RULERS tend to downplay poverty to avoid its political fallout. Therefore, we often see governments manipulating poverty data in developing countries to paint a hopeful picture of the economy. But the blunt way in which finance adviser Shaukat Tarin tried to brush off the issue of rampant poverty in the country betrays deep insensitivity towards a people in extreme economic distress.
Quoting a World Bank report, Macro Poverty Outlook on Pakistan on Friday, he stated that the incidence of poverty in Pakistan had dropped to 4.2pc from 5.4pc a year ago. He could have put it another way to underscore the seriousness of the problem: that 37pc of the population, or nearly 80m people, still live in poverty as estimated by the same report, and that it is the primary responsibility of the government to ease their misery. Indeed, restaurants in major cities may be filled with people, as he said, but does that mean that the war against poverty has been won or that widespread food insecurity is a thing of the past? It essentially underlines the growing income inequality in society, a consequence of government policies.
With Pakistan’s economy growing very slowly over the past decade and a half owing to inconsistent macroeconomic policies, underinvestment in industry and socioeconomic infrastructure, and stagnant exports, it is not surprising to see the incidence of poverty increase. Pakistan’s macroeconomic crisis since 2018 and the start of Covid-19 have hurt the vast majority of people. Millions have lost their jobs in the last three years and others are struggling to cope with their eroding purchasing power amid rapidly rising prices because of the economic slowdown and the pandemic’s impact that has exacerbated the challenge of multidimensional poverty. We are nowhere near achieving the SDGs either, another sign of growing multidimensional poverty.
In these circumstances, such callous statements from the adviser — or the one from the State Bank governor on the benefits of currency depreciation for the small portion of Pakistanis living abroad — aren’t doing the government any good. Poverty is a serious challenge, which cannot be dealt with without first acknowledging its extent. In recent months, the prime minister has rightly emphasised that the performance of his government would be judged by voters in the next election on the basis of its success in tackling poverty. That time is approaching fast and the ministers and advisers appear clueless about to how to handle this challenge.
Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2021