Pakistan’s HDI shame

Published October 22, 2018
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

IN the 2018 Human Development Index (HDI) rankings, Pakistan ranks 150th out of 189 countries. Since the previous iteration of the report was published in 2016, the country has actually slipped down a rank. The neighbour closest to it is Bangladesh at 136, while India sits at 130.

Several writers, including some on these pages, have talked about the inadequacies of Pakistan’s social or human development outcomes. These are often juxtaposed with a comparatively reasonable track record of economic growth over the last seven decades. This reality is well captured by the fact that our Gross National Income (in 2011 US dollars) is roughly 30 per cent greater than Bangladesh, but our expected years of schooling and average life expectancy is around three and six years less respectively.

We know that human development is important as an end in and of itself, as well as a way of accelerating overall socioeconomic welfare outcomes. How and why have others in our geographic neighbourhood been more successful on this front? Existing research provides several explanations, and nearly all assign causal value to historical junctures, politics, the agency of politicised social groups, and the role of key decision-makers in their development stories.

How and why have others in our geographic neighbourhood been more successful on the human development front?

The case of Bangladesh, for example, is well covered by Naomi Hossain’s 2017 book The Aid Lab. She argues that, among other key factors, the events during and following the aftermath of state formation in 1971 — civil war, famine, and a subsequent government overthrow — propelled future power holders of all stripes to seek legitimacy through their ability to protect the people from adversity. This consensus of sorts pervaded across decision-makers, helped set expectations of the public, and cultivated a new ‘moral economy’ in which the state was obliged to deliver on some key development goals.

Once in place, the development-oriented social contract between state and society in Bangladesh has proven to be quite resilient, even when the arena of elite politics remains wracked with violent instability, civil-military imbalances, and other regressive trends. As a result, we see expected education attainment at 11 years of schooling; infant mortality climb down from 258/1,000 in 1961 to 47 in 2011; and women who were having seven kids in 1961 are now having two, which means a country which once had a population larger than (West) Pakistan is now home to 20 million fewer people.

Other stories from Pakistan’s region showcase alternative routes to improved human development outcomes. The sub-national case of the Indian state of Kerala is another instructive one. Here the story is less about consensual prioritisation of development among elite decision-makers (a supply-led model), and more about class-based social mobilisation organised by a political party from below (ie demand-led).

Captured best in the works of Patrick Heller, Manali Desai and other social scientists, Kerala’s remarkable human development story turns it into a sizable outlier for South Asia. Its overall literacy rate is 93pc and its female literacy is 92pc. Its infant mortality rate is 12 per 1000 births; while India’s overall figure is 41; Bangladesh’s 47; and Pakistan’s 63. A person born in Kerala is expected to live, on average, 10 years more than someone born in Pakistan.

As with other cases, a host of factors are responsible for these outcomes, but the role of politics carries significant weightage. The organisation and mobilisation of lower-caste, and lower-class workers in industry, agriculture, and the informal services sector by a left-wing political party during the 20th century placed immense accountability pressures on the state government. These pressures have culminated in the periodic electoral victory of the left-wing party, the CPI-M, and the passage of a series of laws that not only expanded the economic advantages enjoyed by groups that had historically been oppressed in a thoroughly unequal and casteist society, but also institutionalised the delivery of social welfare goods, particularly in health and education.

Finally, another important subnational case is that of Tamil Nadu in India, which, while less dramatic than that of Kerala, has still seen considerable improvements in development outcomes. Prerna Singh’s recent work on the state points to the role of ‘subnational solidarity’, ie the development of close and cohesive ethnic ties in the state that resulted in Tamil political elites (regardless of party affiliation) working for the uplift of their co-ethnics. Challenging conventional accounts that show social divisions as adversely impacting development outcomes, Singh argues that the emergence of ethnic solidarity among political elites at the subnational level can actually produce benefits for the poorest of the community.

The cases discussed here have varying degrees of relevance for Pakistan. By now, it is clear that moving the country’s human development needle in the right direction will require an iron-clad consensus among elite decision-makers, both civil and military. I mention the latter here simply because the country’s fiscal and ideological framework has for too long been dictated by a national security paradigm full of abstract, pointless aspirations, often to the detriment of actual welfare considerations. Failing to change this means we remain trapped in our growth without development predicament.

Secondly, while the new ruling party’s leader insists on human development as his central focus, this will remain meaningless till his party’s political elite buys into the same vision. Can the PTI leader safely say that his party’s MPAs, MNAs and other leaders (many of whom are recent entrants) are willing to revise their social contracts with their constituents?

Finally, Pakistan’s demobilised and suppressed lower classes are in no position to place demand-side pressure on the state to change its priorities. But this is where political parties become important. If any of them are serious about these outcomes going forward, they will have to move past their clientelistic attitude towards poor voters, and actually organise them as stakeholders in the decision-making process.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2018



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