For a prosperous Pakistan in 2047, invest in human capital now

Updated March 19, 2019


IN a new report, the World Bank takes a deep look at what Pakistan needs to do to have a better future for its people. — Creative Commons/File
IN a new report, the World Bank takes a deep look at what Pakistan needs to do to have a better future for its people. — Creative Commons/File

MY parents’ gardener has six children — all aged eight or younger. While his wife is busy taking care of the youngest ones, barely 15 months and two months old, he brings the other kids along with him so they don’t wander in the streets. As I look at the supposedly eight-year-old girl with a dupatta wrapped around her head, looking tiny, probably stunted, suddenly I realise how pervasive all the statistics Yoon and I have been working are — right there, staring at us in our face. The 38 per cent stunting rate for the population, the fertility rate of 3.6 births per woman, the 22.6 million children out of school, the dismal learning outcomes for students, these are all here manifested in this family and its future.

What kind of future is awaiting these children? Will they be able to reach their full productive potential? According to the World Bank’s Human Capital Project, Pakistan’s children born today can achieve only 39pc of their full potential — productivity they could have achieved if they were able to enjoy complete education and full health. With over 60pc of Pakistan’s national wealth (measured as the sum of produced capital such as factories and infrastructure; 19 types of natural capital such as oil, minerals, land and forests; human capital; and net foreign assets) estimated to be coming from Human Capital Wealth, a failure to nurture and utilise this wealth to its full potential can be fatal.

Nonetheless, successive governments have failed to address the human capital challenge. A careful review of policies in Pakistan on human development reveals a myriad of policies over the 70 years of the country — many strategies appearing sound and well-intentioned, some, of course, appearing to be prompted by geo-political situations of specific eras of the country.

IN a new report, the World Bank takes a deep look at what Pakistan needs to do to have a better future for its people by 2047, a full­ century after the country’s birth. In this series, the authors provide a brief summary of key recommendations of the report.

In this context, we highlight some principles in human capital policies.

The Do’s…

First, strengthen investment in early years. Global research and evidence emphasises the need to invest in the first 1,000 days of one’s life from conception. Invest in households by offering integrated programmes that start by ensuring the following:

1: Family support package — parental support, including planning for family size, maternal education about health, nutrition and sanitation, and child’s early nutrition and stimulation; 2: Involving pre- and ante-natal care and information on nutrition; 3: Involving the birth package, such as the provision of skilled birth attendants, birth registration, and the encouragement of exclusive breastfeeding; 4: Focusing on children’s health and development, with immunisations, information on deworming, identification and treatment of acute malnutrition, and other relevant information; 5: Introduction of good-quality pre-school and early childhood development programmes.

Second, focus on targeted support for the poor and vulnerable with a great emphasis on gender. Lack of female agency and empowerment is in part responsible for early marriage, poor fertility decisions, low investment in children’s human capital, and intergenerational transmission of poverty. Data suggests that women aged between 35 and 49, who married after 18 years of age, have on average 4.5 live births. In contrast, women who married before 18 years of age have an average of 6.1 births and a reduction in the incidence of child marriage is likely to lead to 10pc fall in fertility rates. Targeted and integrated support programmes as above should be tailored to address the needs of poor and vulnerable households especially for women in lagging regions. Complement these targeted efforts with mass media information campaigns on girls’ education, children’s health and nutrition and population planning.

Third, ensure efficient use of resources to get the basic services right. Though mere increased budget allocation is not the panacea, it does help. More important, however, is how and where these resources are allocated and the accountability mechanisms to ensure effective and targeted delivery of services. To address this, establish mechanisms to strengthen the voice of citizens to hold the state, politicians and policymakers accountable for service delivery such as: strong compacts with clear roles and responsibilities against which service providers are held accountable; effective management of service providers, including standards and monitoring of the quality of services delivered; and client power, or power to choose the best service providers as well as providing a platform for citizens’ feedback on the provision of services, with mechanisms to reflect that feedback. With the large penetration of mobile phones, such feedback can be provided through easy-to-navigate web-based applications for smart phones and by SMS responses.

Fourth, strengthen programmes to address the challenges faced by the existing stock of the labour force. A suite of second-chance interventions that focus on developing the skills of individuals of different needs and abilities should be considered. For the illiterate population, launch adult literacy and numeracy programmes with elements of financial literacy and socio-emotional skills that can help them get and retain a job, or start a microenterprise. For the less educated population, offer packages of accelerated learning with opportunities to complete critical milestones in the education system. For low-skilled workers, options for upgrading skills at a low cost with a strong linkage to labour market opportunities are required. Incorporate digital and information and communication technology literacy in the second chance programmes to capture the global outsourcing markets such as telemarketing or medical transcription.

The Don’ts…

Do not put off. The right time for human capital investment is now. Pakistan does not have the luxury to wait until its macroeconomic conditions get better, foreign investment surges, or Artificial Intelligence revolutionises the labour market, to invest in human capital.

Do not pursue a short cut. It will take a long time to get the fundamentals right and realise the returns to human capital investment. There is no silver bullet. Implementation, especially on the scale of Pakistan’s challenges, is an uphill battle. Many initiatives fail not because of bad intentions but the complexity that people face in classrooms, health clinics and in interacting with real people on the ground.

Do not continue business-as-usual. Policies without prioritisation, resource allocation without results monitoring, attribution to social and cultural norms for policy failures, and elite capture won’t help.

Do not expect things to change if policymakers do not monitor what is happening in the service delivery chain, do not measure the outcomes, do not discuss failures publicly, and do not change strategy when things aren’t working.

Do not shy away from engaging and involving the grass root religious leaders in these critical issues. Many other Muslim countries would not have succeeded in improving human capital outcomes if the clergy was not involved.

Pakistan is at a crossroad. What it does today to boost the country’s human capital will determine its path forward. Think and think hard: In 2047, Pakistan’s centennial, what kind of country would we leave for our children?

The co-authors, Tazeen Fasih and Yoon (Yoonyoung) Cho, are World Bank staff.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2019

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