39% still in poverty in Pakistan: how can we eradicate poverty?

Poverty affects human beings in a variety of ways and it is a stumbling block for those badly trapped in it to lead a normal and productive life. Its severity can be gauged from the fact that poverty has always been the top priority of the experts while devising development programmes. To reduce poverty by half by 2015 was the number one of the overall eight of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and now ending poverty in all its manifestations and forms by 2030 is again top priority of the United Nations Organizations (UNO) and its members in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015.

According to the UNO, 836 million people worldwide still live in extreme poverty. The overwhelming majority of the people living on less than $1.25 a day belongs to two regions: South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Almost 70 percent of the world’s poor live in these regions according to the World Bank. According to the UNO there are 30 million children growing poor in the world’s richest countries. The state of poverty in Pakistan is equally pathetic. According to the multidimensional poverty index, 39 percent of people are poor in the country, and it was only in 2016 that Pakistan gave its official figure on poverty since 2005-06. It is interesting to note here that Pakistan has not set a poverty line of its own since 2001.

Eradicating poverty in all its manifestations and forms by 2030 seems to be an ambitious target. It would not be difficult for the developed world to do the same. The third world countries, however, cannot achieve this without active support of the world community. The gigantic task of eradicating poverty worldwide requires collective efforts. The noted economist Jeffry Sachs estimated that a total cost $ 175 billion per year would be required to bring an end to poverty in the next twenty years, and this is less than one percent of the combined income of the rich countries of the world.

Pakistan failed to achieve the most important goal of the MDGs of reducing poverty by half by 2015. Had we achieved it, poverty rates would have been less than 20 percent. The first half of the last decade witnessed positive signs of reducing poverty. However the same could not be retained and the later developments reversed the process. Now 39 percent of the people, as indicated above, are poor and the 20 percent slightly above the poverty line are in constant danger of slipping back to extreme poverty. It implies that almost 60 percent of the population is badly trapped in a vicious circle of making both ends meet with constrained access to health and educational facilities. When it comes to eradicating poverty in Pakistan, the following issues must be addressed.

Firstly, our economic growth is one of the lowest in the region. Though there is stability, according to international institutions, it is cosmetic and the plight of the poor and the under-privileged is getting worse by each passing day. The experts have maintained that poverty starts declining when the growth rate exceeds 6 percent. China’s example of reduction of poverty reflects that there is strong correlation between economic growth and poverty reduction. Pakistan has to cover a long distance to attain the stability that can play an instrumental role in bringing an end to this menace.

Secondly, the majority of our population live in villages and connected to agriculture in one way or the other. Framers have been badly hit during the last four years due to indifference of the government to the most important sector of the economy. The government has recently announced a relief package for the farmers but it is politically motivated and insufficient to address the problems of the farmers and the agriculture sector on the whole. Without bringing revolutionary changes in agriculture and boosting rural income, poverty cannot be reduced. Rather, if the current trends of agriculture-deterioration continue, there is likelihood that we may witness a manifold increase in poverty in the near future.

Thirdly, we are the sixth most populous country in the world, and majority of the population is composed of the youth. This huge human resource can either be blessing or curse for us. It can be blessing if we impart technical and scientific education to them. But if they remain uneducated and unskilled, the burgeoning youth population can explode like a nuclear bomb with dire consequences for us. Illiteracy and unemployment will make them vulnerable to be exploited by the fundamental elements in the country. The government must devise policies to engage youth in a constructive manner by unleashing their potential to be used for the development of the country.

Fourthly, there is erosion of key institutions, such as the civil service, police and judiciary, in the country. These institutions provide basic services to the people. The erosion and decay of these institutions have made the basic service inaccessible for the under-privileged and the poorer segments of the society. Without efficient service delivery, eradication of poverty would be impossible. Social and political milieu is anti-poor. If these institutions are not improved, the poor segments of the society will be further alienated. Unfortunately, we are far away from making the institutions responsive and efficient.

Lastly, microfinance initiatives by both the public sector and individual philanthropists can be of valuable help in our fight against poverty. The Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) and institutions in private philanthropy like Akhuwat are rendering valuable services to the poorest of the poor. A study in private philanthropy in Pakistan shows that individual and the organizations contribute more around $ 2 billion annually to various causes. The public sector social safety nets like Zakat and Bait –ul- Mal are not effective. If managed properly, they can play a significant role. The government needs to improve and facilitate these institutions to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

For achieving the SDGs on poverty, the government needs to be responsive by setting priorities afresh. An indigenous anti-poverty campaign should be launched by taking all the stakeholders on board. The government will have to raise itself above self-centred policies of gaining short term benefits  by investing heavily in the projects for political gains. It is high time that the government should improve the plight of its people by taking steps in line with SDGs.

Muhammad Shahid Rafique has a background in development studies with special interest in gender and development. He is also running an NGO named as Rural Empowerment And Development(READ) Association aimed at economic and social uplift of the under-privileged of the rural areas.