There will be those who brush aside the latest report on Pakistan and its consistently low position on the Human Development Index (HDI). The latest figures indicate that Pakistan has maintained the same position as last year and is displaying little or no sign of improvement. Pakistan remains among the group of nations with low indicators of human development and is ranked at 146 out of 187 countries. We scored 0.537 on the HDI index — an improvement of 0.002 points, an infinitesimal shift that is virtually meaningless in terms of real improvement. In some areas, there has been a measurable decline, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the gender inequality index has slipped four places to 127 from last year’s 123, scoring 0.563 compared with 0.567 last year. Slightly better news is found in the life expectancy figures and the average citizen may now expect to live for 66.6 years — though the quality of the life they lead may not match their hopes and expectations. There is no comfort to be drawn from the fact that our own performance in terms of human development, dismal as it is, is matched by other countries in South Asia. Bangladesh and India went up a notch or two, Afghanistan went down.
Poverty, its nature and the levels thereof, is a matter of endless contention. There are a range of indices to measure poverty and not all of them arrive at the same conclusions. Poverty is multidimensional: it is not just an absence of money, it is also a lack of sanitation, potable water, a secure daily source of food, job opportunities or access to healthcare and education — and one does not need to be a statistician to see that there are major deficits for millions of people across all of those indices in Pakistan. The report tells us that 52 per cent of the population lives in poverty and that the proportion of the population living in multidimensional poverty has increased by almost three per cent in a year. Tens of thousands of people have crossed the line into multidimensional poverty in a very short time. It is worth noting that the index used for the calculation was devised by Amartya Sen of India and the Pakistani economist Mahbubul Haq.
The annual publication of the HDI is one of those events that makes a ripple for a day or two before being relegated to the bottom of the news agenda. Presumably, it will be read in government offices and the headquarters of aid and development agencies. Figures will be mulled upon, heads shaken here and there, and the report filed never to be read again. At that level, it is arguably a pointless exercise, doing nothing more than provide a decent salary for statisticians and economists — but it would be wrong to see it only in that light.
Haggling over the precision of the report takes nobody anywhere. In broad brushstrokes, it is a fair snapshot of where Pakistan and other countries are in terms of developing their human potential. Many of the countries at the bottom of the scale share symptomatologies — poor or unstable governance, over-investment in military hardware against underinvestment in health and education, and out of control demographics as their populations expand past the capacity of the state to sustain them. There is also endemic corruption and medieval social structures that are highly resistant to change and crippling long-term internal conflicts based on faith or ethnicity. Some states, such as Bangladesh and to a degree Pakistan and India, suffer regular natural disasters, which are impediments to growth.
Pakistan is not going to cure its many ills in the near — to medium-term, but neither is it too broke to fix. It has the ability to bump along at the bottom of the development scale for decades to come, but it also has the capacity for positive change. Finding the political will is the real challenge.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2014.
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