Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

Chickens: A Debate

December 9, 2018

[Editor’s Note: Imran Khan’s suggestion to alleviate rural poverty by giving chickens to women was greeted with much ridicule but is there the germ of an idea there that public policy wanks can shape into a viable scheme? On the contrary, is there a convincing enough critique that can show how and why the idea might be infeasible.

Myrah Nerine Butt took the first step in a blog published in Dawn on December 5, 2018 and I requested Faizaan Qayyum to comment on her article. Myrah and Faizaan were Teaching Assistants for a course (ECON 100: Principles of Economics) I taught at LUMS in 2013 and it is gratifying to see them both emerge as articulate public policy practitioners.  Myrah completed a MA in Poverty and Development from the University of Sussex and Faizaan a MA in Urban Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he is currently pursuing a PhD. After a few email exchanges we decided we would all benefit from making this debate public and provide others a forum for reasoned discourse.

Towards that end, Myrah’s article is reproduced below followed by the discussion to date. We invite others to join and enrich the debate in order to make a contribution to how the issue of poverty can be addressed in Pakistan.]

Why PM Khan’s chicken and eggs solution has been mocked for all the wrong reasons

By Myrah Nerine Butt

At a ceremony to mark the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government’s 100 days in office, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that his government would provide chickens to underprivileged women in order to lift them out of poverty.

While a number of political stakeholders have ridiculed his statement, there is a lot of research on how and why this intervention can work. The people who are mocking the initiative are actually far removed from the context and lived experiences of rural women.

To understand the magnitude of the problem of poverty — 7.7 million households are living below the cut-off score of poverty developed by the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP).

The fate of a lot of lives rests upon the policies developed by the government and trivialising such programmes can be incredibly detrimental to positive change.

To place the chickens within the policy context of Pakistan, I will compare the chicken intervention to one of the most successful poverty alleviation programmes in recent times, the BISP — an unconditional cash transfer programme.

Any woman who falls below a multidimensional poverty line is eligible for a cash handout. This intervention has been seen as a useful tool in alleviating poverty in Pakistan. As per the Food Energy Intake poverty line, BISP reduced the poverty rate by seven percentage points.

I will start by comparing the cash handout with the chickens handout to poor rural women and why chickens might work better given the household dynamics in place.

Firstly, one is a cash transfer while the other can be termed as an asset transfer. Money is more fungible than chickens. While money can be controlled by the men of the household and spent on non-productive or non-household activities, it is likely that chickens would remain in the hands of the women.

Typically, the men tend to goats, cows and buffaloes; there is a masculine connotation attached to tending to superior forms of livestock.

Because chickens are culturally seen as inferior forms of livestock, women are likely to retain control of these assets.

This is likely to increase the role of women in household decision-making: they control the chickens so they may decide on how to divide the eggs in the house or where to spend the resulting income.

On the note of fungibility, a chicken would also limit spending decisions of the household by virtue of being less liquid. Money can be spent on various activities, both good and bad, like responding to health shocks or gambling.

A chicken is a tied investment or forced saving, nudging people away from certain kinds of spending.


As opposed to a cash handout, chickens are an investment. They require low capital and the turnover is high.

They can also potentially help households climb out of poverty. However, the return on investment argument can be slightly confusing.

The remarkable high returns on investment are linked to commercial poultry farming; there are economies of scale on large chicken farms.

Rural households cannot tap into these massive economies of scale.

So, while rural households might not be able to capture the economies of scale, the eggs would still initially support subsistence of households and provide a steady basic income once the brood of chickens multiplies.

The idea of handing out chickens instead of cash is largely appealing because there is some evidence of its effectiveness in South Asia.

In addition to supplementing household income and providing subsistence, research shows that increased capacity gained by women and children through village poultry projects have impacts well beyond the improved village poultry production: chickens have increased food security and improved nutrition.

A possible pitfall of the chicken intervention could be the crystallisation of the role of women in the households.

A conditional cash transfer programme in Mexico handed out the cash to women if certain conditions were met, one of which was that the children of the household must regularly go to nutrition monitoring clinics.

The idea was to spur a household-level behavioural change.

However, because the money was handed out to women, they were responsible for meeting the requirements enforced by the state and thus the women had to take the children to the clinics, rather than the men.

This crystallised their role as caregivers and increased their burden of work.

Similarly in this case, women might be limited to the role of raising chickens and could be actively discouraged from other activities, like seeking higher education or formal employment.

It may also contribute towards increasing hidden child labour. Unintended consequences are always a possibility that should be considered when designing an intervention.

Ensuring an intervention that works

The chicken intervention cannot be rolled out in a vacuum — there would be a need to set up supporting infrastructure as well. Ancillary facilities like veterinarian services and training support need to be setup.

Additionally, serious work needs to be done to provide the women access to markets and strengthening market linkages.

There also need to be steps to organise women to work collectively in order to gain from some of the economies of scale and connect to markets.

