An interview with Haris Gazdar, an expert in poverty, food security and social protection
Haris Gazdar is an expert on poverty, food security, social exclusion, social protection, political economy, and linkages between women’s agricultural work and their own and their children’s health and nutrition. He has taught as well as conducted academic research in the UK, India, and Pakistan. Currently, he is working with the government of Sindh as the Coordinator to the Chief Minister on Social Protection. He is a senior researcher at the Collective for Social Science Research, and an associate fellow at IDEAS (Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives).
Recently, he joined a team of Global South experts as Commissioner CoSAI (Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification), where he hopes to promote “innovative thinking and practice, and empowering the perspectives of sustainability, inclusion, disaster resilience and food security and nutrition” in the Global South, in South Asia and in Pakistan
The News on Sunday (TNS): As a newly-appointed commissioner to the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification, that brings together agricultural and food systems experts and decision-makers from the Global South, what problems related to agriculture, food, and environment are you hoping to solve? How will they impact Pakistan in specific terms?
Haris Gazdar (HG): Agriculture is changing rapidly across the Global South not just due to technological innovation and diffusion, but through the greater integration of markets. Commercially successful models of innovation which led to the industrialisation of agriculture over many parts of Europe and North America represent the dominant paradigm. The success in rapidly increasing the output and yield of big crops through the development and adoption of new seed varieties, and the use of fertilisers, pesticides and farm mechanisation, is undeniable. It has represented the bedrock of agricultural development strategies in Pakistan too, and other countries of South Asia, at least since the 1960s. The main promise of this paradigm is to ensure food security, good nutrition, and higher incomes for rural communities. And this promise has been redeemed to a great extent. But the agricultural intensification paradigm is not without its constraints and problems. There are competing, or complementary paradigms, which raise issues of environmental sustainability, economic inequality, disaster vulnerability, and, of course, food security and nutrition outcomes.
The Commission on Sustainable Agricultural Intensification (CoSAI) represents an attempt to help shape global, national and sub-national policy and research that recognizes the reality of agricultural intensification while also, at the same time, promoting innovative thinking and practice to ensure that perspectives such as sustainability, inclusion, disaster vulnerability, and food security and nutrition occupy a central place in policy-making.
This is a huge challenge and also an urgent one. I believe that at least in the South Asia region the default policy paradigm is one of unbridled intensification, which is only constrained, for good reason or bad, by the mainly smallholder nature of actual production systems on the ground. Even in parts of Pakistan where land holdings are very large, the dominant form of farm organisation is around smaller units of land and labour management. These ‘constraints’ are being relieved, mostly through market-based concentration of land into bigger units. As this happens, we might find ourselves sleep-walking into a world which offered short-term gains to some at the expense of the needs of the many, both now and into the future.
The market is, of course, a powerful transmitter of technological and organisational change, even in agriculture. But we know that markets are highly responsive, also, to policy direction, particularly in agriculture. So while the commission has its work cut out, we also know that promoting innovative thinking and practice, and empowering the perspectives of sustainability, inclusion, disaster resilience and food security and nutrition, can have real effects on how intensification will actually take place in the Global South, in South Asia and in Pakistan. In other words, we can do a lot better than sleep-walking.
My own particular role and interest in the Commission is two-fold. I am not, of course, an agricultural expert. My area of research and policy engagement has been in poverty, food security, social exclusion, social protection, political economy, and most recently, linkages between women’s agricultural work and their own and their children’s health and nutrition. So, I have been asked to bring some of those perspectives — poverty, inequality, workers’ (particularly unrecognized and unpaid women workers’) rights and wellbeing, and political economy — to the discussion and work of the Commission. But much of the research that I have done in the past has been foregrounded in the rural and agrarian context of South Asia. I have had the privilege of studying not just conditions in different parts of Pakistan, but also, in the past, in India, particularly in the states of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. I, therefore, see adding alongside colleagues from India and elsewhere, another South Asian, and particularly a Pakistani perspective to the debate. My current work with the government of Sindh as the Coordinator to the Chief Minister on Social Protection, allows me to offer a sub-national perspective too — something that is relevant not just in Pakistan and India but to other federal states.
If I were to look ahead to see how the work of the Commission will influence policy-making in Pakistan, I would say that empowering perspectives such as sustainability, inclusion, disaster vulnerability and food security and nutrition into the mainstream global debate will set the tone for policy dialogue across the Global South, including Pakistan. More specifically, though, we look forward to highlighting particular problems in Pakistan and the South Asia region, as well as innovations in thinking and practice, with the view of channeling resources into those innovations.
TNS: Plagues of locust have damaged billions of rupees worth of crops, posing a threat to food security in Pakistan. This will add to woes of farmers already affected by the pandemic. How will the current situation impact the ability of the poor to survive the economic and health crisis, alongside the climate change emergency?
HG: The locust issue cannot be solved locally — swarms travel long distances over national borders, even across continents. Global cooperation is critical, and I believe that lapses in such cooperation have reduced our capacity for dealing with this threat. The locust invasion is, in fact, a double whammy. It was our expectation that agriculture will be the least affected sector through the pandemic because its supply chains and demand remain stable and predictable. The locust invasion now makes many farming communities vulnerable too.
TNS: Although Pakistan has declared a national emergency to protect crops and farmers after the locusts began to destroy crops earlier this year, do you think the PTI government has a decisive policy — to provide social protection to farmers through effective governance and manage price and availability of food?
HG: Thankfully our main wheat crop was not affected by the locust invasion. The threat to the summer crops is high. Our existing social protection system — based on the Benazir Income Support Programme — works well for chronic poverty. However, it is not a dynamic social registry that can respond to specific crises. The data are also almost a decade old now, and the new poverty scorecard census has not been completed nationally.
TNS: You have previously argued that the understanding of governments and international donors of hunger and undernutrition has little connection between “how hunger is actually felt and experienced”. What can be done to bridge the gap between the concepts of “hunger” and “being hungry”, especially in the current times of pandemic when food insecurity is on the rise? Is this the right time for any meaningful macro or micro level intervention?
HG: The Food Insecurity Experience Scale is now an established metric for measuring hunger and food insecurity. We are not doing so well on that scale, and were not doing so well before Covid-19. The deep pockets of hunger are in our rural areas. The narrative of “people dying of hunger” began to be heard within a couple of days of the lockdown. I think this was an overreaction. The first major breaches of the lockdown in the urban areas were done on the plea of distributing and collecting rations. Yes, we needed to be more proactive to help people facing hunger and food insecurity, but I think that weakening measures for disease containment has simply prolonged the crisis.
TNS: With a surge in cases of Covid-19 post-eid, as a result of a relaxed lockdown, what do you think of the government’s policy to protect people’s livelihood so they don’t die of hunger over shutdown to prevent the spread of the virus? As a coordinator to Sindh CM on social protection, do you think there is a trade-off between saving lives and saving livelihood and economic growth? Is it even a valid question?
HG: We are working on the premise that Covid-19 has the potential to devastate our country. The modelling excercises that I have read from reputable sources show that unrestrained spread of the disease will cause hundreds of thousands of deaths in Pakistan. Perhaps even as many as half a million! This is scary. It is clear that we need to contain the disease, and our social protection efforts will need to support that goal. I am surprised and I despair when I see moving goalposts. Hunger was a problem in Pakistan before March 2020 yet we started to hear about it when we were faced with another, more urgent threat. History will show this as poor leadership. It would be like saying in 2009 that we should build schools first in Swat, then tackle the Taliban! Maybe some people who are currently influential were just saying that then, but who has the time to go check.