“Aur bhi dukh hain zamanay mey – siasat kay sewa”

“Aur bhi dukh hain zamanay mey – siasat kay sewa”

Pakistan’s government, opposition and media energy are exhausted by the issues related to terrorism, foreign policy, government bashing and judicial populism. The whole nation indulges in these headline catching issues so much that they spend very little time focusing on primary issues like health, education, unemployment and poverty reduction.

A common excuse given by some government, political and civil officials is that security issues have consumed all their energies. Agreed, fighting terrorism and religious and ethnic extremism should be our first priority. But there are other issues related to the quality of life of the people of Pakistan that need to be attended on an urgent basis. All the stakeholders listed above should have the ability to focus on other areas on the priority list.

In spite of the long bloody civil-war, which has just ended, ‘Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka’ (SL) is the star when it comes to comparing human development indicators of the South Asian countries. Visiting Sri Lanka, the first thing that strikes a visitor from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh is the cleanliness of its cities like Colombo and Kandy. Why? Because the SL literacy rate is close to 91% and mean years of adult schooling is 8.2 years, compared to literacy rate of 54% and mean years of schooling of just 4.9 years in Pakistan. In Sri Lanka education is free — all children are given uniform, books and free meal in schools.

Even their health indicators are the best in South Asia. They are spending around 2% of GDP for providing free complete healthcare to all citizens. Only the rich who want to skip the queue go to the private hospitals and clinics. This has raised SL life expectancy rate to 74 years, compared to our 67, Bangladesh’s 67 and India’s 64 years. The under-five mortality rate per 1000 live births in Sri Lanka is just 15; compare this with China’s 17, Bangladesh’s 52, India’s 66 and dismal Pakistan’s 89 deaths per 1000 live births.

These are not just a few cold statistics; these are figures of a human beings quality of life. While the Sri Lankan’s can proudly claim that in spite of the civil-war and lower GDP they have a better quality of life and have almost achieved the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN and SAARC, we are far behind. A crucial question was raised at the National Consultation on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Costing seminar a few years back during the Musharraf era: Do we have enough resources to meet the targets set for 2015?

Pakistan has committed with the United Nations and SAARC to achieve the MDGs by 2015. In 2006 the Ministry of Finance finally initiated a study to find out the cost of meeting four most important goals – education, health, safe water and sanitation. Since improvement in all these sectors would contribute to the reduction of poverty, the ultimate goal of the findings was to help the finance managers in developing the poverty reduction strategy.

The team leader of the economists, Dr. A.R. Kemal, who were assigned to find out how much it would cost to meet only four out of eight MDGs had underlined in 2006 that given the revenue stream of the government and resource allocation trend the required funds are not available. His team had worked out the costing of achieving MDGs on extensive modules taking all the cost heads into account. The flaws with these costings were that they were based on constant price; hence the inflation was not factored in.

Dr. Kemal’s team had extrapolated revenues till year 2015 on the basis of possible growth rates of 6%, 7% and 7.6%. In all the scenarios the combined federal and provincial revenue is not expected to have space to provide financial resources for meeting the four MDGs. But 2007 onwards the growth rate started plummeting and this year it is only expected to be 2.6%. The planners are not expecting around 4% growth in 2011-12. So all the expectations to provide adequate funds for health, education, sanitation and clean drinking water have been washed away.

What are the options for raising money for these sectors when the budget deficit is over 6% and the government is not expected to meet its next year’s target also? The fiscal space provided by reduction in debt servicing thanks to 9/11 has already exhausted.

Let’s briefly examine the available options. Letting the fiscal deficit rise is self defeating as it’s inflationary. At present we are faced with the problems that how to bring down the double-digit inflation. The purpose of the whole exercise is reduction of poverty and nothing is more deadly for the poor than the inflation spurred by rise in fiscal deficit. As it is the government is under pressure from IMF and World Bank to cut the deficit.

The second option is of taking a fresh look on resource allocation priorities. Undoubtedly, there is ample room in whittling down the defence budget. Pakistan has to decide a trade-off between having a healthy, educated and satisfied people, and having more toys of destruction. During Musharraf era the US alone gave Pakistan US$20 billion aid, but almost $14 billion went to defence. We can understand that Pakistan needs funds for fighting terrorism, but the continued expenditure of aid and resources on expensive conventional war equipment like F-16s, missiles, nuclear bombs and naval frigates can be slashed substantially.

It is well known that without investing in human resource capital no country can defend itself. Dissatisfied poor people do not defend countries no matter how heavily they are armed. There are other wasteful expenditures in the government and its associate organisations which can be diverted for the right cause once the priorities are clear and everybody is moving in that direction instead of working cross-purpose.

The third option is indeed open. Pakistan may get some foreign assistance but not to the extent to meet the entire gap between the funds required for meeting the MDG goals and available revenue. Whatever the world, including the US has promised not even half has come through so far.

The fourth option of scaling down the targets is the easiest and many in the government may like to go for it in the name of localization of target and realism. But the issue is our human development indicators are pathetic and if improvement is not on the top of the priority list all dreams of maintaining economic growth and reduction in poverty would be evaporated. The rising crime rate, civil commotion expressing in the form of increase in terrorism, brewing regional discontent and expanding quagmire of fundamentalism are nurturing on poverty.

And poverty, as Noble laureate Amartya Sen says “must be seen as deprivation of basic capabilities rather than merely as lowness of incomes, which is the standard criterion of poverty.” Meeting MDGs is quintessential and these goals can only be scored if there is a strong political will and commitment of all stakeholders; unfortunately it is not in sight of the government, opposition and the media. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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