Poverty alleviation interventions should be incremental and build on lessons learnt from previous interventions. The poverty scorecard developed by the BISP is a huge step in terms of understanding the dimensions of poverty.

The BISP has been able to develop an extensive database of poor households. The scorecard collects information on the various characteristics of the household as well as its assets.

It enables the programme to identify eligible households through the application of a proxy means test, which determines the welfare status of the household on a scale of zero to 100.

This can be very useful for targeting poor households in this programme too.

Additionally, the BISP has been tested and retested, its impact measured at each step. An intervention of such nature would require similar level of rigour in its design and implementation.

Bill Gates and the chickens

The global world is obsessed with finding a magic bullet to eliminate poverty. There is a reason why big donor organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation love such interventions.

They demonstrate quick results and are easy to measure. The global push towards “value for money” pushes policymakers to consider such interventions.

I would add a note of caution here. Poverty is deprivation on multiple fronts, not just income.

Aspects of time use, productive resources, health, education, rights and availability of services are equally important. Income is used as a crude indicator for all these other aspects.

Because of the multidimensional nature of poverty, it cannot be alleviated with one-time interventions. The causes of poverty are structural and run deep within societies.

Rather than viewing poverty as material deprivation, we need to understand it as a product of inequality and prevalent power relations. We need to analyse the process of design and implementation critically while being realistic about the impact.

The chicken intervention can and should be one of a number of poverty alleviation interventions, not a comprehensive solution. We cannot put all our eggs in one basket at the end of the day.

My fear, therefore, is that the intervention is top-down instead of being bottom-up. While global research and evidence is important, we need to ask ourselves: would it work in our context?

I am curious to find out whether a needs assessment has been conducted. Have the beneficiary women been consulted? Do they want chickens or are we going to force an additional burden on them? What kind of chickens work best in the local context?

For any intervention, the local communities need to be consulted right from the design stage. The intervention should be context-specific and bottom-up rather than top-down.

My key suggestion is to ignore the politicians sitting in the centre. They don’t need chickens like the rural woman might, but ask her before investing money first.

There is a need to step away from mocking PTI’s move to push forth this intervention. The decision is based on international research rather than a complete blind jump.

Let’s try giving the chickens a chance.

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Living in Unhealthy Times

March 30, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

There was a time not too long ago when the burden of disease seemed disproportionately biased against the poor. That someone was always dying among ‘these’ people was the irritated refrain of many an exasperated ‘Begum.’ ‘Fauteedgi’ (an event of death) was a dreaded word that came to be interpreted as a ready excuse to buy a few days off for the staff.

Times have changed. It is hard now to find an affluent family without its own share of prolonged and painful illnesses and ‘fauteedgis,’ often premature. The speed at which graveyards are filling up in rich communities tells a story if anyone is willing to listen.

What happened? Simply, money reached its limit in the ability to buy health. It could protect against many of the factors that caused the most mortality amongst the poor but lost its edge once the factors proliferated.

Take the causes of the majority of the deaths amongst the poor — dirty water and unsafe sanitation. The rich could afford to boil water, filter it, or even switch to the bottled alternative. And everyone who could, moved to a faraway housing society served by water closets and underground sewers. ‘Whoosh’ and the offensive stuff was gone — out of sight, out of mind. Instead of cleaning up the city, the state obliged these fugitives from pestilence favouring them with ring roads and signal-free corridors to transport them back to their places of work quite oblivious to the toxic emissions being added to the environment.

More of this pursuit of one-dimensional progress led to pollution of the air which was a leveller in terms of its negative effects upon the citizenry. The rich could still isolate themselves partially by living in air-conditioned homes, travelling in air-conditioned cars, and working in air-conditioned offices. Still, the protection was not complete and the Begums walking briskly in the public parks and the menfolk indulging in outdoor sports were forced to inhale the same carcinogens that inhabited the air they shared with the have-nots.

Then, along the way, another discriminant between the haves and the have-nots, started to come undone. The quality of food in cities, both cooked and raw, took a nosedive with growing doubts about the safety of virtually any product on the market. The causes were many — plain greed on the part of producers, the failure of quality control on the part of the state, and industrial progress itself with the increasing use of chemicals and chemical processes to increase the weight and shelf-life of produce. There were few who could continue to source their ‘asli’ (pure) supplies from ancestral villages and, for once, the refuge of the rich — processed foods — only added to the likelihood of negative outcomes.

It took a while, but the burden of disease became much more equalized. It did not lessen for the poor but increased sufficiently for the affluent to become a matter of private concern and grief — the number of ‘quls’ (prayers for the dead) per month the affluent felt called upon to attend became occasions for the sharing of woeful tales.

Turn now to the other side of the picture. There was a time when the affluent could literally afford to inoculate themselves against the most common diseases of the poor like diarrhea, cholera, smallpox, measles, etc. But such inoculations were less effective against the carcinogens that began to percolate through polluted air, toxic waterbodies, and contaminated foods. Not only that, it became increasingly difficult to tell spurious medicines from the genuine articles and the overall quality of medical care declined precipitously with the glut of poorly trained providers graduating from substandard private colleges. Once again, the regulators turned a blind eye to what was happening in the pursuit of short-term gains as if money could ward off the damages being inflicted on their own bodies.

