Al­ways Un­der­priv­i­leged

The SAARC na­tions may have utopian ideals of pros­per­ity but the fact is that their masses con­tinue to live in poverty.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Ma­jyd Aziz

“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.

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