By S.M. Naseem
POVERTY reduction has been the abiding, if elusive, aspiration of South Asian countries.
Enormous amounts of money have been poured into developing poverty-reduction programmes — often with the help of generous funds from donors — to ensure that this modest development objective is somehow met or at least seen to be met to some degree.
The Millennium Development Goals gave primacy to this goal among the eight designated for achievement by 2015, requiring poverty to be halved from the level prevailing in 2000. With only five years remaining, a frantic race has begun, especially in Pakistan, to reach the finishing line in time. At the present reckoning, with the headcount ratio at nearly 40 per cent, the odds for its being brought down substantially are low.
One way to meet the goal is to move the goalpost closer to the scoring line by manipulating its distance, with the disingenuous approval of the umpire (read ‘validation’ by donor agencies). Poverty alleviation in the Musharraf-Shaukat Aziz period — when poverty was claimed to have been halved from 34 to 17 per cent — was achieved largely by edict and statistical manipulation.
While researchers and policy planners continue to invent newer methods to discover who the poor ‘really’ are, the poor are taking initiatives to take fate into their own hands. They at least know what poverty is, while the rich manage to keep their tax returns a closely guarded secret. Disillusioned by government programmes for poverty alleviation, with ever-changing and fancier acronyms, the poor have lost faith in the effectiveness and relevance of such programmes to the problems faced by them and are increasingly attracted to more radical alternatives, including revolt and terrorism.
In Pakistan, the government has since 2002 produced two Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP), which explicitly monitor the growth of pro-poor public expenditures (although given the ingenuity of the bureaucracy, it would be hard to take them at face value).
According to PRSP data pro-poor budgetary expenditures as a share of GDP increased from 3.8 per cent in FY2001-02 to 5.46 per cent in FY2007-08; they still are incommensurately low given the percentage of population below the poverty line.
However, since 2008, there has been a welcome shift in favour of targeted social protection programmes, such as the Benazir Income Support Programme. While untargeted expenditures (such as food and fertiliser subsidies, utility stores, public works programmes and public servants’ salary increases) still dominate, the total social protection allocations have increased six-fold. Their effect on poverty reduction is, however, minimal because of galloping inflation and poor targeting of such programmes, as well as leakages and lack of transparency in their implementation.
Increasingly, programmes and strategies that are based on non-governmental initiatives and involve, to some degree, the poor directly in the solution of their problems have been making steady headway as the state has lost its credibility as a deliverer of social services. Non-governmental programmes range across a wide spectrum from the reformist to the revolutionary, and enjoy varying degrees of support (or face hostility) from the government, the donors and the poor communities.
The focus of poverty alleviation efforts in South Asia has been the rural sector since rural poverty is recognised as the more intractable problem. However, strategies of rural poverty alleviation adopted in India and Pakistan have differed. India has concentrated, since independence, on land reforms and the democratisation of rural institutions as the main instrument of poverty alleviation and social change in the rural areas, with notable successes in West Bengal and Kerala.
In Pakistan, where land reforms, after feeble attempts by Ayub Khan and Z.A. Bhutto, were given up, inequalities in the ownership and cultivation of land have further increased, while land allotments to evacuees and the military have not proved conducive to alleviating poverty, especially among the landless and tenant farmers.
In the absence of rights-based political movements, stifled during long periods of military regimes, a second generation of rural development programmes emerged in the 1980s, modelled on the Comilla Project founded by the late Akhtar Hameed Khan in East Pakistan two decades earlier and replacing the earlier top-down models in which village elites played a dominant or paternalistic role.
Starting with a pioneer project in the Gilgit-Baltistan region as the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), these programmes have extended their coverage to almost the entire country through massive grants from the central and provincial governments and other donors.
Although created as individual geographical units, the programmes share a common strategy of rural development and poverty alleviation. They are evolved through a syncretic process of community interaction, social mobilisation and assistance and the deployment of resources from the government and donors.
This new genre of rural development programmes is a considerable improvement over its predecessors. However, it falls considerably short of the need to galvanise the poor to wrest their right to access to basic resources such as land, water, employment, infrastructure, education and health and to press for legislative action and implementation in this regard. This self-imposed restriction is unlikely to alleviate poverty on a sustainable basis.
If the needed structural reforms are not undertaken, these various anti-poverty programmes will fail to make a significant and visible dent in the poverty situation. In that event, the daunting prospect of an armed struggle by the underclass, as is currently under way in some parts of India led by the Naxalites, whose underlying impulses have been so insightfully captured in the eyewitness account of Arundhati Roy published in Dawn recently, could become more widespread in South Asia.
Once the jihadi insurgency in Pakistan has been tamed by the pouring of the promised billions of dollars — a hope aroused in the wake of the recent ‘strategic dialogue’ with the US — poverty and inequality are likely to increase further. The marginalised underclass may then be inclined to use the Kalashnikovs to build their heaven on earth, rather than laying down their lives for the paradise promised by the mullahs for waging jihad.