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Downward trajectory

December 15, 2012

POVERTY figures are often controversial, and in the past some estimates provided by NGOs and international development organisations have been met with scepticism in Pakistan. But now the government itself has admitted how much worse poverty has grown during its nearly five years in power. The Ministry of Food Security told the Senate this week that 58 per cent of the population was food-insecure last year compared to the Sustainable Policy Development Institute’s figure of 49 per cent for 2009. It also pointed out that the SDPI’s estimate of 22 per cent of Pakistanis living in extreme poverty in 2009 was higher than a UNDP and World Bank number of 17 per cent living below the poverty line in 2007-08. By the government’s own admission, then, Pakistanis are poorer and hungrier today than they were when the current administration came to power.

Inflation figures provide one major clue to why this is the case. The Planning Commission published its latest report on the food basket — the minimum recommended intake of various food items — which reveals that the monthly cost of the basket has grown by 81 per cent since 2007-2008, and that actual consumption is about 1,700 calories rather than the food basket’s prescribed 2,150 calories per person per day. A square meal is now clearly beyond the reach of the majority of Pakistanis, leading to the demonstrated problems of undernourished and underdeveloped children, poor rates of mother and child survival, and a weak and ailing labour force. Add to this the following statistic: for the poorest Pakistanis, the cost of food now makes up 59 per cent of total spending. Combine this with the lack of high-quality and accessible subsidised healthcare and education, and it is obvious that the average Pakistani is increasingly worse off when it comes to the basic necessities of life.

Government officials often cite the Benazir Income Support Programme as an example of the administration’s pro-poor policies. But as the numbers demonstrate, one flagship programme or one type of intervention is not enough. BISP is considered successful on a particular front — providing extra cash to the poorest families through women — and has added some features, such as health insurance and small business loans, that should enable the poor to earn higher incomes. But the need for more and different interventions has only increased. Given the extent of the problem, these interventions don’t need to be brilliantly innovative. Plenty of models exist elsewhere. Making a dent in the poverty numbers in Pakistan is rather a question of political will, and of placing a value on the most basic human rights.