Our economic and social development needs a conceptual rethink
Prime Minister Imran Khan launched the Financial Inclusion Strategy initiative of his government on November 26, 2019. The Ehsaas Programme — a re-modelled entity of the existing social safety net, Benazir Income Support Programme, was at the core of this initiative.
Many quarters consider this step as an inadequate response, given the worsening situation of the lower income groups due to economic downturn and many other reasons. It is important to note that this regime began its tenure emphasising on poverty alleviation, eradication of corruption and good governance as some of the key references towards economic development.
People of various social and economic brackets were warned that due to the mismanagement of the past regimes, tougher economic measures shall be taken with efforts to protect the lower income groups. Sadly though, glamour, media attention and some donor’s praises were perhaps the only outcomes observed without any concurrent achievement in the actual sense. The real difference that was desired in terms of economic performance and development are yet to be seen. And obviously, little success in terms of development can be expected unless ground realities are accounted for.
Development, like other sectors of the economy and society, is denominated by political and administrative performance. However, unending adhoc measures now define the regime’s policies. Launch and promotion of Panah Gahs (shelter for homeless) in a few locations is an example. People of middle and lower-income groups are forced to live on a day-to-day basis.
Rapid and anomalous administrative and political changes do not allow developmental practices to evolve. Besides, hope is very vehemently defeated by fear! At secondary and tertiary level, the development process is governed by strong and influential interest groups. This is a reality which is always misunderstood and never accounted for by the government. Lack of enlightened leadership and the absence of legitimate processes to generate leadership further aggravate the situation. Lack of consensus objectives is one of the inherent weaknesses that have led to the spiraling fragmentation of the society. History has taught that many factors in our socio-cultural and administrative environment will remain a perpetual constraint at least in the near future.
The power structure of the country, which originates from the nexus of military, bureaucracy, political parties/forces and social-religious-ethnic groups will remain intact. Changes will continue to emerge through ‘accidents’ and ‘accidents in the making’! Public resources for development will remain scarce — there may be marginal variations without any drastic change. Reviewing the competitive and often unfavourable global market situations and local trends, it is difficult to expect any drastic change in the capital formation or a shift in macro-economic situation. A strong and parallel informal economy will continue to thrive under the patronage of interest groups of different origins, affiliations, size and magnitude.
Religious and ethnic divide will be the most exploited factor especially by political and religious leaders. The exploitation of religion and ethnicity will act as a barrier for socio-cultural and physical development. It has kept the masses away from internal organisation and prevented them from a collective action. Public reactions to the assassination of General Qassam Soleimani and the Nankana Sahib incidents are cases in point.
Absence of a consensus among the key players is a barrier in development. Planners, professionals, decision-markers, corporates, realtors and people all think and act in divergent directions without a commonality of thinking, approach and strategy. There is no mechanism and space that could bring these stakeholders on one platform. Unless they have a common space to think and act, no sustainable development will emerge. Although ground realities remain intact, there are many trends that can at as a catalyst to developmental process. A viable developmental philosophy must take account of them.
Cities and urban areas will expand and merge with rural areas. The conventional rural-urban divide which existed few decades ago will evaporate. In Sindh and Punjab, major roads and highways are the sites of ribbon developments, many of which have become significant corridors of service sector activities.
Urbanisation will act as the first tread for social and economic emancipation of masses in several ways. One, it denotes the death of the old social order dependent on agro-lordship and feudal practices. People of lower strata are acquiring freedom from the pre-existing social bondages. Two, the neo-urban dwellers obtain a new sense of society and social linkages which gradually heals the continuing social dislocation. Three, employment opportunities have become diverse and frequent in comparison to the past. And four, women and lower social castes who were traditionally the worst in many respects, can now attain better accesses to justice and chances of equitable survival in urban contexts. Urbanisation has been going on without the direct government support. The 2017 census has proved this fact.
Pioneering work in the health, education, welfare services, social and physical infrastructure and economy is continuing and can be scaled up. Aman Health, a programme in tele-medicine to enhance healthcare access for remotely located people, is a case in point. Where the state has failed to deliver, the self-help examples have demonstrated the options of success. Recognition of the pioneering works will lead to the birth of a new concept of ‘people-centred development’ in all domains of life.
A vibrant information and digital revolution has already taken place through the electronic, print and cyber media. This vital breakthrough shall bring about far-reaching changes in the society. The physical distances will soon shrink because of the utilisation of cyber media. Information will enable people to shed different taboos. They will be able to work for improvement in their social and economic status. Besides, access to knowledge and information could not be monopolised by the select few, as was the case in the past.
Our developmental philosophy should be people-centred. Plans and actions that are beneficial to society at large must be initiated. Laws, rules, regulations, bylaws, standards, packages should all be built up around this fundamental concept. Three traditional actors that are vital in developmental affairs are politicians, decision-makers and professional planners.
For instance, politicians used developmental process to gain mass popularity. Their desired role is to understand developmental needs, create an enabling environment and prepare policies. They are supposed to understand ground realities of the society, take an independent position and prepare appropriate solutions. People were only considered as recipients of development. However, their role must be redefined as that of partners in development. Besides, they should be empowered to frame their developmental choices.
Unless we do not open debate around the aspirations of people about development and make political decisions and professional input subservient to it, sustainability of attempts will remain a remote dream.
The writer is a Professor and Dean, Faculty of Architecture and Management Sciences, NED University, Karachi