No time for the poor

How the govt calculated, without a census, a third of the country is below the poverty line, will remain a mystery


Muhammad Hamid Zaman April 11, 2016
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The bazaar of the bizarre is in full swing. We have, in the last one week, seen ministers attacking a national institution of repute and prestige for really low political gains, a lengthy defence of business dealings of the first family of Pakistan that somehow does not quite add up, a first-of-its-kind address to the nation by a politician on social media, and the ill-thought and just outright strange comparisons with Iceland, a country whose capital most of the politicians could not name, or spell if told. Buried way back in this bazaar of the bizarre is a news story that has not gotten much attention, but is far more sober and shocking, than what we tend to obsess about.

The government, last week, announced that nearly a third of the country is now below the poverty line. How they have calculated, without the census, will forever remain a mystery. However, for the sake of argument, let us assume some validity in that number, for I doubt that the government would inflate national poverty statistics. For those who want to compare us to Iceland, or their Scandinavian cousins, should think about this metric of nearly 60 million people below the poverty line, and the difference between where we are, and where they are, will be far more telling than actions of just government officials.

The recent numbers indicate a problem much deeper than previously imagined. It is no longer the street children who pick trash and live in sub-human conditions, or the maasis at our homes, the destitute in Thar who are born with a death warrant, or those refugee men, women and children who we eye with deep suspicion and automatically consider to be terrorist sympathisers, or the minority children who are like us, but not quite — it is every third person in the country. It is our neighbours and our co-workers, it is men, women and children all around us.

Last week, around the same time we saw the new government numbers, and our stories were unfolding, Sir Fazle Hasan Abid, a tireless advocate and champion for better health for the poor was being awarded the prestigious Thomas Francis Medal in Global Public Health.

Studies by the London School of Economics and those published in the Science journal suggest that models and approaches by Sir Abid have changed the lives of the ultra poor around the world. An organisation that he created nearly four decades ago now employs over a hundred thousand people and helps nearly 138 million people worldwide.

Poverty, as shown by the work of Sir Abid and countless others, is not a simple problem — and perhaps that is why it is easier to ignore it. It cannot be solved by our favourite solutions of sending laptops or creating new apps, and neither can it be solved by an empty political slogan. It requires an integrated effort, from new models in economics to community development, from access to better health to availability of education, from empowerment of women to creating better infrastructure. But above all, it requires leadership and dedication over decades. It requires us to confront hard truths about what is not working in governance, but also what can be done, and what must be done . The conversation on poverty must be brought into the folds of mainstream conversations, and we, despite our busy schedules on whatsapp and infotainment, must take time out to ask ourselves about our own moral bankruptcy in not recognising the plight of those around us.

A society, and its various stakeholders, from the media to intelligentsia, that focus only on the headline can never solve the stubborn problems of development. I am all for justice and inquiry for those in power and those outside power, but who will bring the justice to those who happen to be born on the wrong side of town, or who have been denied a fair shot at a decent living? When will there be a commission to investigate their dreams that have been stolen, time and again, by a generation of politicians? Who will address the nation to tell their story?

Published in The Express Tribune, April 12th, 2016.

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COMMENTS (1)

Parvez | 5 years ago | Reply The price of inequality is most always paid for by the poor.....the rich build fortresses around themselves for their protection. In Pakistan the leaders of three major political parties ( and others ) live abroad, have their wealth and families abroad and if they cough they fly abroad to their doctors.......Pakistan is used as their source of revenue and nothing else. Can one expect improvement with such leaders.
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