Earlier this week, a joint report by the World Health Organisation and Unicef listed Pakistan among 95 countries that have met the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the proportion of population without access to basic sanitation since 1990. While it is progress indeed, and those who have put in a lot of effort need to be lauded, there are several subtleties that need to be kept in perspective. First, this is one of the many MDGs that make up the whole picture. Development is not a menu where we can pick the items of our liking. A quick and cursory glance at the UN Development charts for Pakistan suggests that of the 33 indicators for which data is available, Pakistan is on track for nine and off track for 24 and unlikely to meet the target there. So while meeting this particular target on sanitation is a positive step, the system as a whole has a long way to go. Second, while the current government is patting itself on the back, the MDGs are measured against the status in 1990, and lots of governments and dare I say, many NGOs, have played an important role in achieving this particular target. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, we have to recognise that MDGs are a common denominator, and should be used as a lower benchmark of progress, not the pinnacle of development. While it is great that approximately 64 per cent of the population has access to sanitation, a third of it, which is nearly 60-65 million people, do not have any access. For the targets we are going to miss, the road is even longer.
As we reflect on this recent success, a bigger question for us to ponder is, perhaps, having our own development targets. While MDGs are a useful international benchmark, there are many areas unique to our situation that contribute to our development and cannot be captured in the MDGs. Having our own targets will create a mechanism of accountability of our politicians, something that missing MDGs will never be able to do. Here I do not mean hyperbolic nonsense of eradicating corruption in 90 days, planting a billion trees in a province, or creating a Pakistan free of power outages in two years and so on and so forth. Instead, what we need is clear, realistic and important metrics that reflect a balance between ambition and reality, and also provide a quantitative basis for assessment. For the sake of argument and for lack of a better term, let us call them PDGs or Pakistan Development Goals. These goals should not be a reincarnation of the ill-informed and bureaucratic five-year plans of yesteryear. Instead, these goals need to be specific, in areas that are of highest relevance to our development, and need to be broadly advertised and tracked regularly online and in print by independent groups. For example, if we argue that power shortage is a major bottleneck for development, let us have a realistic target of cutting down power outages by a particular percentage by a given date. Simply saying that power outages will disappear completely in a year’s time is misleading and is never going to happen. The important piece missing from the national discourse is often the specificity of the target and the mechanism by which it can be independently judged.
Power outages and the security situation are not the only bottlenecks for our development. Issues such as access to quality (and not just) education, research and training, and disease management, also deserve specific goals. Gender equity and treatment of minority groups make good fodder for political debates, but lack of meaningful targets make them easy to ignore. An even loftier set of targets would be increasing entrepreneurship by a particular percentage or increasing productivity in the high-tech sector by double digits through research, innovation and public-private partnership.
Our list need not be long and endless; it simply needs to reflect focus, commitment and willingness for development and accountability. Embracing the virtues of self-reflection, analysis and reform will provide both the momentum and the impetus to meet lofty targets set by international bodies and national needs.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 7th, 2015.