Anti-poverty initiative

Published March 29, 2019

THE steps announced by Prime Minister Imran Khan as part of his anti-poverty initiative ‘Ehsaas’ sound innovative and sincere.

The amendment to Article 38 (d) of the Constitution to redefine access to food, shelter, clothing, health and education as a fundamental right would certainly, in a legal sense, change the relationship of the state with its citizenry. Along with this, Mr Khan also announced an increase in the amount of money the state intends to spend on underprivileged segments of society — from Rs80bn to Rs120bn by 2020. The prime minister also announced a new ministry for social protection and poverty alleviation would be set up, though the details were scant.

All of these are sound priorities to pursue for a leader, and there can be little doubt that Mr Khan, on his part, has shown a sincere desire to deliver to the poor. The problem is with the path forward.

In the past, too, we have heard the prime minister speak about stunting in children and malnutrition, and the distribution of poultry as income support for low-income households. To date, there is scant evidence that much has been done to follow up on these announcements. To earnestly improve access to food, shelter, clothing, health and education, far more than constitutional amendments will be required. The prime minister said that after the amendment has been made, any citizen would be able to approach a court and demand his or her fundamental rights.

The first thing that will be required will be the numbers in parliament to make this amendment to the constitution. Given the kind of relationship that Mr Khan and his government have with the opposition parties, this looks like a challenging task.

Second, the capacity of the state to actually produce results is debatable. What is obstructing better health and education outcomes at present is not the fact that they are not legally recognised as fundamental rights. Instead, the challenge lies in the lack of resources, overlapping jurisdictions, and the absence of any commitment made by the political elites to prioritise social welfare objectives and give their undivided attention to the task. A constitutional amendment will give the courts the power to carve a role for themselves in the provision of social services, but this does not mean that the judiciary would be able to deliver the services in question.

It is good for Pakistan that its leadership should speak of poverty alleviation and social service delivery as important priorities of the state, and seek innovative ways to improve performance in these crucial areas. But both priorities have highly developed approaches and a wealth of past experience to learn from. A new ministry will have much to reflect on and learn, before it can embark on an effective course of action.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2019

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