Pakistan and the MDGs

September 24, 2010

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The three-day high-level Plenary Meeting of the UN General Assembly to review a decade of progress of the Millennium Development Goals, ended this week in New York. Running almost parallel to the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, the flood crisis of Pakistan was a headliner at both these high-profile events. Only a weekend prior was the official launch of the Pakistan Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Report 2010, in Islamabad. Pakistan has been an active implementer of the MDGs and is also one of the eight pilot countries of the One UN Reform Program, currently underway.

As expected, the global progress against the eight MDG goals has been far from encouraging, with most countries not being able to meet targets to improve health, education and gender disparities, among others. The original target set for meeting the MDG goals is 2015, which includes eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education for boys and girls and combating HIV/AIDs, seems much more elusive now than it did ten years ago.

While the UN secretary general and heads of state have yet again reaffirmed their ‘commitment’ to achieving the goals, reality has dictated otherwise. Ever since the first UN Summit in 2000, which gave birth to the MDGs, the world has witnessed a sharp decline in economic conditions (especially among richer countries) and a sharp rise in international humanitarian and political crises (in less developed nations).

Pakistan is no different. Still reeling from the impact of the recent floods, the Pakistan government indicated that the country had failed to achieve many of the MDG targets due to slow economic growth, severe energy crisis, the war on terror and recent humanitarian catastrophes which has now set back the country by at least two years.

The Pakistan MDG Report 2010 outlines 16 national targets and 37 indicators adopted from the MDGs. Of these, Pakistan is ahead in 6 indicators; on track in two; slow in 4; lagging behind in 20 indicators and is off-track only in one indicator (infant mortality). Of the six successful indicators, the only one worth appreciating is a decrease in the prevalence of HIV/AIDs among vulnerable groups, including sex workers and young pregnant women. On the other hand, while Pakistan has one of the highest numbers of women representatives in the Parliament, it severely lags behind indicators such as the maternal mortality ratio, women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector and the contraceptive prevalence rate.

This has always been and will continue to remain the dichotomy in Pakistan, where statistics belie ground realities. At every successive turn, it seems that Pakistan has had a ready excuse on which to pin its weaknesses. While pinning the donkey’s tail on previous regimes has always been a favourite electoral pass-time, this time around, the culprit has been identified as Pakistan’s political instability over the last few years, led by its involvement in the war on terror and the 2008 global economic meltdown.

While both these reasons have a valid significance, Pakistan’s development indicators have been on a dubious journey over the last decade, to say the least. The most alarming instance in this respect is that the report claims, “there are disagreements over what the extent of poverty is in Pakistan at the moment”. Yet another example of how invisible majority of the population is if we are still not able to identify who our poor are, let alone why, where and how.

Poverty statistics are an inherently political tool for governments on which to base their projections for international aid, debt servicing and write-offs, among others. But it is clearly a double-edged sword. The higher the levels of poverty, the greater the flow of international assistance, but the weaker the image of the state. Alternatively, the lower the levels of poverty, the lower the bargaining position of the state to request for international aid, but more favourable an image.

Such were the years between 2002 to 2006, when poverty showed a steep decline in official figures and international investment was at its highest. But the controversy that has surround these figures still continues, especially since come 2007, the gap began to increase once again, or as the Report states, “an inability or reluctance to deal with the speculative bubble”. It is ironic that the “bubble” was ready to burst on the eve of a regime change. But politics aside, this cat and mouse game to show how rich or how poor the country is, has been detrimental to the overall statistics of a nation just barely afloat.

Further inconsistency arises from the fact that the reasons provided for inability to achieve targets, are still far from adequate. Political and extremist instability, while undoubtedly debilitating the country’s resources, is only a recent cause. Pakistan’s national budget has never allocated much more than 1.6 per cent of GDP to social sectors such as education. The bulk has always gone to defense (which received a 17 per cent increase in this years budget), much before terrorism became instant justification for all things wayward. Neglect of the social sectors in Pakistan predates the MDGs by a long shot.

Similarly, the report claims that the energy crisis in Pakistan has been a result of demand far outstripping the supply, due to “high spurts of economic growth that the government was unable to meet”. While rampant urbanisation and a phenomenal population growth rate are the main culprits, severe financial and administrative mismanagement over the decades, has been as much a cause of the power crisis.

It is clear from the report that Pakistan will not be able to achieve its targets in at least four out of the eight MDG goals, including eradication of poverty and hunger, universal primary education, environmental sustainability and increased maternal mortality. The remaining four goals also leave a lot to the imagination.

But the issue here is not of achieving goals for the sake of meeting MDG targets. Those are but a mere pillar holding a now nearly defunct United Nations in place. The real issue is of Pakistan and other developing nations is providing a near-decent standard of living to their citizens. This can and should be a national mandate instead of a UN-created phenomena. So perhaps, its time to think independently of international agencies such as the UN, since thinking under their shadow certainly hasn’t helped us so far, it seems.

Themrise Khan is a freelance social development consultant based in Karachi who occasionally dares to venture into the Pakistani media.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.