There are still a very few left who can afford to travel to Dubai or London or New York for their medical checkups but since they have been ruling the country there is no relief in sight for the rest, rich or poor. A government for the people would recognize that the path to good health requires attention to basics that are simple to conceive and implement — clean water and clean air, safe sanitation and safe food, unadulterated medicines and regulated healthcare, compact cities and public transportation.  

Simple as these measures are, there is little possibility of an intelligent response to the warning signs. In 1952, despite persistent warnings from scientists of precisely such a disaster, a killer smog descended on London killing 4,000 in less than a week and accounting for another 8,000 premature deaths in the months that followed. Do we need a catastrophe of such magnitude to wake up to the obvious dangers accumulating in our environment?

This opinion was published in Dawn on March 21, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Democracy in India – 10: Message from Bihar

October 23, 2015

Democracy in Bihar

This billboard from the ongoing elections in Bihar revived our reflections on democracy.

Focus first on the panel of four messages in the middle of the picture. For those who do not read Hindi, the messages, from left to right, are as follows:

  • Kheti ke liye 0% byaj par rna (loan for cultivation at 0% interest)
  • Har dalit va mahadalit parivaar ke liye ek rangeen TV (a color TV for each dalit or mahadalit family)
  • Har beghar ko 5 decimal zameen (5 decimal land for every homeless)
  • Har ghareeb parivaar ko ek jori dhoti, sari (a dhoti and sari for every poor family)

What should one conclude?

This is a striking case of a picture speaking louder than any number of pious words, the starkest commentary possible on the nature of democracy in a very poor country.

Undeniably, votes are being purchased and for a price as low as a dhoti/sari pair and a color TV. And this offer to purchase votes is being advertised in public without any seeming consciousness of its contradiction with the premise of representative governance. A sense of irony seems very faraway indeed.

In this series of posts we have covered this ground a number of times without coming across evidence that speaks as categorically as this billboard.

The normative premise of representative governance is that citizens vote for the party that most closely accords with their political, economic, cultural, and social preferences. The unstated assumption underlying this premise is that voters are either not open to or in need of a bribe in exchange for their votes.

Clearly, this assumption is being violated in India and, for that matter, in most countries as poor as India. This violation triggers at least two dynamics. First, political parties enter into a competition to offer the highest price for a vote either in real terms (cash or cash equivalent) or in virtual terms (promises for the future). Since nothing can prevent this competition from spiraling out of control there is no limit to the scale of future promises – Gharibi Hatao being one example – that cannot but remain unfulfilled.

Second, voters having learnt from experience that electoral promises hold little credibility, arrive at the rational decision to maximize their gains from what seems largely a meaningless exercise as far as their future prospects are concerned. Of course, not all voters think in this manner but enough do to give rise to the kind of billboard that triggered this reflection.  So, for a significant number of voters, elections become an opportunity to extract what they can as a price of the one asset conferred on them by the system of electoral governance (on which they were not consulted, not to forget), id est, their vote. Elections assume the character of a mela or festival at which a free meal might be obtained.

This is a cynical and sad conclusion but our billboard tells us that it is real and it should force us to examine the contextual nature of our institutions and reflect on what might be done to overcome these damaging dynamics.

The argument here is not that democracy anywhere else is pristine and perfect. To take the example of the USA, the power of money and media, especially in combination, is becoming ever more evident in shaping the outcome of elections. And the influencing of elected representatives by governments and corporate capital is also not quite a secret – the allocation of public and private money to individual representatives in return for casting their votes in a particular way is well documented. The size of the lobbying industry is a testament to how entrenched is this distortion of governance in advanced democracies.

An illustration of the above phenomenon can be inferred in the Indian case as well. Refer to the slogan at the top of the billboard:

  • Vikaas ki hogi tez raftaar, jab kendr-rajya men ek sarkaar (Development will speed up when the centre and the state are ruled by the same party)

Why should this be the case in a democracy? The implication is that if voters elect a party in the state different from the one at the centre, they would pay a price in terms of impediments in the allocation of funds. This is worse than a bribe because it also implies a threat. If the government at the centre is the government of all Indians, it ought not to act in a discriminatory fashion by obstructing development in states that choose different parties at the local levels.  Voters are being influenced by the exercise of power resulting from control of money.

Here we also see in effect the lingering traces of the monarchical ethos that we have commented on in this series of posts. This is how emperors used to interact with rival kingdoms in their domains. They tried first to overthrow them (The ‘regime change’ of modern times – look at the slogan at the bottom of the billboard: Badlaiye Sarkar, badaliye Bihar – Change the government, change Bihar). Failing that, the practice was to punish the latter by extracting tribute as the price for continued existence – the relationship was very clearly one of conflict and antagonism.

