Monday June 17, 2024

Centering the children

By Sarmad Khawaja
June 27, 2023

The idea of the Charter of Economy has gained traction since the PPP began weighing on it. We don’t know yet the details nor the broad features of this charter. But the very idea of a new charter means rejecting the old way of doing things. And that is the right thing to do – and good politics. That is, if you judge the old way of doing things in terms of its impact on people’s lives.

Old economic policies have undone our country. They make the rich richer and ask the poor to wait for the economic benefits to somehow, magically, trickle down to them in the long-run. But benefits don’t trickle down because, as the famous economist Lord Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead!

Millions of poor people are at present stressed by the hardship caused by last year’s floods, rising prices and food shortages. Suffering the most are the children. And they should be the centerpiece of our economic policy and of any Charter of Economy. Right now, getting the growing number of poor children off to a good start in life by educating them and giving them free meals is far more important than anything else.

The stakes here are big. We are talking about improving the lives of 50 million hungry children of which half don’t go to school. The cost of not doing so is colossal. IFPRI’s Global Nutrition Report tells us that neglecting the children’s food needs costs us 11 per cent of GDP each year. Which is Rs12.4 trillion or as much as three quarters of our federal budget.

On the other hand, the pay-offs of helping children are enormous. The report says that preventing malnutrition delivers Rs16 for every rupee spent. And every additional year of schooling adds 6-10 per cent to income. So, educating out-of-school children for 10 years may add annually Rs736 billion to the national income.

Now, with such colossal amounts at stake you might expect our policymakers to keep the children in mind whenever they take major economic decisions. But that hasn’t been happening. The budget doesn’t spotlight the hungry, out-of-school children. And the Pakistan Economic Survey, which is the government’s take on the economy and its problems, only hems and haws about ‘monitoring’ social protection programmes, ‘tapping the private sector,’ ‘exploring options,’ the usual excuses to do nothing.

Meanwhile, reality glares at us: widespread child deprivation – children’s lack of access to food and education – is a colossal state failure. It’s a stain on our collective conscience. But policymakers don’t see it that way. Their belief in free-markets and in their magical trickle-down effects does not let them.

So, to drive home the seriousness of the challenge confronting us here are a couple more references describing where old polices have brought us. It took decades to get here. But here we are in 99th position among 129 countries in the Global Hunger Index, which groups us together with Afghanistan, Rwanda and Haiti as countries with ‘alarming hunger.’ Unicef’s latest report on 2022 Floods is even more alarming. It says ‘acute child malnutrition in Pakistan is twice that of the South Asian region and four times higher than the global average.’ The report warns of a looming child nutrition crisis.

Now, any public health expert will tell you this is very serious because malnutrition forever impairs the children’s development. And results in poor academic achievement, poorer quality of life, and lower future incomes. Which means that if our policymakers are serious about growing the economy they would re-envisage child deprivation as an emergency and address it immediately with bold and far-reaching policy measures backed with sufficient budget allocations. But even as push comes to shove all indications are to the contrary. The judgement of the policymakers on this subject has been wrong every step of the way. They are the villains here.

So as disaster looms remember there is a strong economic case for investing to educate and feed our children. Nobel economist Paul Krugman explains it best: there is overwhelming evidence, he says, that helping children, in addition to being the right thing to do, has big economic payoffs. The economic case for investing in children is even stronger than the case for investing in physical infrastructure.

Indeed, advanced and advancing countries are going down this route. In the US, Biden’s Build Back Better Act gave $640 billion for child care, schooling and college. His American Rescue Plan Act gave $130 billion to primary and secondary schools and gave tax credits of over $3,000 per child to over 39 million families.

France’s Macron, known to his people as the ‘president of the rich’ spent eight billion euros to help the young, including better education for poor children, more nurseries, school breakfasts in poor neighbourhoods and compulsory job training for school leavers under 18 years of age.

And China, long synonymous with child deprivation, is celebrated as a gamechanger for achieving the global Millennium Development Goals because its investments in children outstrip any other country. According to OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment China tops the world in school outcomes for several consecutive years. Fifteen-year old Chinese children are the best in the world in terms of problem solving and cognition in mathematics, science and reading. Such an achievement comes with outstanding schools and healthy children.

The moral of the story is that our children need help – and fast. Investing now to provide schools in all villages and to give free meals to children is needed more than ever. If we don’t address these needs, we lose talent and wealth (and GDP).

Our policymakers must see investment in our most precious asset, our children, as a means to economic growth. Their inaction on this front sets the stage for the new Charter of Economy. The need is real and imminent for a charter that makes its centerpiece our children.

The writer is a freelance

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