Poor showing on HDI

December 16, 2019

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The new Global Human Develop­ment (GHD) Report is out and it doesn’t bring any good news for Pakistan. With the Human Development Index (HDI) value of 0.560 for 2018, Pakistan has slipped one step on the ladder of the 189 countries to be placed at 152, almost at the bottom of 37 nations categorized by medium human development and just a notch away from the group with low human development.

The report issued by UNDP every year is considered to be a good measure of progress made by countries to reduce income inequality, cut multidimensional poverty, improve gender equality and enhance public access to education and healthcare.

The HDI is a measure for assessing long-term progress in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life measured by life expectancy, access to knowledge assessed by expected years of schooling for the children and standard of living measured by Gross National Income (GNI) per capita.

The new GHD report 2019 explores inequalities in human development by going “beyond income, beyond averages, and beyond today: Inequalities in Human Development in the 21st Century” as its authors underline that inequalities in human development aren’t just about disparities in income and wealth. The proposed approach sets policies to redress these inequalities within a framework that links the formation of capabilities with the broader context in which markets and the governments function.

More than 38pc of the country’s population lives in multidimensional poverty while 12.9pc faces the risk of being pushed below the poverty line

The report shows Pakistan has made some progress over the years, enhancing its HDI value by 38.6pc from 0.404 in 1990 to 0.560 as life expectancy at birth has increased by seven years, expected years of schooling by 3.8 years and GNI per capita by about 62.4pc. Nevertheless, the country has fared poorly when compared with other Saarc nations, which have performed much better, and is 13pc below the average HDI of South Asia.

Nepal, which is closest to Pakistan in HDI rankings, sits at 147. Bangladesh and India have jumped one space each to position at 135 and 129. Bhutan didn’t change its position at 134. Sri Lanka and Maldives are the only two South Asia nations to be classified among countries in the high human development group at 71 and 104. Even Iran, which has suffered under international sanctions for years, is ranked at 65.

The life expectancy at birth and average expected years of schooling in Pakistan are lower than the South Asian averages. A child born in Bangladesh and India, for example, expects to live 72 and 69.4 years when compared with the life expectancy of 67.1 years in Pakistan. The average expected years of schooling in Pakistan is 8.5 years. In comparison it is 11.2 years in Bangladesh and 12.3 years in India. Pakistan has performed poorly even on inequality adjusted human development, as well as gender development and equality compared with the regional countries.

According to the report 38.3pc of the country’s population lives in multidimensional poverty and 12.9pc is at risk of being pushed below the poverty line. Pakistan has 14pc of the 541 million poor living in the region as 51.7pc of its population is suffers from intense deprivation and 21.5pc ‘severe’ poverty.

That is not all, though. Several previous studies and multiple indicator cluster surveys (MICS) show uneven distribution of income, health, education, gender and other disparities in human development across the different regions. While a few major cities like Lahore may have higher human development ranking, many — for example, majority of the districts in Balochistan and a few in South Punjab — are worse off than nations with very low HDI values.

In the words of UNDP Resident Representative in Pakistan Ignacio Artaza if the country’s population was divided into five equal bands or quintiles from richest to poorest, the living standards of these groups would show two completely different Pakistans. “... living in Pakistan can be an entirely different experience depending on how much money one has — with the cafe franchises and mega malls of Pakistan’s urban metropolis on the one hand and the dirt floors and open defecation of its poorest rural areas on the other,” he wrote recently.

Why we are where we are? First, the low HDI ranking is a sad reflection on bad political and development policy choices we have made over the last several decades. Successive governments, political or military, have chosen to divert resources to areas that would give them political mileage over their rivals instead of focusing on inclusive economic growth through higher spending on education, healthcare and other public services that can help bridge growing social and economic disparities.

Secondly, the ruling elite has systematically eliminated and curbed organised collective voices of different segments of society — such as labour and student unions — that would create demand on behalf of the people for evenly distributed improved public services — schools, hospitals, drinking water and so on.

Political parties that are supposed represent voters by raising such issues have for long chosen to look away from the factors that are primarily responsible for growing economic inequalities and social disparities. It would not be wrong to state that these parties no longer represent the masses but the moneyed elite.

Another factor that has contributed to the present situation is absence of an effective, financially powerful third tier — local governments — in the country. The ‘distance’ insulating political leadership and bureaucracy in provincial and federal capitals from the poor residents of a remote village or a town in Balochistan, for example, is so large that it is near impossible for the latter to convey its issues and demands. On top of that, our bureaucracy isn’t accountable to the public and like our political class works for the elite rather than the poor affected by development policies.

In the recent years, governments have taken certain initiatives like distribution of cash handouts among the poorest of the poor. But such programmes have very limited utility. The only way of improving the country’s rank on HDI is to make policies that can lead to inclusive economic growth and favour the poor and target social and economic disparities. That is not possible without a structural change and improvement in the governance system and organisation of communities for collectively voicing their demands for better living standards and access to economic opportunities.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 16th, 2019