Notwithstanding the above, when the system unravels from the buying and selling of representatives or conflict at the level of governments down to the buying and selling of the individual votes of citizens, things assume a very different perspective. This is so because at that level all mechanisms of restoring accountability are lost. When a government or a representative acts, for whatever reason, in contradiction to the preferences of his or her constituents, one could reasonably expect the voters to express their displeasure in the next election. But when the voters themselves are up for sale no such exercise of accountability is possible.

Good governance, even in the best of circumstances, is a tall order given the power of international and local money in present times. At the level of poverty that exists in India it is doubly more difficult. Given that there are no real alternatives to representative governance, the challenge for concerned citizens is to find ways to resist the commodification of votes. One obvious measure would be for the election commission to disallow the type of blatant billboards under discussion and to vigorously prosecute any attempts to trade in votes.

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The Curious Case of Hyderabad Sindh

July 17, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

Peshawar is by no means the busiest airport in the world but compared to Hyderabad it is a monster.

I mentioned in an earlier post (Anchoring Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province) that the number of flights per week into Peshawar airport was 79 of which 56 were from the Middle East. I used the information to venture that the KP economy was anchored in the Middle East and that this was not due to the flow of investment into KP but the export of manpower from it.

A reader commented that what I had mentioned for Peshawar was true of every big city in Pakistan. This may well be established and, if so, it would suggest that Pakistan as a whole is a manpower exporting economy – statistics indicate that almost the only positive number in recent years has been remittances from workers overseas.

Still, it is my guess that Peshawar is an outlier amongst cities in Pakistan and that extending the comparison to every city is not warranted. I make my point by referring to the curious case of Hyderabad which in terms of population size is of the same order as Peshawar.

In extending the research to Hyderabad, I was, much to my annoyance, surprised again. I had not expected to find that Hyderabad airport had actually remained inoperative for ten years till 2008 and just this year has been closed to commercial traffic again.

My memory of earlier years recalls flights to Hyderabad from Lahore and Islamabad via Nawabshah but clearly something had changed. This warrants investigation given that in the normal course one would expect more economic integration not less over time.

A number of scenarios could be postulated. First, Hyderabad might really have declined economically over the years and is not any more a viable destination for air traffic. I would be skeptical of this explanation given that there are still flights into smaller cities like Sukkur.

Second, it could be the case that there is real economic demand for service which is not being met for reasons we are unaware of. If so, it would signal a failure of the political process through which the needs of a community are articulated and met.

Third, it could be that Hyderabad can do without air service because of the proximity of Karachi. I am not convinced of this argument which could be made just as plausibly for Peshawar. One could ask why Islamabad airport does not serve the same purpose for Peshawar.

The answer to the last question should be obvious: Enough passengers wish to fly directly to Peshawar which makes the supply of air service a viable proposition. There is clearly not the same magnitude of passenger demand into Hyderabad.

This brings me back to the study of relative labor flows from and to Pakistan that was mentioned in the post on Peshawar. The district-level study summarized its findings as follows: “The general pattern seems to suggest that the less developed districts have high out-migration and low return-migration, whereas the more developed districts… have low out-migration and high return-migration.”

It then highlighted the exceptions: “The only districts that do not fit into this pattern are the less developed districts of Sindh and lower Punjab, which are characterised by both low out- and return-migration.”

The puzzle was that while both the erstwhile NWFP and Sindh were characterized by similar indices of rural poverty, the relative outmigration of labor from the former was much higher than from the latter. One of the joys of research is stumbling upon the unexpected – I realized for myself the importance of the dog that does not bark. While we were focused on studying the causes of migration, the lack of migration from some areas was an equally important phenomenon to explore and explain.

It was my inference at that time that the explanation of the puzzle pertaining to the very different individual responses to rural poverty resided in the nature of the land tenure systems in the two provinces – one tied its labor to the land in much more coercive ways than the other. The why and how of it are fascinating topics to explore but I leave them here to the imagination of the reader.

It was natural to extend this insight to the movement of labor from rural Sindh within Pakistan. The immobility hypothesis explains why, for example, Karachi is the largest Pakhtun and not Sindhi city in the world despite the fact it is located in Sindh and over a 1000 kilometres from Peshawar.

The internal movement of labor in Sindh also threw up an interesting contrast with the Punjab. The ethnic homogeneity in the latter meant that both labor and capital circulated freely between rural and urban locations in the province. The ethnic heterogeneity in Sindh, with rural and urban areas dominated by different groups growing increasingly alienated from each other, meant that the corresponding circulation of labor and capital was much more restricted if not severed altogether.

The deprivation of modernizing capital investments from urban areas had obvious negative implications for the prospects of rural development in Sindh. For our limited hypothesis related to demand for air service, it meant that both international and national flows of labor from rural Sindh were severely constrained.

To some extent, this provides a partial explanation for the curious case of Hyderabad whose airport has remained barely functional over the years. Of course, it highlights a number of larger questions about local variations in political economy and their implications for the nature of economic change that would bear more careful analysis.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on July 16, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Poverty and Human Rights

June 5, 2013

By Anjum Altaf

Is poverty a violation of human rights? I was asked recently to speak on the subject and faced the following dilemma: If I convinced the audience it was, would that imply the most effective way to eliminate poverty would be to confer human rights on the poor?

