SINCE June, the Pakistan government has been patting itself on the back. Multidimensional poverty (MP) has fallen from 55pc to nearly 40pc in the country since 2004, we are being told. Of course it is admitted that there are districts where poverty is as high as over 90 per cent (Qila Abdullah in Balochistan) today. But in Punjab only 31pc are impoverished. Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi have an MPI (multidimensional poverty index) of 10pc.
The MPI was originally developed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative and uses broader criteria than just income to measure poverty. The deprivations in health, education and standard of living are also taken into account.
This measure confirms that more than poverty, it is inequity that poses a major threat to the stability and existence of a developing society such as ours. Economic inequality and stratification have been an inescapable fact of life in most societies. The onset of the age of neoliberalism has worsened the situation as the rich-poor gap is widening. Even the richest of the rich countries suffer from this malaise.
Even the MPI does not look into the quality of the services provided to the have-nots.
In Pakistan, any unequal distribution of wealth is actually dangerous. Acute poverty in our country translates to horrendous happenings such as over 60 million people not having access to healthcare and millions of children being out of school or not completing primary education. Even the multidimensional poverty index has the same flaw as the conventional indices used so far. It is quantitative in nature and does not look into the quality of the services provided to the have-nots.
Poverty is bad. But ‘unequal distribution of poverty’ is worse. It leads to resentment in those suffering from deprivation that leads to despondency and alienation. “Why us?” ask the youth denied education and jobs, and parents with sick children dying for want of healthcare. After all, they are not oblivious to the luxury that is the ‘entitlement’ of the elite in our extortionist system. There is no convincing answer to their question, “Why us?”
These two words epitomise the turmoil surrounding us today. It is a manifestation of the socio-economic crisis that has been compounded by corruption in high quarters and a media that refuses to observe ethical codes and play a socially responsible role. Our misfortune is that few understand this crisis and its source. The government is desperately trying to address it by conventional methods using strategic-military means within a debauched political framework. This allows powerful outside forces to control events in the country as well as people’s mindset. The money flows in, but it is for foreign agendas.
In this scheme of things, what emerges clearly is that inequities in our system are creating a huge, seething mass of discontent which outsiders with vested interests exploit to their own advantage.
The various forms of poverty indices that are devised from time to time serve to put the spotlight on the poor. But the cause of this poverty is not correctly identified. The impression conveyed is that the scarcity of funds is the main barrier to poverty elimination.
But is it really so? The basic cause is inequality of opportunity – a product of our class system. Another approach needs to be tried: offer every child a good basic education and every person reasonable healthcare; then open the doors of opportunity to all. This will be the first step towards poverty elimination.
This would mean raising revenues from those who stack their untaxed wealth in offshore banks. Thus alone can the standards and quantum of education and healthcare be addressed concurrently, as they must be. A sick child cannot be motivated to learn. Nor can an uneducated woman raise a healthy family. When both needs are taken care of, they would have a symbiotic impact on one another.
To eradicate poverty, what we need is social justice with a strong social security net in place to equip people with the confidence to use their initiative to improve their lives. Progress in the education and health sectors should create the momentum to expand coverage to employment and housing in due course.
However, what is important is that corruption be rooted out. Pouring funds into a system that lacks capacity and integrity makes the entire exercise of funding poverty eradication programmes futile.
In this process, the electronic media could play a more helpful role than it has so far. Doesn’t television consider it to be its social responsibility to devote a certain ratio of its telecasting time to education and health programmes? On numerous occasions our media have proved that they can make an impact, but their focus has mostly been on information and not knowledge as was the case many climes ago. The tendency has been to sensationalise to win ratings. Why doesn’t TV have programmes like ‘Kasauti’ and ‘Science Magazine’ any more? Kudos to one of the FM radio channels for bringing an expert on air every week to speak on science, at least.