The real challenge is poverty

Published October 7, 2016

AMIDST the clamour of war this past week, the leadership of India and Pakistan at least managed to point in the right direction when talking about the challenges their countries face. That direction is poverty. Between them, India and Pakistan have the dubious honour of having the world’s largest concentration of poor people. In both countries, close to 40pc of the population lives in poverty. Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiated the conversation when he asked the people of Pakistan to wage a war on poverty, illiteracy and infant mortality, “and let us see who wins”. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif responded saying that this challenge cannot be met with “blood and ammunition”. It is surprising how true and welcome both statements are, and how sharp a reminder it is that the real challenges both leaders face are far bigger than what they see in each other.

At the same time as this cross-border exchange of poignant words was going on, another reminder came from the World Bank to both leaders that it will take more than words to realise this ambition. In two reports released back to back, the bank painted a bleak picture of the state of poverty in both countries. In one report, for instance, it pointed out that growth rates in South Asia are the highest in the world, making the region a “growth hotspot”, and the future looks even brighter. But for India, the World Bank added “gains have been uneven, with greater progress in states and social groups that were already better off”. On poverty, the bank slid into its customary diplomatic language, saying “India faces the challenge of further accelerating the responsiveness of poverty reduction to growth”, meaning its 7.6pc growth rates are not doing enough to help the poor. Pakistan’s future growth is too reliant on CPEC-related spending, and poverty reduction is heavily linked to remittances, which face an uncertain future.

In essence, the report is pointing out that South Asia will remain desperately poor in spite of having the world’s highest growth rates. The leaderships in both countries have a great deal to think about when it comes to this plain fact. Both countries spend far too much on their military capabilities and not enough on their citizenry, particularly the poor. And in large measure, poverty alleviation is seen by both as a byproduct of higher growth rates. Meanwhile, the poor are left to the mercy of forces beyond their control, such as droughts or uncertain remittances. The words exchanged between the prime ministers of two of the poorest countries in the world last week made for rather strange theatre. But if it is true that changing the subject is a good way to defuse tensions, then poverty is certainly the right topic to bring up at a time like this.

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2016

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