The adverse impact of poverty can only be realized at the household level with all its multidimensional manifestations, while its causes are rooted in the national and international processes of development.
It is, therefore, important that there are meticulously designed household-level solutions to address the multifaceted nature of poverty effectively. This is not an easy undertaking for governments in developing countries like Pakistan, given the nature of the governance structure which is primarily shaped to deliver extension services.
Local government departments have neither the mandate nor the functional capacity to engage in providing household-level private goods and services. Therefore, public goods and services provided through government departments have little impact in alleviating real poverty.
The question then arises: what are the ways and means to address household poverty and who should be doing this? It begs another question: do we have demonstrable models which could be replicated to help the government meet its commitment towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ‘to end poverty in all its forms by 2030’?
There are no easy answers to such questions of course, in particular given our pathetic performance in meeting the targets set forth in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It calls for political will and commitment as the primary condition to do the rest. Political will and commitment is directly proportional to a well-governed and accountable local governance system which must be able to engage households as the primary stakeholders of the transformational process.
The local government structure in Pakistan is administrative in nature with a top-down supply side organizational setup. In other words, the local governance structure is not representative or democratic in nature to engage people for the downward accountability of the authorities of public service. In its current structure, it would not be prudent to pin much hope in the local government structure in terms of addressing household poverty. Even if functional reforms are introduced in local government departments, this would only mean to bring efficiency in administration and service delivery with little bearing on the empowerment of the people.
One of the key reasons why the social action programmes failed to alleviate poverty was their supply side function and lack of focus on household economy of the poor. The poor cannot participate meaningfully in determining the choices for local development without having a representative institutional mechanism at the village or neighbourhood level. This requires for the poor to have their own organization to enter into a meaningful development dialogue with the government line agencies, NGOs and private service providers. Poor people do not have the means and power to influence the development agenda unless they have a platform to raise a collective voice with the required capability to articulate their development demands.
Poverty alleviation requires multiple engagements with varying policy domains, layers of power, local, national and international actors as well as the strategic partnerships at multiple levels. Poverty is an outcome of policy choices that governments adopt, macroeconomic situations impacted by globalization, trade regimes at work, health of the national economy and national resilience to political and economic shocks etc.
Attribution of poverty alleviation, therefore, must rest with a number of key players ie the role of international organizations, nature of economic globalization, flexibility of policy choices, acumen of government functionaries, private sector and civil society to respond to the changing realities. It would not be appropriate to assess the institutional efficacy of an organization in terms of its direct impact on poverty alleviation.
In the international arena of poverty alleviation discourse, one of the fundamental propositions is to differentiate between poverty as an effect of the national and international economic and political environment and lack of capabilities in a certain social group to benefit from a given set of opportunities. It is misleading to assess the success of development organizations in terms of their role in reducing national poverty without considering the role of national and international actors and the policy choices of a government to respond to trade disparities and effects. The role of development organizations can fully be appreciated if we assess it vis-à-vis the institutional response they have devised to address household-level poverty in the areas of their interventions.
The central principle to address household poverty lies in unleashing local potential by facilitating the creation of arenas of indigenous civil society. This entails facilitating local people to create well governed, inclusive, participative and sustainable institutions and helping them access opportunities for socioeconomic transformation at the household level. International development agencies must, therefore, direct all their technical and financial support to ensure that their local development partners are strengthened to promote this fundamental principle of social change at their local contexts.
Back in the 1980s, Nobel Laureate Economist Amartya Sen identified lack of functional capabilities as the primary cause of exclusion of the poor from existing economic and social opportunities in a given structure of a society. This means that for a development project to work effectively it is essential to invest in building the capabilities of people so that they are able to access the opportunities in a given system. According to Sen, “a person’s capability to live a good life is defined in terms of the set of valuable ‘beings and doings’ like being in good health or having loving relationships with others to which they have real access.
The notion of capability has been employed extensively in the context of human development, for example, by the United Nations Development Programme, as a broader and deeper alternative to narrowly defined economic metrics such as growth in GDP per capita. Here ‘poverty’ is understood as deprivation in the capability to live a good life, and ‘development’ is understood as capability expansion.
In recent decades, Amartya Sen’s capability theory has emerged as a serious alternative model of progress and development. Rather than goods and resources (the inputs), the focus of Sen’s capability approach is people and their capabilities (the end-results). It also provides an alternative perspective on issues like poverty, inequality, gender bias, and social exclusion that are hardly touched upon by the conventional economic perspective. Sen’s approach is both comprehensive and flexible. It provides dignity to the human race because the economic model of development has reduced people to the status of producers and consumers.
The poor of this country will never prosper if they are excluded from the processes and policies which will ultimately shape the landscape of development and progress. This requires long-term commitment in investing, promoting and protecting the institutions of the people at the local level. It is also important that the local governance structure facilitates enhancing the functional capabilities of the poor.
There has to be a strong collaboration between development agencies and government department to attain the goal of sustainable development. This will be the best way forward to secure the future of our coming generations. One can hope that the Ehsaas pProgramme launched by the government works on these lines.
The writer is a socialdevelopment and policyadviser, and a freelancecolumnist based in Islamabad.
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