Thursday September 28, 2023

Building on the poverty debate

July 31, 2019

In response to my article ‘Poverty and social protection’ published in these pages on June 27, 2019, Dr Kaiser Bengali wrote an interesting piece ‘Poverty debate’ (July 25, 2019).

The views I expressed in my article were a summary of a discussion with officials of an IFI so as to trigger a constructive debate. I am glad this objective was met and more so when the article received some mixed reactions through emails and social fora discussions.

In his opinion piece – which offered a critique of certain parts of my article – Dr Bengali came up with a coherent perspective around poverty and social protection. He did not only clarify some of the common conceptual disarrays about social protection and safety nets but he also contributed immensely to the debate of poverty and development within a broader framework of political structuralism.

Having said that, structuralism as a school of thought has its own pitfalls as it tends to reduce fluid realties into a systemic debate. Systemic debate is important in understanding the politics of neoliberal fragmentation of social reality but it tends to exclude role of human agency in socioeconomic transformation. In reality, human agency operates at the macro, meso and micro levels to create the possibility of change at the political, institutional and local spheres of society.

I have been striving to promote the debate on poverty and development through mainstream media in the age of political and economic homogenization. The most important aspect of this emerging debate is that it tends to challenge the conventional wisdom of poverty and development. In the conventional development literature, the poverty debate is essentially driven by econometrics ie application of quantitative and mathematical modelling of classical economics on the processes of development with predictably simplistic solutions. As a policy narrative, poverty alleviation is reduced to some technical dimensions of economics which suggests an exclusive role for technicians to fix the problem of poverty.

I endorse the perspective of Dr Bengali that poverty is political in nature and is embedded in the political and economic structures of a system. While poverty is not a technical issue only, in our context of competing incompetence imposed through IFI programmes, it seems sensible to believe that we still need competent professionals. When the onslaught of development incompetence is inevitable (as we have seen for many decades in Pakistan) the competent professionals may cause some political contestation at the meso and micro level to impact development policy.

The organic professional can make more difference through intellectual contestation within the system rather than remaining in the peripheries of development debate. For one thing I believe that Dr Bengali’s work – despite all political odds – could be more instrumental had he been contesting policy mediocrity from within. The conceptualization of BISP is one such glaring example of making a difference from within. Were it not for the government to avail the services of Dr Bengali, the mediocre ones could never design BISP as a flagship social protection programme. But it does cost something to hire competent professionals.

Contrary to Dr Bengali’s claim that my discussions with officials of an IFI provided intellectual oxygen for this particular debate, in reality it was the other way around. All my discussion was not summarized in the article, but it was a strong intellectual contestation against the onslaught of IFI-sponsored development incompetence. The debate was centred on the nature and scope of the BISP Graduation Model (BGM) which for the IFI was an output driven and time-bound standalone project. My contestation was simple: let us make it part of other ongoing programmes of a similar nature and let it be an impact-oriented rather than an output-driven programme.

Well, this could be a failure, we must not lose our ground by letting it go without contestation. The BGM will be implemented anyway, but what is important for a development professional of my standing is to advocate integration and incorporation of lessons learnt from similar programmes of the past. Transformation of the socioeconomic and political structure is a long-term development journey but in its course there are many petty contestations one cannot lose sight of. For a development practitioner, the contestation is twofold: a) the inner fight with our own orthodoxy; and b) contestation against the exotic development paradigms which tend to impose incompetence.

Now what is incompetence in this context? Incompetence here is a programmatic approach to evade the macro, meso and micro realities by reducing the theory of change to a set of outputs and predictable outcomes. The notorious logframe analysis approach is one such instance among others where value for money is established by evading the possibility of social transformation.

Dr Bengali makes an important statement that “in the neo-liberal conceptualization, the state’s role is to provide the framework and the enabling environment for the market to generate profits. The people, as workers, are merely production inputs and, as consumers, merely targets for sales”. He believes that “the state sees people as human beings and its role as a provider of welfare to enable people to lead economically, socially and culturally fulfilling lives.”

Well it is paradoxical to believe that the nation-state which is the highest institution to protect capital will act as a benevolent provider if left to its own devices. There needs to be transformational engagement at least at three levels both to complement and confront the modern state. This entails engagement at the policy level through these debates, at the institutional level by ensuring integration of efforts and at the local level by unleashing the development potential of the poor.

Dr Bengali admits that “the quantum of social security support anywhere is never sufficient to become a substitute for a regular income”. If this is true then what impact would BISP have as an income support standalone programme and how long would the state continue doling out money without much socioeconomic value for it? If the poor continue to be the recipient of meagre income support on terms defined by the state based on the available resources in its kitty, it certainly creates dependence. Income support programmes, therefore, must be buttressed with a long-term development agenda of socioeconomic transformation.

Dr Bengali has also rightly highlighted the plights of the ‘Social Action Program’ and ‘Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers’ but it is not fair to turn down meso and micro level development interventions as intrigues of IFIs. Institutions like the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) and Rural Support Programmes (RSPs) have great potential to help unleash the transformative potential at the micro level. The PPAF and RSPs complement the role of the state by reaching out to the poorest households which the state cannot do on its own. The millions of institutions created at the grassroots level can play their role as conduits of local transformation. The state does not talk to the poor; it is the poor who have been enabled to stare at the state to deliver on its promises. Thus, in complementing the role of the state, the PPAF and RSPs have helped create a political critical mass of local inclusive institutions of citizens to make state accountable to the poor.

With all our intellectual contestation around poverty and development, the fact remains that we have very little space in our mainstream media for these important debates. It is time to contribute our bid to push ahead with serious debates on issues that matter to Pakistan and its citizens. Promotion of development debate in Pakistan needs collective efforts from development agencies, local civil society and well-established experts like Dr Kaiser Bengali.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.


Twitter: @AmirHussain76