Two questions follow immediately: First, if that were indeed the case, why haven’t rights been conferred already? Second, over the entire course of recorded history, has poverty ever been alleviated in this manner?

Likely answers to both suggest it would be more fruitful to start with poverty than with rights. Poverty has always been with us while the discourse of rights is very recent. Studying the experiences of poverty elimination could possibly better illuminate the overlap with rights and yield appropriate conclusions for consideration.

We can begin with the period when sovereignty rested in heaven and monarchs ruled with a divine right beyond challenge. For centuries under this order a very small group of aristocrats and clergy lived atop impoverished populations existing at bare survival. This did not mean the kingdoms were poor or lacked sophisticated cultures, just that they were characterized by extreme inequalities and poverty was considered a natural condition, an element of a divinely ordained order, not a social problem. At best, it was to be ameliorated through alms and charity which were deemed moral obligations.

[Since poverty is an ambiguous concept whose definition has changed markedly over time, it is useful to employ a simple characterization for purposes of this discussion. Consider as poor anyone not being able to afford ownership of a motorized vehicle (substitute horse-and-carriage for the age of monarchy). This indicator of ‘transport poverty’ can serve as an adequate proxy for poverty itself as also for economic transformation.]

The first major change in the monarchical social and moral order occurred in Europe, beginning in the 17th century, and over 300 years absolute poverty in Western Europe and its settler colonies disappeared for good. Poverty was next eliminated in Eastern Europe beginning with the revolution in Russia in the early 20th century. Parts of East Asia followed starting around the mid-20th century with Japan starting earlier and China still in process. The last region to join was parts of Latin America beginning in the late 20th century.

The point to note is that these various eliminations of absolute poverty had very little systematic relationship with human rights. Only in Western Europe did the process proceed in parallel with the acquisition of rights as subjects were transformed into citizens bound in a social contract. But even here, rights had to be wrenched from the aristocracies: civil rights via social revolutions (the French Revolution, for example, with its explicit call for equality); political rights via the struggles for suffrage; and economic rights via the pressure of labor unions.

In Eastern Europe and East Asia, poverty elimination through accelerated industrialization was accompanied by gross violations of rights and in Latin America the sharing of wealth continues to face a violent backlash by entrenched elites and their allies.

The causes for these transitions were equally varied. In Western Europe, the first mover, they included infusion of colonial wealth (involving violation of rights of natives), emergence of capitalism (with exploitation of labor including children), replacement of communitarianism with individualism through urbanization, wars of religion discrediting divine sovereignty, and the need to protect capitalism itself from its worst excesses and its challengers.

In Eastern Europe the spur was to compete and catch up with the first movers. In East Asia, social insurgencies hastened preemptive land reforms followed by the challenge to compete globally. In Latin America, urbanization finally strengthened the hands of citizens wielding the power of the vote.

Countries with significant absolute poverty today are overwhelmingly in Africa, South and West Asia. In South Asia several characteristics are salient: communitarian identities with weak tendencies to individualism; quasi-monarchical ethos with strong dynastic traditions; sovereignty in some countries still reposed in heaven; leaders aspiring or believing in divine right to rule; populations still more than half rural; negligible economic aspirations to be globally competitive; weak labor unions; poverty still considered a natural condition with charity the preferred route to amelioration; moral crusades retaining precedence over political action.

Given this characterization, South Asia seems barely at the point where poverty is considered a social or political problem; the poor have yet to mount a sustained challenge for the acquisition of civil or economic rights – the few attempts to date having been brutally crushed. The only right, conferred by departing colonial masters, is the political right to vote and entrenched elites are determined to dilute, fracture and negate that by any means foul or fair including in places overturning the electoral verdict by force or manipulation.

It seems a mistake to extrapolate from the Western European experience and associate democracy unambiguously with human rights and poverty alleviation. The relationship is a function of the specificity of history and context. In South Asia, where the power to vote has preceded social equality and civil rights, a prolonged, bitter and often violent and anarchic struggle is very much on the cards – think of the Naxal revolt in India, the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, or the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Poverty in South Asia, much like anywhere else in the world, is unlikely to be eliminated by a voluntary conferral of human rights simply because the form of governance happens to be democratic. The reality is a lot more complex than that.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on June 4, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. It is a summary of a talk presented at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in April 2013.

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What Kind of Revolution Do We Need in South Asia?

June 21, 2012

By Anjum Altaf

The peculiar thing about South Asia is that it has not had a social revolution. Compare it with Europe or Russia or China where feudal, monarchical or other pre-modern forms of governance were swept away to be replaced by new ruling classes. Social revolutions preceded modern forms of governance, democratic or autocratic. South Asia moved from pre-modern to modern forms of governance, midwifed by the British, but the same social class remained in charge reinventing itself in new roles.

