The Pew Research Centre, an American think-tank, has earlier this month released its Global Attitudes Project report on perceptions about the economic situation in 21 countries (downloadable from their web site www.pewglobal.org). Pakistan is included among the countries surveyed. The research findings for Pakistan are based on a multi-stage cluster sample survey of 1206 Pakistanis covering 82 percent of the country’s population stratified by province and by the urban-rural population divide.
The findings of the report are depressing, even in the context of the overall sense of gloom pervading the entire report. Only nine percent of Pakistani respondents describe the economy as being in “very good/somewhat good condition”, a sharp drop from the 41 percent who categorised it as such in 2008. The main culprit blamed for the dismal economic conditions by those who are unhappy with current economic conditions is ‘our government’ with three out of four Pakistanis holding the government responsible for the plight they find themselves in.
Since no distinction has been made in the survey between federal and provincial governments in the manner that the question has been framed in the questionnaire, how the blame has to be apportioned between the centre and the provinces is not clear.
The survey also reveals a sharp disconnect between what Pakistanis feel about the economy and their self-perceptions about their own economic status. Whereas only a small minority of nine percent describe the country’s economic situation as “very good/somewhat good” a majority (51 percent) indicate that their personal economic situation is ‘very good/somewhat good”. This could well reflect the positive influence of the ‘informal’ economy’ on lifestyles with people relying on a network of family abroad for economic support and/or the prosperity of the land owning classes in the rural economy owing to higher prices and output of marketable surpluses of food and fibre crops. The effect is seen in higher reported sales of cars, tractors, and motorbikes as well as growth in sales of consumer goods generally as reflected in the upbeat annual reports of consumer goods companies.
What is disconcerting news for the country but hardly surprising given the serious energy crisis, inflationary pressures and the dire jobs situation is the deep pessimism. Thus the sentiment indicators all point in the downward direction. In 2008, 70 percent of Pakistanis felt their personal economic situation was ‘good’ which in 2012 has dropped to 51 percent. Only 26 percent of Pakistanis expect an improvement in the next 12 months whereas 43 percent expect things to get worse. 23 percent expect the situation to remain the same.
India by comparison has about the same percentage responses except in reverse with 45 percent expecting an improvement in the next year, with only 24 percent expecting a decline in their economic fortunes and 25 percent expecting no change. Asked how they compared their economic situation with that experienced five years earlier, 57 percent of Pakistanis responded that they were worse off with only 23 percent indicating that they were better off and 17 percent indicating that there had been no change.
Despite the growth of the GDP per capita in the last several decades the general perception among the majority of the population is that economic conditions are worsening for them or, at best, have not improved. 42 percent of the Pakistanis believe that they have a lower standard of living compared to what their parents had at the same age with another 16 percent indicating that there has been no change in their living standards compared to that of their parents. Only 38 percent believe that they are materially better off than their parents now that they are in the same stage of life.
What can one infer from this data point? One possible interpretation is that the economic policies pursued by various governments in the past have not touched the lives of the masses of this country. Because the basic needs of a large percentage of the population such as for education, health facilities, water and sanitation etc are still not being met, there is a palpable sense of deprivation among a sizable segment of the population.
Another possibility is that there has been a worsening of income inequality and poverty in Pakistan with a significant percentage of households finding that their income levels have stagnated or have declined in real terms despite the growth of the overall economic pie. Data gathered at periodic intervals on median income levels and computation of various statistical indicators (Gini coefficients etc) normally available through family expenditure surveys could shed light on this.
Lest one reach the conclusion that there will be smooth sailing for the PPP’s opponents in the next general election one should keep in mind that a significant number of Pakistanis appear also to be self-critical and are willing to shoulder blame for the country’s economic problems (33 percent of those who are unhappy with the current conditions subscribe to this view as a primary or secondary reason for the poor state of the economy perhaps on the basis of the sad realisation that one gets the government one votes for!) So they may well be willing to cut the current government some slack based either on traditional party and clan loyalties or because they doubt that other parties offer anything better.
Indeed going by the current political debate there is very little in the way of concrete action on the economic policy front promised by any political party except for the usual bromides. Further, Pakistan’s voting system is such that a party with a plurality of votes can win a significant number of seats in parliament and aspire to cobble together a coalition government. Lastly one should keep in mind what a former prime minister of the UK said about a week being a long time in politics.