DAWN Editorial July 3, 2008
MAHBUB ul Haq Human Development Centre has been doing a tremendous job of producing regularly its dramatic but well researched indices of the socio-economic picture of developing countries. These should shock people out of their social stupor, especially in respect of the plight of the poor. Notwithstanding the rave reviews the annual Human Development Reports of the Centre get every year in the national and international media, the successive governments in Islamabad have treated them as mere statistical myths. That is perhaps why the population living below the poverty line in Pakistan has expanded to a little over 73 per cent during a period that had otherwise recorded a high growth rate. There certainly has been a gradual erosion of the consumption share of the lowest 20 per cent and the consequent widening of the rich-poor gap. The situation is more tragic in rural areas as according to this year’s Human Development Report, two-thirds of the rural households in Pakistan are landless and an almost similar proportion lacks access to piped water. Access to health and education is abysmal. In short, the seemingly high GDP growth in Pakistan is yet to be directed in an adequate manner towards the betterment of the deprived and the marginalised.
As someone said ‘the poor’ is shorthand for a huge variety of people who have low incomes and struggle with problems such as hunger, ill health, illiteracy and inadequate housing. They work as household service providers, subsistence farmers, casual labourers, street vendors, and trash recyclers. Unleashing of market forces has made a marginal difference to the life of such people in Pakistan. Safety nets have also failed to make any visible dent. The reason is both of these traditional solutions are missing a vital part of the picture — the law of the land. Poverty alleviation efforts to be effective need laws that do not discriminate between the poor and the rich, and guarantee basic business rights. In other words it is important that to facilitate a person’s capacity to generate an income for himself the state should ensure his right to vend and to have a workspace without being pushed around by bribe seeking police, and to have access to necessary infrastructure and services such as shelter, electricity, water, sanitation without having to grease the palms of public providers. It is essential to have laws that make it easy and affordable to set up and operate a business, to access markets and promote inclusive financial services that offer entrepreneurs in the developing world what many of their counterparts elsewhere take for granted — savings, credit, insurance, pensions, and other tools for risk management. In the absence of these facilities, poverty reduction will remain a pipe dream.