Pakistan’s current set of social welfare policies are insufficient to meet the needs of the poor. There are age old social security schemes, cash transfer schemes, Zakat funds and pension/disability funds provided by the state. Despite this, the rates of poverty keep increasing. Could it be that the implementation and reach of these programs do not accurately affect targeted beneficiaries? Could it also be that there is little to none quantitative measurement of the impact of these government schemes to examine the effects on poverty alleviation? Is rising poverty just a result of Pakistan’s growing population?

It is not all the government’s fault, however. There is a need to re-approach the concept of welfare in Pakistan in order to make the quality of life for poor citizens better. Recent news of Esther Duflo and Abhit Banerjee winning the Nobel Prize in Economics illustrates this. Their plan to reduce poverty was based on scientific evidence, and used education and health as primary tools to reduce the poverty of identified communities. This is a great way to conceptualize poverty- as a greater social phenomenon that is linked to a number of other social factors, and not as an isolated dimension of social life i.e., you’re poor because you’re poor.

Poverty, in fact, is related to a number of variables in Pakistan- your land ownership, your generational assets, power structures that disable economic mobility and your spatial situation. There is an important distinction between provinces and rural/urban poor that demands attention while conceiving of poverty in Pakistan. This difference assists in understanding that the range of services needed by the poor are in fact quite wide, and so narrow planning (which is often a necessity) can only do so much to alleviate suffering. Punjab’s poor, for example suffer a different set of problems than those in Balochistan or Sindh.

Planning for poverty means understanding the root causes that create or perpetuate economic or social conditions that cause it. The next step would be to provide security that tempers these conditions. For instance, free healthcare services in Pakistan range from polio vaccinations to prenatal checkups for pregnant women. The bigger picture is that public healthcare in Pakistan offers poor quality of service to the public (short stock of medicine, absent doctors, few clinics etc), and results in treatments going unchecked or waitlisted for too long. Understanding the culture of healthcare helps one understand the supply side of why the poor aren’t healthier in Pakistan. A similar argument can be made for public education in Pakistan.

Given the demand side of poverty, it is safe to say that their needs are widespread, but should include better housing, sanitation and a secure stream of income. These three themes have the potential to increase the quality of life in Pakistan. No such welfare program in Pakistan currently provides a comprehensive plan for the poor.

There are complexities surrounding the measurement of poverty as well. Traditionally, one has taken on the GDP/capita index as the universal bar for poverty measurement. Simply put, this is the total economic output divided by a country’s population. The poverty line, national or international has also been quite popular to determine the wealth status of a nation. Newer indices for measurement include the Human Development Index and the Multidimensional Poverty Index that take into account more than just economic variables, but account for health, education and standard of living according to more detailed composites. These make up for a macroeconomic picture of where Pakistan stands on a global scale of poverty.

Measurement of poverty is only the first step in a long term settlement of the economic restructuring of Pakistan. Poverty needs to be understood at a fundamental level. If the idea is to alleviate poverty there needs to be more concerted efforts made both by the government and by the development sector, with or without international funding. This can primarily be done by examining past economic policies and understanding the rates of poverty in correlation to growth, productivity and employment of the time. Next, the idea is to plan policy, projects and programs that intervene on the basis of sound data.

On the same note, it is important to keep an eye out on PTI’s government for schemes such as the Kamyab Jawan Program that will disburse loans to the youth, or the Finance Ministry’s dealings with the IMF resulting in yet another loan with strict terms and conditions. It is these government policies with socioeconomic undertones that play a part in determining the pathways of the economy, and as a result, the predicted conditions of the ghareeb (poor) and the population at large.

The biggest problem facing the poor is a lack of insulation against economic, political or social shocks. It is advisable that financial literacy on spending and saving begin to be introduced; as is being conducted by a number of small-scale organizations such as INJAZ Pakistan. The State Bank of Pakistan has begun initiatives through finance in development by allowing a large number of people to open bank accounts, increasing their access to basic banking functions. However, given the grey state of the economy, one will not find such initiatives documented.

Welfare programs in Pakistan need to be revamped to take into current socio-economic conditions, including the rise of technology, so that poverty alleviation can occur at a greater rate than in prior decades. If this is not the case, poverty needs a solution beyond just welfare so that it can be eliminated or brought down to reasonable levels in Pakistan, as the disparity between the rich and poor is just too high.

Waliya Mirza

The writer is a SOAS graduate and is currently working as a Research Manager for the American Business Forum.