Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent announcement to give chickens to women in rural areas, as part of a poverty alleviation strategy, has received a lot of flak.
Khan identified two benefits of this asset transfer programme: nutritious food for eating and more chickens and eggs to sell.
Although the prime minister claimed the programme has been tested, we are not aware of publicly available results from any evaluation of such a pilot in Pakistan. Moreover, scale-ups of successful pilots often disappoint in their results.
There has been one major study in Pakistan on a graduation strategy for the ultra-poor to transition to a higher standard of living. Its results highlight two factors that are important to consider.
First, when given the choice of a productive asset, only 10 per cent of the sample opted for chickens, with the majority choosing goats. This implies that poultry is seen as a relatively low priority asset by the population.
Second, the intervention tested in this study had a gamut of additional components, including technical skills training, health and financial support and monitoring. All of these are absent from Khan's proposal and so any conclusions about the success of this study cannot be drawn for our context.
Writing for Dawn.com, Myrah Nerine Butt nicely pointed out the potential drawbacks for women from such a programme. In a similar spirit of thoughtful engagement and building on her article, we will argue using theory and evidence that the economic, gender and nutritional impacts of such a programme are limited at best and negative at worst.
The economics does not add up
It appears that the government has already initiated the programme, with rural women in Rawalpindi being the first to receive the chickens.
Each woman is being given one unit, which is made up of five chickens, with a total of 2.5 million units to be handed out across the Rawalpindi division at a cost of Rs1,200 per unit. This has two implications.
First, if a similar proportion is applied to the rest of Pakistan, this has a budgetary implication of approximately Rs78 billion for the nearly 65 million rural women across Pakistan.
This is no trivial amount, especially given the budget deficit. In fact, it is almost exactly the annual revenue collection from taxes on mobile prepaid cards alone that the Federal Board of Revenue stands to lose due to the previous government's tax reforms.
The second issue that is apparent from the distribution in Rawalpindi is that, all of a sudden, there will be a lot of households within close vicinity of each other in possession of the chickens.
This means that supply of chickens and eggs will increase significantly, making any commercial sales of surplus chickens and eggs difficult; basic economic theory suggests that prices will be driven down because of the drastically increased supply, making any profits minimal.
Rural areas are usually not well connected to markets in the first place and this lack of outlet will be a problem once localised markets become saturated. There may also be a negative spillover of this — existing suppliers of poultry could also see their profits slashed.
In addition, there are significant costs for households associated with handing them chickens. These include higher use of cooking fuel to cook desi chickens because they take longer to cook; land is needed for rearing poultry, which poor households do not necessarily possess; and finally, the opportunity cost of time for women, which is an issue we return to below.
These will of course remain hypotheses until tested, but nevertheless are based on observations from field work in rural areas.
All these issues identified above make it unlikely for an asset transfer programme comprising chickens to have any impact on income poverty.
Nutrition and health
At first glance, giving households greater access to protein-rich foods may appear to be good, especially with undernutrition being a major issue in Pakistan; the latest Demographic Health Survey shows that 41pc of rural children are stunted.
More chickens and eggs to consume, then, may be good, but it is important to point out a number of caveats to this.
Globally, there is a lack of consensus and consistent evidence on whether livestock and poultry transfers can decrease stunting. It is agreed, however, that the success of the interventions is conditional on certain factors such as where households keep the animals and how well connected they are to markets.
In some cases, there has in fact been a negative impact of livestock and poultry ownership on nutrition due to diarrhea and other diseases related to proximity to livestock.
Poultry fecal waste also leads to increased risks of environmental enteropathy, a serious condition which limits the absorption of nutrients among children.
On this, a recent World Bank report on Pakistan has argued that we need to focus on improving sanitation, especially in rural areas, to make progress on stunting.
Related: A water policy for a Naya Pakistan
There may be a strong argument for giving chickens and other small livestock to women, given that women’s control of assets and resources in the household is associated with better nutrition. Care of small livestock and poultry is usually the domain of the woman, as Butt’s article pointed out.
However, in the likely case that these assets do not improve women’s access to resources and say over how the products from the chickens are used, it may well increase their time burdens. This reduces time spent on rest and care of children, which is detrimental to their own health and that of their children.
Evidence from a previous study on a livestock and poultry intervention did, in fact, show no significant improvements in women’s say in household decisions in Pakistan.
In sum, there is no guarantee that giving chickens to households will improve health and nutritional outcomes.
In fact, there exists a possibility that without checks on sanitation and women’s time poverty, providing chickens may make things worse.
What about poverty alleviation?
Any poverty alleviation strategy must aspire to sustainable and broad based development.
Redistribution programmes, which transfer cash (such as the Benazir Income Support Programme) and assets (such as chickens), can serve the important purpose of protecting the poor from shocks and mitigating their risks.
These are valuable goals in and of themselves; however, what they do not do is alleviate poverty significantly.
If the prime minister is serious about alleviating poverty, he must focus on halting and even reversing Pakistan’s premature de-industrialisation.
It is the manufacturing sector which has the capability of providing high-productivity and high-wage jobs, and which has globally led to poverty alleviation and inter-generational social mobility.
In the midst of a narrowing manufacturing base, however, hopes for broad-based development remain bleak.
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