Pakistan’s sustainable Development Goals
(Part II-Poverty): CSS Pakistan Affair
The first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) is dramatic in its objective to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030. The question is whether this goal is even a logical possibility, given the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – though narrower in scope – sought to do the same and were said to be the ‘most successful anti-poverty movement in history’. And have learned economic philosophers not pondered over the relative nature of poverty – that no matter how well off everyone is, some will be poorer, and poverty is about those who are poorer. Perhaps because wanting to end poverty is so fantastic, it has been helpfully broken down into more tractable targets: ensure that no one lives on less than US$1.25 a day. This idea owes its origins to a debate about global poverty lines – or levels of income below which a person is considered to be poor. And if the $1.25 a day target seems too rigid, then there is the more achievable goal to “reduce by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions.” This gives quite a bit of leeway to national governments to come up with their own definitions of poverty reduction and then implement methods to achieve such objectives.(CSS Pakistan Affairs)
Furthermore, deserving attention are the other less easily verifiable sub-goals relating to the process of ending poverty: implementing social protection systems for all, ensuring equal rights to economic resources and building the resilience of the poor to climate change events. Most governments can say that they are already moving in this direction. In the case of Pakistan, the state can point to the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) as its social protection system, claim that its Constitution guarantees equal rights to economic resources, and wait for the next climate change event to happen before doing much about building resilience while it launches an appeal for funds. The point being, that while SDG 1 may outline targets with the ambitious objective of ending poverty, it concludes realistically with a whimper about conditions, such as the mobilisation of resources and building sound policy frameworks – many of which are virtually impossible to monitor. The belief that the government tries to mobilise resources and works on sound policy frameworks is widespread, but actionable evidence to this effect is nonexistent.
During the MDGs, the number of people living in extreme poverty increased in 30 countries. The goal to end poverty is, therefore, a mixed bag of the virtually unachievable and the already done. The research group, Development Initiatives has noted that the goal of ending poverty by 2030 will prove more challenging that halving poverty globally. It has warned that where poverty is the deepest, governments lack revenue needed to turn the SDGs into a reality. Then, why does the UN system produce such unachievable goals, and why do governments sign up to them? Once the UN system had adopted the MDGs with such fanfare, as a showcase of a global social contract, it really had to come up with a follow-up act.
Cynical as it sounds, if poverty reduction in Pakistan is the goal, much good might be extracted from this box of magic tricks. Since the government has signed up to SDG 1, they can be asked to adopt the equivalent of US$1.25 per person a day as an official poverty line. This can put an end to the paralysing debate about the new poverty line – a debate that has raged since 2001 when the last line was set. The SDGs can also be used to push for a quick consensus on ways of measuring “poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions”. To add, there is a solid argument for mainstreaming these indicators into national policies and plans since the government has signed up to the SDGs.
There is also much that can be done with process-related goals in SDG 1. Any weakening of political commitment to the BISP (or a large scale cash transfer programme) can now be confronted with the argument that the government has willingly signed up to expand, not reduce, social protection. The commitment to equal rights to economic resources provides the basis for the most sophisticated demand-making on the part of those who argue for a more political understanding of poverty reduction. How do you ensure equal rights to economic resources in a highly unequal society where the economic system is based on private property rights, and where publicly-owned economic resources are mostly doled out to various elites? By highlighting and talking about these very contradictions.
Yes, signing up to equal rights to economic resources creates the possibility of arguing once again for land reforms, despite what the courts have said about them. It also opens the window to demand the repeal of discriminatory laws and legal practices which exist despite our Constitution – laws such as the Punjab Land Alienation Act and practices such as benami holdings. The former divides the rural society of the largest province into higher status agricultural tribes and lower status non-agricultural tribes whose economic rights are circumscribed. The latter (benami) is often used to limit women’s rights to property. These are examples of laws and conventions across Pakistan in favour of incumbent property owners over non-propertied classes. Then, there is the potentially explosive but possibly negotiable issue of rights to natural resources – most happen to be located in the poorest and most politically alienated regions of the country.
The SDGs were borne out of politics and their best use in countries such as Pakistan is political – to create the space for legal, political and policy changes that will lead to poverty reduction. The dramatic promise of SDG 1 can quite easily fade into a whimper, but it also gives the committed campaigner a peg for asking difficult questions. Make of it what you will.
Courtesy: DAWN News