What are the implications of South Asia skipping a social revolution? For one, our forms of governance are modern only in appearance; their spirit remains essentially unchanged. For evidence, look at the amazing prevalence of dynastic rule across the region, from the upper echelons down to the composition of the subnational assemblies. The ethos of the region remains distinctly monarchical, both for the rulers and the ruled, with the latter now legitimizing the dynasties through the free exercise of their votes.

It is no surprise then that we are saddled with the social outcomes of monarchical rule – a narrow elite enjoying the highest standards of living (a la the opulent royal courts of yore) with the majority of the population completely marginalized. For evidence, look no further than the paradox of India – uninterrupted democratic rule and aspirations to global leadership combined with grinding poverty and malnutrition in children worse than almost anywhere else in the world.

It is social conditions like these and the virtual disregard for the misery of the poor that prompt our question about revolution. Will this callous disregard ever cease without the sweeping aside of a royal class masquerading as representatives of the people?

Perhaps not, but then again, a revolution is no picnic, at least a revolution of the type we have been referring to. Just thinking whether the ideology of the revolution would be of the Right or the Left and whether it would be armed or not is sufficient to yield serious misgivings. The scariest aspect of such a prospect is the contemporaneous bankruptcy of ideas that might drive any revolution in South Asia today. When one thinks of the social revolutions of Europe, one is inspired by the intellectual debates of the times and the stature of the public intellectuals who participated in the debates. The entire foundation of the European Enlightenment emerged out of the contestation of ideas that are studied in academia to this day.

Contrast the above with the intellectual bankruptcy of present-day South Asia. Whether it is the Maoists in India or the Islamists in Pakistan, their angst can be defended but their passions are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Watching our public intellectuals on TV is a foreshadowing of the future if their ideas were to be turned into reality. There is little doubt that the cure would be worse than the disease.

So we are in a bind. We need a social revolution but can see quite clearly that any traditional revolution would likely be a horror story that would make Pol Pot look good. In any case, the time for old style social revolutions of the disenfranchised could well be gone; modern regimes have too much firepower and control at their disposal to be overthrown in the ways of the past – history rarely repeats itself like that.

What, then, is to be done? One suggestion is to aim for an intellectual revolt, a revolution of the minds, an overthrowing of the thrall in which our rulers have enmeshed us for decades – a declaration that from today we cease to believe the lies on which we have been fed, nurtured and reared.

Let me explain. Every country of South Asia has a dominant narrative, one that has been cultivated at great expense, and one to which the majority of the populations have subscribed without question. We have not arrived at these beliefs as a result of our own independent thinking. Rather, we have imbibed, like mother’s milk, the narratives that have been made available to us. Had it been otherwise, we would not see the majority of Indians and Pakistanis, say, holding such completely contrary and polarized perceptions of each other.

Why do we subscribe to these narratives? We are more than ready to argue, with passion and conviction, that the ruling class of the US, for example, has misled its population with a completely false narrative about Iraq, one resting on nothing but blatant lies and misrepresentations. If we believe that, what logical basis do we have for arguing that our own rulers cannot use similar narratives to mislead us in order to further their narrow self-interests? Are we seriously arguing that our rulers are more moral, made of better stuff, when at the same time we castigate them for the most venal types of malfeasance and corruption?

Clearly this is an indefensible position, an acknowledgement that we have forsaken independent analysis, allowed our selves to be brainwashed, and turned into our own enemies. The false patriotism stoked by hyper-nationalism has turned us against each other and ultimately against our selves.

So the starting point of our revolution is the declaration to our respective rulers – WE DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING YOU SAY – WE WILL FIND OUT FOR OURSELVES.

And then, let us use the power of the new technologies to really find out for ourselves. Each one of us should set aside his/her biases and prejudices and seek out a partner from across the border. Let us enter into a myriad conversations unmediated by the rulers or the pundits on TV. Let us talk as one human being to another; let us educate ourselves about our lives; let us generate a new narrative from the ground up.

Imagine this hypothetical scenario – a hundred thousand cross-border marriages! Do you believe that would change the social and political dynamic of South Asia? It is a hypothetical proposition, but can a million conversations begin to have the same impact?

THINK. We need a new revolution for new times. We have nothing to lose but our prejudices. We might just lose our rulers as well and would that not make for a better world?

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All Wrong on Poverty and Aid

March 30, 2012

By Anjum Altaf and Samia Altaf

It is our claim that the debates on poverty and aid have gone off the rails. On poverty, it is too narrow, quibbling about a few percentage points above or below some historical number. On aid, it is too broad, arguing whether it is helpful or harmful in its totality. These are important issues and we need to get the big picture right if the public discourse is to make any sense.

