High poverty levels
Aug 29 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan) – SENATOR Sardar Mohammad Yaqoob Khan Nasar’s comments about poverty — and the divine logic supposedly underpinning inequality — were obscene. However, they have stirred much-needed debate about poverty in Pakistan. One hopes the senator’s shameless remarks, which revealed the perversity of privilege among our political elite, drive some introspection among our policymakers and lead to more thoughtful discourse on poverty alleviation.
Mr Nasar and his peers could start by reading a new report published by the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund and the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. Geography of Poverty in Pakistan — 2008-09 to 2012-13: Distribution, Trends and Explanations analyses multidimensional poverty in Pakistan at the national, provincial and district levels, highlights those districts where poverty is concentrated, and tracks the change in poverty in these districts over the five years.
In addition to considering household income and consumption data, the analysis accounts for other dimensions such as education, health, living conditions and asset ownership. The spatial and temporal approach provides helpful insights into the factors that lead to persistent poverty and the shortcomings of current poverty-reduction and growth policies.
The report confirms perceptions of stark interprovincial, intra-provincial and urban-rural differences in poverty levels. It is unlikely to come as a surprise that the highest poverty levels exist in Balochistan (62.6pc in 2012-13), followed by KP (39.3pc), Sindh (37.5pc) and Punjab (24.3pc). The high incidence of poverty in Balochistan is notable in the fact that while only 5.07pc of Pakistan’s population lives there, it is home to 10.2pc of the country’s poor.
The report’s analysis reveals that those districts with a low population density and a higher share of rural populations are at greater risk of high poverty levels. The poorest districts are clustered in southern Punjab and Sindh, and the report emphasises the persistence of rural poverty in Sindh. (PPP Senator Taj Haider appeared sensible in media reporting on Nasar’s comments, but his party’s track record on poverty alleviation leaves much to be desired.)
The incidence of extreme poverty is also high in Pakistan: 18.6pc of the population suffered extreme poverty in 2012-13. Extreme poverty is concentrated in rural areas, with 26.4pc of the rural population categorised as extreme poor as compared to 3pc of the urban population.
Many factors contribute to this high incidence of poverty. The report finds that access to quality public services and good governance is low in the poorest districts of Pakistan. Access to services in such districts is mediated by local power brokers who operate according to patronage systems that reinforce poverty — this finding is essentially an empirical statement of Nasar’s belief that the poor exist to till the land off which rich bureaucrats feed and thrive, and so must be left in that condition for the benefit of the elite.
Other factors contributing to the geographic concentration of poverty are the concentration of industry and infrastructure development in a few districts (where poverty is low as a result) to the exclusion of others; the failure to ensure that local communities benefit from the exploitation of natural resources in their areas; the recurrence of natural disasters in response to which the state has offered emergency relief packages but no long-term, sustainable infrastructure capacity; and conflict.
Other factors that the report recognises, but which require more research, are gender relations and the impact of migration (both internal and overseas).
Politicians are likely to seize on the finding that the poverty headcount ratio at the national level fell by 5.6pc over the five-year period under consideration. But the phenomenon of geographic concentration of poverty indicates the urgent need for targeted, tailored, and sophisticated poverty-alleviation policies. It also highlights that poverty reduction must be considered in a holistic manner, as a component within broader development, education and healthcare policies.
Specific recommendations arising out of findings can, and should, be acted upon immediately. Districts suffering extreme poverty report low satisfaction levels with public service delivery, highlighting the corruption and resulting gaps of patronage networks, and improving governance in poor, agrarian districts should be prioritised. The government should also invest in infrastructure and develop policies aimed at building the resilience of natural disaster-prone districts. Policies regarding ownership and control of natural resources also need overhauling.
In the current climate of mega projects, talk of poverty seems passé. But recent political discourse has emphasised the need for a more informed and sustained public conversation about poverty, and a nimbler state approach to the issue. Perhaps the Senate Functional Committee can atone for Nasar’s sins by kicking off a thorough policy review.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan