This amounts to nearly a quarter of the revenue budget and with debt servicing taking up another 39 per cent and the civil administration 15 per cent, there is not much left for other sectors. Added to this are the strict economic restructuring conditionalities imposed by the financial agencies which limit the government’s options.

In a report he prepared for the UNDP titled Pakistan: National Human Development Report, 2003, Dr Akmal Hussain used the disaggregated human development index to determine the level of development in various provinces.

The disparity between the different regions is enormous. According to his statistics, Punjab ranks at the top with 0.557 points and Balochistan is at the bottom with 0.490.

The urban areas all over the country taken collectively have 0.656 points with the rural areas trailing far behind with 0.496. District-wise Jhelum, which ranks first, has an HDI of 0.703 and Dera Bugti, which is at the bottom of the pile, has an HDI of 0.285.

The gulf between the rich and the poor, when it is as pronounced as it is in Pakistan, results in widespread frustration and unrest. This gives rise to an extreme reaction in the form of crime, violence and militancy. Hence President Musharraf’s deduction that a war against poverty and the concomitant ills would reduce militancy and bring enduring peace carries some weight.

But one wishes that this war was waged with equal vigour as the military campaign against the Al Qaeda functionaries. At present we do not see much of the struggle against illiteracy and backwardness being mounted although in many respects it is in our power to do so.

What is the government doing about education? The government school system, which serves the bulk of the people, is in such a state of rot that enrolment is actually falling with even the low income families sending their children to private schools, not all of which are of an acceptable standard.

Teachers’ absenteeism, poor pedagogy and textbooks which actually damage a child’s psyche by indoctrinating him have left the education sector in a mess. Small wonder we are failing to educate our people and illiteracy is so rampant.

As for the back wardization factor, there are so many powerful forces pulling the people towards obscurantcy, superstition and intolerance in religion and culture that a war against such forces is the biggest challenge of the hour.

These problems are not easy to tackle because these forces are well-organized, ubiquitous and have plenty of resources. Now that they have penetrated the parliament and the corridors of power, to counter them calls for greater political will and ingenuity, than are at work at the moment.

President Musharraf’s call for a war against backwardness will win the approval of many people. But who is in a better position to undertake this war? The unfortunate episode about the curricula and the textbooks which triggered a furore all over the country found the government on the defensive.

By giving in to the MMA’s point of view, the authorities sent a signal to the people that backwardization was there to stay. Revamping the curricula and exposing children to a rational, progressive and scientific way of thinking would have been the first step in the war against backwardization.

Similarly, the government has failed to remove many of the laws from the statute books which are being projected as Islamic when many religious scholars have questioned their authenticity on the touchstone of the Sharia.

Be they the Hudood Ordinances, the Blasphemy Law or the Law of Evidence, all of them are being blatantly misused by unscrupulous elements to wreak personal vengeance on people with whom they have an axe to grind. Moreover, these laws are presenting a poor image of Pakistan being a backward society.

All this calls for firm action and one hopes that the government will proceed to do what the president has rightly identified as should be our priorities in the war against extremism.