Let us start with poverty. We are hobbled by the fact that our understanding of poverty alleviation is borrowed from elsewhere without much adaptation to our context. This has led us down unrewarding paths much like prescriptions based on flawed diagnoses. An example should make this clear. Imagine a community of 100 people in which 10 are homeless. Many ways can be found to house the homeless in such a situation.These can include borrowing by the state, progressive taxation of the better off, charitable social action by the affluent, or assistance by an external donor. Now imagine another community of 100 in which 90 are homeless. None of the above mechanisms are likely to work. Some other recourse would need to be found that would focus on generating the wealth to be allocated to housing the homeless.

On poverty, our models are derived from societies where only small minorities are deemed poor in an absolute sense. We are copying solutions that work in such societies and applying them to situations where the majority is blighted with absolute poverty. No amount of alleviation funds or income support programs can cope with situations in which the majority is poor no matter how well off the non-poor may be. Simple arithmetic can reveal how financially absurd such approaches are.

The only solution in such situations is to generate wealth to raise the living standards of the economically marginalized. An essential aspect of this is employment creation that yields higher incomes for marginalized families. Not any form of employment would yield the desired results in our context. We can see in India that even extended periods of wealth generation concentrated in high-tech services yield very slow gains in poverty alleviation. In contrast, the town and village enterprises favored by China in the 1980s were much more effective in reducing poverty.

This brings us to aid. We know from East Asia that aid has been an effective ingredient in recipes yielding rapid growth. In contrast, it has been much less effective in South Asia. Why doesn’t aid work here? First, as mentioned above, the use of aid for direct poverty alleviation and income support is a fool’s errand. Its persistence is a comment on the intellectual bankruptcy of our intelligentsia. Second, the use of aid for service delivery is equally misguided. Any aid that has to be siphoned through long bureaucratic chains would leak away without robust mechanisms of accountability. The continued deterioration of our public education and health systems, the recipients of huge amounts of aid, should have told us that long ago. Third, the use of aid for improving governance and capacity building in institutions where incentives are hopelessly skewed is like praying for rain.

The persistence of these misallocations points to the strong incentives for arrangements that yield windfall gains to many of the non-poor in the name of the poor. Grants and concessional loans can benefit Pakistan provided they are directed to wealth generation and employment creation for the poor. In terms of design, in a system riddled with corruption and lack of accountability, aid has to avoid programs and projects dependent on long and diffused bureaucratic chains. It has to be focused on discrete, perhaps turn-key, investments critical to spurring the wealth generation dynamic. These could include dams, power generation plants, irrigation channels, farm-to-market roads, and the like.

Some mention of the kind of wealth generation appropriate for Pakistan at present can be initiated here although it needs a fuller discussion. Given that half its labor force is still in agriculture which has been a major source of resilience in difficult economic conditions, the sector should be the obvious focus of attention. Even otherwise, there is little chance that Pakistani manufacturing can become internationally competitive quickly in the prevailing global and domestic environment. And with half the population functionally illiterate, there is little that growth in high-end services, useful as it is in its own right, can do to yield a significant contribution to employment generation. Trickle-down, if it ever happens, would take too long; the more likely outcome is what Arundhati Roy has famously termed “gush-up.”

An analysis and adaptation of the early Chinese experience is warranted. It was focused squarely on rural growth, the reform of incentives to farmers, modernization of agriculture, and facilitation of town and village enterprises servicing agriculture and manufacturing goods for the poor with rising incomes. This triggered the upward spiral that strengthened demand for investments in human and physical capital providing the foundation for subsequent urban industrial development.

Given that a huge pool of capital seeking productive investments exists in our immediate neighborhood in the food-deficit Gulf states, the conditions are ripe for a win-win partnership that could modernize Pakistani agriculture, use aid effectively, and help the country grow its way out of poverty. If we get this big picture right, subject it to critical analysis, and rally public support round its implications, we can break the logjam of the present and launch the dynamic that could carry us to a more prosperous future.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Samia Altaf is the author of So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on March 29, 2012 and is reproduced here with permission of the authors.  

Please Read Responsibly

March 1, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

One of the main differences between fiction and nonfiction might be, to use the phrase of writing workshops, between showing and telling: Fiction shows us other lives, what those other lives are like, how it might feel to be living those lives; the other tells us, laying out the context, the backstory, the rules of the game. Both forms are important, but fiction seems to me the more powerful, as stories speak to us at a more visceral level than do facts – to our emotions, rather than our intellect. There is overlap between the two genres, however, and while fiction can succeed without giving us the information of nonfiction, the strongest journalism is usually that which adopts the techniques of fiction to give us both story and background – some of Arundhati Roy’s essays, for example, or Joan Didion’s – that journalism which gives us both narrative and analysis, the question and some semblance of an answer. (more…)

On the Real Poverty in South Asia

November 14, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Reflecting on the official pronouncements of poverty in South Asia reminds me of the Marx Brothers saying: ‘Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes.’

There are two kinds of poverty: monetary poverty and intellectual poverty. Together, I will argue, they make for a lethal combination.

The monetary and physical poverty in South Asia is undeniable; the controversies relate only to the few percentage points it might be above or below what is clearly an unacceptably high base level. The intellectual poverty is a more subtle phenomenon that, in my view, comes in the way of appropriately addressing the physical poverty.

