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Opinion

June 1, 2018

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Investing in people

My previous article, ‘Neoliberalism and poverty’ published in these pages on May 26, 2018, argued that there has been a growing consensus among policymakers to treat poverty as a multidimensional phenomenon. In other words, poverty is rooted in the political, economic and historical context of a society.

Therefore, thought leaders, policymakers and practitioners of development emphasise the need to devise a wide array of policy instruments to tackle this multidimensionality. If this is the case, we may wonder whether there is any possibility to arrive at a universal consensus on some policy principles.

Woven in a universally workable development framework, these policy principles must be able to guide poverty alleviation programmes across the developing world. Simply put, how can we resolve the policy conundrum of contextual variances and different trajectories of development in human societies without some universal principles or guiding values?

We have seen the emergence of integrated approaches of poverty alleviation, which are essentially driven by a series of rural development initiatives across the developing world. These approaches could not have been scaled up without the underpinnings of universal principles of social transformation.

These initiatives are rooted in a framework of socioeconomic transformation whereby poverty alleviation is conceived as a multi-input long-term process. What connects these initiatives across historical and political contexts in a single development narrative of integrated rural development? Let’s explore this universality of principles as a key notion of development policy.

First, development is all about people finding pathways of transformation from plight to prosperity, with some universal principles at the core of this process. The principles of inclusion, meaningful participation and unleashing the potential of human agency provide the bedrock of socioeconomic transformation. These universal principles transcend the contextual variances and historical differentials of the development process within varying human societies. This means that people are not the beneficiaries or recipients of development; they must be seen as the ‘primary actors’ of development.

Our empirical knowledge of development in Pakistan suggests that economic growth does not necessarily lead to poverty reduction in the long run. This is because economic growth policies are not primarily poverty-sensitive. Moreover, these policies are not the outcome of learning from the institutional practices of local development, and are prescriptive, not transformative in nature.

Macroeconomic policy in Pakistan has an inherent inclination towards top-down development models, as if development is a function of a municipality and involves building a large infrastructure. These top-down conventional approaches of development are formulaic in nature, with little attention being given to evolving social needs. For instance, structural adjustment and stabilisation programmes adopted by Pakistan were arguably well-designed on technical grounds. But they were formulaic in nature and were predicated upon a top-down structural approach.

Even in our best era of economic growth during the 1960s, we cannot find cogent evidence of interconnectedness between economic growth and poverty reduction. If you skim through dozens of policy papers published about the vertical, structural and systemic programmes of macroeconomic stabilisation, you will find no correlation between economic growth and poverty reduction. The question is: what did these programmes lack? What is the missing link that policymakers must incorporate at the design stage? What are the lessons that have been learnt and what is the way forward?

These vertical economic growth models were not poverty-sensitive, distribution-led and inclusive in nature. They were not the outcomes of the institutional processes of development and cumulative learning, and the empirical knowledge of multidimensional poverty. This brings me back to my contention that development is messy, context-specific and historically differentiated because of its varying socioeconomic trajectories of evolution. If this is the case, should we adopt introverted policies in the age of globalisation?

Is there no possibility of universal development goals like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? What is the binding force for a universal development strategy? These are some of the most frequently asked questions. Let’s consider what it means to term development as messy, contextual and evolutionary in nature. .

In South Asia, there are good examples of community-driven development (CDD) programmes that contain the fundamental ingredients of socioeconomic transformation. These include the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) in Afghanistan, the Integrated Livelihood Support Project in Andhra Pradesh India, rural support programmes in Pakistan, and the BRAC model in Bangladesh.

This is not to deny the importance of geographical connectivity and physical infrastructure for development. As experience shows, mega projects do not work well if we don’t commit resources towards helping the poor access the opportunities of these large-scale development programmes. For instance, our optimism of CPEC’s potential as a game-changer is well-grounded only if we invest in social and human development. This will enable the people of Pakistan to access the benefits of CPEC’s development opportunities.

Experiences with community-driven integrated programmes suggest that if the poor are given access to requisite resources, they can become the primary actors of socioeconomic transformation. With appropriate technical and financial support, the poor can climb out of poverty.

There is a coherent network of rural support programmes in Pakistan and there are successful models to demonstrate their impact on poverty. One such model is the EU-funded Sindh Union Council and Community Economic Strengthening Support (SUCCESS) programme, which is built on the social investments of the UN-Based Poverty Reduction Program (UCBPRP) in Sindh. The SUCCESS program offers a community-driven economic and social empowerment package, with well-tailored socioeconomic instruments. These instruments include providing income-generating grants (IGGs) to the ultra-poor to help them escape from poverty. It provides small interest-free loans to the poor who are economically-active to help expand their enterprises. The programme also includes building community-based infrastructure and providing skill development trainings to rural women.

The most significant component of this programme is to help people articulate their own needs by helping them create their own institutions at the settlement, village and union council levels. Governed through a highly qualified team of professionals of the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN), the initiative has created robust, well-governed and inclusive institutions for rural women. Sana, a leader of community-based institution, told this writer that: “the government must invest in these institutions for accelerated prosperity in the country… we are now empowered to present our demands to political representatives”.

It took more than 40 years of consistent support to BRAC, which produced a remarkable impact on social and human development in Bangladesh. What are the common features among all the successful development policies and programmes? Timeliness, relevance, inclusiveness, dynamism, flexibility, and the spirit of continuous improvement are the key features.

The UCBPRP and its corollary SUCCESS created a platform to engage peers, thought leaders, practitioners from governments, agencies and academics to share the experiences on community-driven drives. The government of Pakistan can adopt this approach by creating a community of practice to bring together development practitioners, policymakers and researchers to help formulate a poverty-sensitive social policy.

It is vital to invest in large-scale infrastructure to cope with the emerging industrial and economic needs of CPEC. It is equally important to build an educated and skilled workforce to benefit from the emerging new economy. If between one percent and two percent of CPEC’s total investment is allocated towards social and human development, it will bring about an economic revolution in Pakistan. The youth of this country must be equipped with relevant knowledge and skills to benefit from these emerging arenas of development opportunities. We must learn from our experiences and move forward to build a prosperous, inclusive and peaceful Pakistan for our coming generations.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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