The politics of hunger

October 20, 2019


The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

THE current government seems to have a very simplistic idea of the welfare state. Its much-trumpeted slogan of ‘change’, which the government keeps infusing with religious narratives, utopian dogmas and mantras, also appears to be merely for public consumption.

The Ehsaas-Saylani Langar Scheme is yet another reflection of the government’s obsession with showcasing something ‘big’ to reflect ‘change’. Addressing the inaugural ceremony of the scheme, Prime Minister Imran Khan protested against the people’s criticism of his vision of the state of Madina, which he said “could not be realised in only 13 months”.

Read: PM Imran launches Ehsaas-Saylani Langar Scheme in Islamabad

There is nothing new in the prime minister’s complaint regarding this criticism or even in his approach to poverty alleviation. Many countries in the developing world, especially Pakistan, have been trapped in flawed plans aimed at poverty reduction.

Just a week after the launch of the langar, or free kitchen, scheme, an economist of Indian-origin, Abhijit Banerjee, and his French-born wife, Esther Duflo, along with another economist Michael Kremer, won the Nobel Prize for their experimental approach towards alleviating global poverty. Their landmark work, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, challenges conventional approaches to poverty alleviation and examines the real nature of the issue, and also how the poor react to incentives.

Giving more food or money to the poor is not a remedy for the curse of poverty.

The experts spent time in the field, living with the poor in 18 countries, to find that developing countries are not doomed to failure because they are poor, or because they have had an unfortunate history, but that these nations need to fight ignorance, ideology and inertia. Their work should be essential reading for the prime minister and his socioeconomic managers and policymakers. It will help them understand that giving more food or money to the poor is not the remedy for the curse of poverty.

Allama Iqbal wrote an introduction to a book on economics in 1904. The preface provides an interesting assessment of the viewpoints of Muslims on economics, still relevant to some extent in Pakistan’s context. Challenging the dominant view of his time, Iqbal argued that the knowledge of wealth did not make nations greedy but was meant to make them capable of controlling their ambitions of war to be able to live in peace and harmony.

The preface reflects that for Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, subjects such as science and economics were hardly an intellectual pursuit. In the absence of a structured thinking process on the economy, the state of Pakistan still relies on mediaeval narratives such as opening free kitchens for the poor, views that are extremely simplistic and will hardly lead to the desired social change.

Pakistan ranks 94 out of 117 qualifying countries on the recent Global Hunger Index and has been described as facing a ‘serious’ level of hunger. The latest poverty estimates show that 24pc of Pakistan’s population lives below the poverty line. This is a huge challenge that can only be confronted through a comprehensive and structured programme.

The Chinese poverty alleviation programme, which largely inspires Prime Minister Khan, is part of China’s overall development strategy. The Dibao programme mainly focuses on low-rent housing, health reforms, education emergency and temporary support for families encountering sudden disasters. However, one of its components for the rural areas includes conditional food assistance to people without livelihoods. People are expected to work for government projects and, in return, get food besides their income. Most importantly, local bodies play a leading role taking forward such initiatives, contrary to Pakistan’s centralised approach.

India is yet another example. International bodies have acknowledged India’s efforts to reduce poverty, but the pace of change is slow. India ranked 102 out of 117 countries, and according to the Global Hunger Index, it has the highest percentage of acutely undernourished children. India may remove 3pc of its population from poverty in the next couple of years, but experts have noted that its model for poverty-alleviation programmes smacks of what they call ‘developmental nationalism’. Such programmes prioritise constituencies where the ruling party has won or wants to expand its support base.

This could also be described as ‘hunger politics’, as extremist and hard-line Hindutva groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have come to the government’s assistance and are systematically targeting slums occupied by low-caste Hindus to bring them into the fold of the overarching Hindu identity. The RSS is expanding its network of schools, medical camps and other welfare schemes in these slums to stop religious conversions which Hindutva groups see as a threat to Hindu nationalism.

In Pakistan, some religious charities, mainly associated with banned militant groups, have been following in the footsteps of the Hindu radical groups, especially in the localities of Sindh and Punjab with clusters of religious minorities. However, the scale of the charity programmes of these groups is quite small as compared with the RSS and its affiliates’ initiatives. Another issue is that these groups are under increased global scrutiny.

In the last election, the BJP government in India effectively used the hunger card and attracted the votes of the poor. On the other hand, poverty was not a major political issue during the 2018 election in Pakistan, and the ruling party focused, instead, on the eradication of corruption. The topic generates popular support, but it is an uphill task for developing nations to come up with structural responses to counter corruption. Moreover, sustaining political support merely on anti-corruption sloganeering has a short shelf life.

To ease the pressure to perform and divert attention from their real challenges, governments tend to take populist steps such as opening langars and providing sasti roti, but all this contributes nothing to a country of over 200 million. The Nobel Prize winners have good advice for countries like Pakistan and India: they have to fight ignorance, ideology and inertia if they want to truly eradicate hunger.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2019