Let me illustrate the existence of intellectual poverty in South Asia via an analogy that might help set up the discussion. People rush into places that have something rich to offer; if they can, people rush out of places that are impoverished. What do outsiders come to savor and learn in South Asia? Among other things, its aesthetics (music and dance), its spiritualism (yoga and sufism), and its cuisine. No one comes to South Asia to learn the theory or the methodology of any of the social sciences.

Why is that the case? It is because South Asian aesthetics, spiritualism and cuisine are unbroken indigenous traditions that remain alive today. In the social sciences, all that is left are great names, unfamiliar to most, from a history that is dead; the traditions that existed were swept aside or under by the interregnum of colonization.

The theories and methodologies of social science that are alive today were developed and are refined outside South Asia. Smart South Asians, and there are many, either leave South Asia to learn them abroad or learn them second-hand in India.

Consider just one example: the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, is justly famous for his theory of justice and although he speaks of niti and nyaya, he places himself squarely in the line of thinkers that stretches from Adam Smith via Bentham, Marx and John Stuart Mill to Sen. His theory challenges an alternative formulation that derives from Hobbes via Locke, Rousseau and Kant to John Rawls. Surely there are indigenous South Asian theories of justice but they are not part of a tradition that is alive in academia.

Is that a problem? Yes, in my view, because thinking is different from producing. All the high-tech things are designed in the West and manufactured in the South but that works because most products are shipped back to be consumed in the West as well. But just as pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to invest in drugs that are needed by people without purchasing power in the South, so social scientists have little incentive producing theories that are rooted in the traditions of the South.

Theories emerge from the experience of the West; most of those we work with are products of the European Enlightenment and their subsequent modifications. These theories are then universalized and applied in other places. But a theory determines what data we look for in the application; it is not the raw data from the locale of the application that yields the theory.

Take Marxism and feudalism as examples. How much effort has been devoted to identifying kulaks, middle-peasants, and feudals in the South Asian countryside and with what results?

This brings us back to poverty. The prevalent approach to poverty alleviation – identifying the poor with a poverty line, targeting them through means-testing, and distributing welfare support through agents of the state, is relevant in places where the poor are a small proportion of the total population, where most transactions are negotiated through the market, where the agents of the state are not themselves poor, and where the institutions of the state are credible and robust.

This approach is ill-suited for places where the conditions are quite the opposite: the majority of the population is poor, there are many non-market transactions, state agents themselves are poor, and the institutions of the state are weak. Identifying the poor, means-testing them, and getting public support to them results in about Rs. 15 reaching the poor out of every Rs. 100 intended for them.

Asides from the vast corruption engendered by this approach, it creates social tensions by dividing the poor and the almost-poor, sets up perverse incentives for households and groups to be identified as poor, and is financially untenable. Seriously addressing poverty on this scale via welfare payments would surely bankrupt the economy.

Once again, an analogy might help. The treatment for an incipient cancer is not the same as that for one that has spread throughout the body. It has to be radically different. This is obvious to all. Why is not so in the case of poverty alleviation? The one answer I can think of is because we have been blinded by borrowed remedies, have not thought of them ourselves, and have marginalized those who do have indigenous wisdom to offer.

When Montek Singh Ahluwalia defends the Indian poverty lines of Rs. 26 and Rs. 32 per capita per day, he is technically correct. The universally employed poverty line is $1.50 per capita per day; converted at purchasing power parity it would yield the figures offered by the Indian Planning Commission. But these lines are good only to track, if one so desires, the number of individuals or the percentage of the population below them. They have no bearing on the appropriateness of a poverty alleviation strategy. For the latter, the percentage of the population that is poor, much like the spread of cancerous cells in a body, is of much more relevance.

If one thinks about it, even the simple counting could be problematic. If the number of individuals below these poverty lines are decreasing over time what is the assurance that they have been lifted out of poverty? Many might simply be dying early at this level of bare sustenance. Unless someone can provide data for income-specific life expectancies and rates of mortality, I would be justified in remaining skeptical of the official claims.

How have we arrived at the point where a man of Mr. Singh’s qualifications and credentials is seriously suggesting a survival proposition that any illiterate child would tell him cannot be true? Is it because the illiterate child is looking at India through his own eyes while Mr. Singh is looking at it through the eyes of others?

Therein might lie the real story of South Asian poverty.

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Pakistan’s Problems: More Hypotheses

July 1, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Christopher Hitchens had offered a hypothesis in Vanity Fair that Pakistan’s problems stemmed from deep-rooted sexual repression. The evidence for this was the occurrence of honor killings, and the consequence other morbid symptoms that transformed the country into one that was “completely humorless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offense, and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred.”

Even if one were to accept the broad characterization as correct, it is difficult to take the hypothesis itself seriously. In my response, I had assumed that just a cursory consideration of the fact that honor killings occurred in India as well would have been enough to discredit the hypothesis because none of the morbid consequences are to be observed in India. (more…)