The SAARC nations may have utopian ideals of prosperity but the fact is that their masses continue to live in poverty.
“To me, a world without poverty means that every person would have the ability to take care of his or her own basic life needs. In such a world, nobody would die of hunger or suffer from malnutrition. This is the goal world leaders have been calling for, for decades, but have never set out any way of achieving it,” writes Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, in his autobiography
Banker to the Poor.
The idealistic belief of the Bangladeshi icon reflects the established opinion that an improved, committed and comprehensive poverty reduction strategy needs to be orchestrated to progress towards achieving this objective. The political and military hierarchies of the eight South Asian nations have to come out of their self-built rabbit holes and realize the impact that deprivation, abandonment and marginalization have had on a very large segment of their populations. If compared to regional blocs, such as ASEAN, NAFTA, EU or even MERCOSUR, SAARC looks like a ramshackle shanty while the aforementioned blocs portray a palatial edifice with wellmanicured gardens, ebullient lighting and residents having rosy cheeks.
The aim here is not to denigrate or belittle a region having 1.60 billion people but to highlight the glaring shortcomings and lack of opportunities that this population bulge suffers from. Income-based poverty alone is not the sole criterion to evaluate the multidimensional magnitude of poverty. Poverty has many facets that are recognized as essential components encompassing many structures of human insufficiencies. Some fundamental rights of each person are access to education, livable residential facilities, basic health services, safe drinking water, sanitation, fair and fast justice and a constitutionally defined right of enfranchisement. It is in this context that three significant points should be discussed:
1. The expenditure on development in the South Asian region continues to be very low despite the large populations.
Economic development is imperative for achieving any country’s objectives of equality and participation in the comity of nations, for building up a formidable military force, for the health and welfare of citizens, for a workable and competent authority running the affairs of the country and for the preservation of national, cultural and ethnic history and traditions. Over the past decades, South Asian nations have suffered the ignominy of being in the center of external and domestic conflicts – whether hardcore secessionism or extremism or bitter political polarization. These conflicts often transcended all civil and social norms and at times result in the loss of people’s faith in their governments as a whole.
SAARC countries today have surely achieved new heights of prosperity that are apparent in the collective
sense but the underlying discontent among the populace cannot be ignored. There is a growing feeling that the benefits of the formation of SAARC or attaining a democratic political dispensation or becoming stronger economic entities or attracting global attention are advantages that have not trickled down to the masses. The growing sense of lack of care and outright neglect has not abated.
A disturbing point lies in the procedure that allows elected representatives to obtain maximum political advantage through lobbying for what are usually referred to as pork-barrel projects. The mantra of ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’ has been institutionalized in developing countries too and this has resulted in a haphazard and injudicious resource allocation. Ergo, development in certain areas gets precedence over other areas or constituencies that are not in the good books of the ruling clique. 2. SAARC countries spend the bulk of their budgets on purchasing weapons. They are poor but their military spending is much more than that of developed countries.
A potent, well-trained and fullyequipped military establishment is always a nation’s pride. It is imperative that national security is not sacrificed or put at risk just because there is rhetorical opposition from some quarters. Take Pakistan, for example. Notwithstanding the periodic imposition of a militaryled government, the influence and authority of the military establishment has always remained paramount. International events and dependence on external largesse and financial support brought Pakistan to the frontline of the war against terror on the western borders even when the volatile eastern border required the deployment of substantial troops.
However, it is sensible for countries to determine what should be the equitable allocation for defence spending. It should be determined, in existing circumstances of each country, the optimum amount of military expenditure that will not destabilize the foundations of economic growth and put at risk the prospects of raising the living standards of its population. Conventional wisdom dictates that there must be the right mix of economic and military spending when formulating the national budget. The decision-makers have to be at level when determining high priorities of military requirements and long-term economic security. This is a vivid message for policymakers in SAARC capitals to absorb.
The time now is for SAARC’s political and military hierarchies to stop playing the Curzonian ‘Great Games’ in the region and instead focus on bonding regional and economic cooperation. SAARC citizens want deliverance from the economic malaise and despondency. A glance at the population and military spending of SAARC countries points to the awesome allocation for defence. 3. What are civil society organizations, social movements and people’s networks doing to fight the structural causes of poverty and social injustices in the region and beyond?
The altruism of a large number of socially-oriented organizations in SAARC working for the overall good of the region has been recognized as the achievement of a non-official Track II initiative. However, most NGOs are exclusive to their own countries and spearhead projects with resources from domestic support or through grants from international organizations. Primarily, these NGOs endeavor to offer pro-poor projects that are targeted to defined sectors or groups. SAARC can boast of the splendid work being done by the Edhi Foundation of Pakistan, the Indian Council for Social Welfare, BRAC of Bangladesh, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka, the Rural Women's Network in Nepal (RUWON Nepal), the Tarayana Foundation in Bhutan, or the Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan (WADAN), to name a few.
The fact is that mainly due to the abdication of responsibilities by the governments, either due to bureaucratic or political compulsions or because of misallocation of financial resources or even lack of concern by decisionmakers, the onus has been on the dedicated NGOs. This is an unfortunate and incomprehensible aspect of governance in any country. Decades of rhetoric, corruption and ill-conceived policies and schemes have played havoc with the destiny of people living in the SAARC countries.
It is obligatory on the governments to prioritize their policies for the poor. The yoke of poverty can be removed through a concerted undertaking by all stakeholders. This is where the NGOs become the game changers. This is where civil society can have a deciding and powerful voice. This is where a radical shift is achieved in the quality of life of citizens. This connection is still missing due to vested interests and diversity of views.
In a nutshell, the poverty reduction strategy should be pro-poor in its most profound sense and should be designed to provide sustained economic growth, availability and affordability of social infrastructure and a transparent social safety net. Additionally, it should enable capacity building and empowerment of all income groups and segments of society. There is no need for a foreign-prepared recipe. All elements of the strategy should be indigenous and must be owned and accepted by everyone.
A poignant message for all political leaders are the words of Caliph Omar: “If a dog dies hungry on the banks of the River Euphrates, Omar will be responsible for dereliction of duty.” Alas, this is 2014 and the SAARC political leadership leaves much to be desired.
The writer is former president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry.