development: One size fits all?

—Syed Mohammad Ali

Pakistan and other regional countries should no longer accept international development prescriptions with closed eyes if they are serious in tackling the unique set of poverty reduction challenges confronting them

Due to its sheer population, South Asia has the largest number of poor people in the whole world. Yet, dealing with this serious regional problem obviously requires understanding the varied implications of it.

The fact of the matter is that ground realities concerning the poverty situation across the region are not very homogenous. For instance, in parts of western Sri Lanka and some Indian states, as well as in most of the Maldives, less than 10 percent of people are living in abject poverty. Reducing poverty in most of Afghanistan or northern Sri Lanka remains very difficult due to the lingering problem of violence. While political volatility remains, Nepal has at least managed to end its longstanding civil war that had been visibly preventing development goals. India and Pakistan are still largely grappling with the positive correlation between disparity and growth. Bangladesh has at least begun to reveal impressive improvements in its human development indicators despite its continual struggle to secure greater levels of prosperity.

It is not possible to give enough attention to all seven South Asian countries in one article. The following will focus primarily on Pakistan for the purpose of pointing out the numerous complexities that exist within just one major country of this region.

Let us begin by examining a seemingly irrefutable assertion that holding free and fair elections is vital for poverty alleviation. Numerous stakeholders including analysts, foreign observers and even politicians themselves have recently been airing such views with increasing frequency, particularly with reference to Pakistan. While democratic elections can in principle improve accountability and facilitate realisation of the aspirations of the masses, one wonders if this phenomenon is in fact a necessary precondition for poverty reduction.

Nobel laureate Amratya Sen seems to think so. He argues that democracy is a form of freedom which helps promote development, and prevents atrocities such as famines, which can afflict repressive states such as North Korea more easily.

But democracy by itself does not seem very effective in ensuring more widespread development either. Even the world’s largest democracy, India, continues to fail in providing its teeming poor masses with the most basic of social services.

Conversely, countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal, with significantly more difficulties in their political processes, are reducing child mortality rates much faster than India. The poverty alleviation gains made in China were not exactly under a democratic dispensation either. Therefore, while democracy and frequent elections may be desirable for a range of reasons, they certainly cannot provide any assurances in terms of boosting development.

In fact, Pakistan has managed to achieve much better economic performance during the past eight years then it had during the preceding decade when democratically elected governments were in power. There are numerous reasons for this growth, such as the role of foreign aid and remittances flowing into the country since 9/11. However, the role of this growth in alleviating poverty in Pakistan is not free from controversy. While the current government claims that poverty has been reduced by almost ten percent due to economic performance, many development practitioners and ordinary citizens refute this claim.

The World Bank concurs with the official claims made under auspices of the Poverty Reduction Strategy of Pakistan, which has been under implementation since 1999. But before we convince ourselves about the authenticity and neutrality of institutions like the World Bank, some more reflection is merited.

The success of the World Bank itself in reducing poverty around the world is hardly undoubted either. Furthermore, a recent report in a major Pakistani newspaper has pointed to a potentially disturbing aspect of World Bank lending to Pakistan, claiming that this international lending agency has undertaken many more projects under military governments rather than under democratically elected representatives.

This claim was made on the basis of information accessed from the World Bank website itself which was quoted to show that since 1952, the World Bank launched 274 projects in Pakistan. Out of these, 47 projects commenced during the Ayub Khan period, 15 during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s time, and 88 during General Zia’s era. Then 36 World Bank projects were initiated from 1988 to 1998 when Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had two terms each in power. Thereafter, 54 projects have been introduced since General Musharraf took over.

Just focusing on the number of projects launched does not necessarily reflect the total quantum of lending which is also of relevance. Still, this tally does clearly reveal that the number of projects during each of the three military-led governments in the country was much greater than those initiated during any of the democratically elected governments.

The Country Director of the World Bank mailed a statement refuting the reported inference, and instead asserted that the variations in lending programmes are primarily based on a borrowing country’s economic policies and development performance. But many political analysts still feel that institutions like the World Bank have a special interest in working with the military establishment.

Perhaps elected governments are seen to be financially more irresponsible since they do need to be more responsive to popular demands, which limits their ability to implement fiscal austerity. Doubts like these explain growing apprehensions being expressed about adopting internationally prescribed policies in many developing countries, including Pakistan.

While the impact of support provided by World Bank to Pakistan is itself a hefty topic, let it be noted for now that since regional poverty is an evidently heterogeneous and multi-layered phenomenon, it requires unique rather than standardised levels of response.

Yet institutions like the World Bank do evidently have a tough time being flexible, given their overt preference to promote the ‘one size fits all’ variety of economic reforms. Thus, Pakistan and other regional countries should no longer accept international development prescriptions with closed eyes if they are serious in tackling the unique set of poverty reduction challenges confronting them.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at ali@policy.hu. First published in the Daily Times, UK.

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