I have talked to a cross section of the people from Karachi to Peshawar on their perception about reduction in poverty; they feel that the government figures were too good to be true. But the top government officials dismiss the skeptics as “cynics,” “opposition supporters” and “pessimists. Nobody has given a thought why all governments have low credibility with the people.
On the other hand most critics completely dismiss government claim that the percentage of people living below the poverty line has dropped by 10 per cent. They have failed to come out with any alternate figure; instead some claim that the number of people living below the poverty line has increased. Now between the government advocates and its critics the common man is more inclined to believe the latter.
The government has based its claim on the basis of the findings of Pakistan Social and Living Standard Measurement Survey conducted between September 2004 and March 2005. This they claim is the biggest survey of its kind ever undertaken by the government. The PSLM has undoubtedly a large sample size of 76,520 households – 27,144 urban and 49,376 rural. The trouble with this survey is that it has no history to compare the data. So the government compared it with the last Pakistan Integrated Household Survey of 2001-02.
Some economists and government officials (of course they do not want to be quoted) say that in principle it is wrong to compare two different types of survey. The type of questions asked and methodology for both the surveys, they maintained, were different hence their results should not be compared. Another objection raised by these critics is that 2001-02 PIHS represents the data of the drought year when rural population suffered most and those who were on the fringes of poverty line fell down, while PSLM 2004-05 represents the good harvest year, which pushed up many from the poverty line. One bad crop and much of these gains would be washed out. So it’s the argument that apples can be compared with apples and not oranges.
To establish the credibility of its claim the government explained that its data has been authenticated by the UNDP expert and DIFD. But the World Bank, which did not rely on the government methodology, applied a different scale and observed that poverty has reduced in the period mentioned by the government but only to 5% and not 10%. Now from any realistic performance scale even 5% reduction in poverty in a short period between 2002 and 2005 is a good achievement.
Different agencies and organisations are using different scales to draw the poverty line. For some, people who get less than 2350 calories a day are below this line, for others it is below 2550 calories. Yet another definition is that per capita income over one dollar a day is necessary to keep ones’ head above the poverty line.
Then there is also confusion in taking growing inequality as growing poverty. Almost all government data confirms that inequality has been rising. Interestingly, this data is not disputed by those who doubt everything which comes out of Islamabad. Sharp inequality and poverty in any society breeds commotion and tears the social fabric. In Pakistan this is manifested in growing crime rate and increased fodder for extremist organisations.
And what did the government do? It brought the President on television to give credibility to its claims. (Or, the President took this responsibility on himself like many others). His speech writers also confused the issue of rising standard of living of middle and lower middle classes with the issue of people who live in abject poverty.
Coming back to the issue of poor perception about the government credibility, the main problem is that it has failed in perception management. Yes, there is a Ministry of Information, but as the name suggests it only informs the people what the government is doing. Rather more often it propagates what the Prime Minister and Ministers are doing. There is no overall or ministry-wise communications strategy. As a result what they have is a mountain of haphazard collection of press releases and number of press briefings, seminars, media interviews etc. But all this is overdone. These tactics are not based on any integrated strategy for each ministry and issues faced by them.
Take the issue of an excited announcement that the percentage of people living under the poverty line has dropped by 10 points between 2001-02 and 2004-05. The best course would have been to involve the media and independent economists from the time when the PSLM was started, when its figures were tabulated and when they were analyzed. Then when the findings were available the government should have provided them to independent economists to use them in their articles. At the same time the whole study along with the methodology should have been kept transparent. And then the government should have given their own findings and the World Bank figures to the press with the key message that no matter which figure you take poverty is on the decline, as a consequence of government pro-poor policy intervention. This strategy could have borne better results for the government.
But the trouble is that all ministers and secretaries are mister-know-it-all, the information officers attached with them are either incapable of advising them or their advise is summarily dismissed by their bosses. Most of the time they are busy in promoting their bosses instead of generating favourable press about the progress on the ground. Why? Because that’s what the top bosses like.
So if people don’t believe that poverty has gone down it is not surprising. They don’t believe in most of the things any government says. Neither is this government an exception and nor this country.