PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan has long been stressing the need to ramp up efforts to reduce poverty in the country. On Thursday, he once again reminded his administration that the performance of his government will be evaluated by voters in the next elections on the basis of its success in tackling poverty, and claimed that KP had re-elected the PTI because it had managed to lift a large number of people out of poverty in its first term in that province. Unfortunately, for all his emphasis on giving relief to the people, Pakistan has been losing the fight against poverty. The number of poor living below the national poverty line has actually grown rapidly under the PTI owing to the ongoing economic slowdown made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. The IMF has recently predicted that the percentage of population living in poverty will grow to 40pc from (as per official claims) 24.3pc in 2015. Other global lenders too have made similar projections. Thus, we may soon see nearly 85m Pakistanis living in poverty, up by 30m from around 55m only five years ago. It’s a big jump by any standard, especially when we have a party in power that claims to have lifted a large number of poor people out of poverty in KP.

Pakistan has a long history of formulating and implementing poverty reduction programmes. But the rising poverty levels reflect poorly on the strategies adopted to fight a deep-rooted problem. Besides poor policy formulation, the lack of resources, bureaucratic lethargy and inefficient execution of so-called pro-poor interventions are also to blame for the failure of efforts to bring down poverty levels. Moreover, successive governments have mostly concentrated on immediate results to get political mileage rather than addressing the multidimensional vulnerabilities that perpetuate poverty. For example, the disbursement of cash among the poor under the Ehsaas programme is important for reducing hardship and supporting income. It is, however, foolish to expect that it will alleviate poverty. Little wonder then that we see socioeconomic vulnerabilities increase over time as the poor continue to be denied access to education, health, capital, drinking water, sanitation, etc. Indeed, the country has witnessed the number of poor decrease in periods of higher economic growth. However, increasing socioeconomic vulnerabilities and inequalities mean that an unexpected shock like a sudden dip in growth or a pandemic such as Covid-19 would push the vulnerable groups back into abject poverty.

For a sustainable reduction in poverty the government must formulate a long-term, comprehensive programme to attack different dimensions of poverty through increased pro-poor expenditure rather than focusing on income-support interventions only. Many a time, the prime minister has pledged to ‘learn’ from the successful Chinese experience of dealing with poverty and replicate it in Pakistan to get the same results. Now is the time for him to walk the talk.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2021

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