LAST week was World Humanitarian Day. It came as a simple reminder that the world is not a welcoming place any longer for a large number of people in countries beset with crises. Conditions have deteriorated to such an extent globally that the need for humanitarian help has been growing. Yet, at the same time, brutality against aid workers is also on the rise making them more vulnerable. In 2013 alone, 155 aid workers were killed and 134 kidnapped.
Why this need for humanitarian aid? The fact is that frequent emergencies are being created due to ever-increasing conflict and also natural disasters — many of them manmade — such as floods and droughts. Pakistan has experienced these in abundance in recent times. We seem to be living from crisis to crisis. Such an abnormal pattern of existence pre-empts economic and social development and growth while whatever progress had been achieved in the preceding period has been undone.
This has also led to the concurrent breakdown of political, economic and social institutions. The events of the last fortnight in Pakistan are a clear manifestation of this breakdown. In the long term, this is visible in the state of the public-sector school system and the healthcare delivery structure which are in a shambles.
Even the poorest of the poor do not want to send their children to a government school. They avoid going to a public-sector health facility as the popular belief is that it is inefficient or not functional. This was not the case before and many in my generation studied at public-sector institutions and did well in life. Government hospitals used to perform well once upon a time and even the middle class went there for treatment and was satisfied with the services.
There has been a stupendous increase in poverty levels.
All that has collapsed. Unemployment and inflation have escalated to render making a livelihood a greater challenge. It is bad enough in so-called normal times. In emergencies it is the poor who are worst affected. Living from hand-to-mouth, they have no savings or reserves to fall back on when normal economic activities are paralysed as is happening today when politicians have decided to test their strength.
The World Bank classifies us as lower middle income while its development indicators of 2013 put 60pc of the population below the poverty line.
This is a stupendous increase in poverty levels from the previous maximum poverty level of 37pc. The absolute number of those needing help has risen as we are now a country of an estimated 182 million.
Initially, it was unwisely hoped that the foreign assistance that the country received in abundance would help build the economy and the trickle-down effect would benefit those at the bottom of the heap. The donors made their aid conditional to suit their own interests. Yet we continued to take aid and it fuelled the corruption that has filled the coffers of the rulers. It never reached the poor.
In this scenario, quite common in many Third World countries, something positive was happening. The poor tried to help themselves. Many of them found job opportunities abroad and became migrant workers in greener pastures. Working for the developed and growing economies, they could earn more and remit money to their families and ease the burden of poverty somewhat. Globalisation helped in the mobility of men and money.
Pakistan was also a beneficiary of this process. Remember the ‘Dubai chalo’ syndrome of the 1970s. Foreign remittances have grown over the years and now total nearly $10bn (2014) according to the State Bank. These remittances are now a substantial source of our foreign reserves. True, a lot of this money comes from well-paid Pakistani professionals abroad who are generous in their philanthropy. But the poor have also benefited directly when unskilled workers have transferred funds to support their families.
This should not be viewed as a permanent poverty alleviation measure, however. Remittances are not being invested in the economy to create jobs. The individual families that benefit from remittances from their breadwinners abroad are not more than a few thousand in number. What is worrying is that the ratio of skilled and unskilled migrant workers from Pakistan is changing as many labourers in the Gulf states are being sent home and Western countries are tightening immigration laws.
All this means that the number of low-income families receiving support from their migrant members is falling. Poverty will rise. Every time there is a political crisis in Pakistan there is economic paralysis too. That translates into greater numbers needing humanitarian help because they are too poor to help themselves.
What is worse is that the poor become victims of the political polarisation and manoeuvring that grip the country. Of course, everyone claims to speak for them, but are their problems really the concern of the leaders who talk so loudly?
Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2014