IN the policy mix dished out to ameliorate the condition of ‘ordinary’ Pakistanis, the piece de resistance has invariably been top-down ‘economic growth’. While generating growth in economic activity is important, too often in the past, on its own, it has failed to deliver lasting jobs or decent incomes for millions.

Even when jobs have been created, other aspects of the state’s social contract which have a large bearing on the quality of life of ordinary citizens have been wantonly ignored. Were the state to focus on improving delivery of public goods, millions of Pakistanis would be afforded opportunities for betterment that are currently being denied to them. Importantly, many struggling families would be better able to cope with protracted economic downturns — or, indeed, periods of ‘jobless’ growth.

The disconnect between economic ‘welfare’ and socio-economic ‘condition’ is captured by the variance in Pakistan’s rank in the Human Development Index (HDI) and its standing in the per capita income league table. While Pakistan’s per capita GDP places it globally at 136th, its HDI rank is even lower at an abysmal 146th, encapsulating the shortcomings of a policy approach that focuses predominantly on increasing headline GDP growth over the provision of less abstract, and more direct, improvements in the lives of citizens.

To appreciate the life challenges, as well as the everyday and humdrum ones, of vulnerable families — who should be the ultimate denominator of a state’s policies — policymakers need to reconnect to the everyday realities of life for an ‘average’ Pakistani household.

Policymakers need to reconnect to the everyday realities of life for an ‘average’ household.
The common strands in the ‘ordinary’ lives of many Pakistanis, as evidenced both by official household surveys as well as anecdotally, appear to be:

Large family size: With one of the slowest declines in fertility rates among large developing countries, Pakistan continues to experience an explosive growth in its population. According to official data from social and economic surveys, the average household size for the most vulnerable segment is 8.13 persons — though this number was thrown open to question by the household survey conducted in preparation for the launch of the Benazir Income Support Programme, which indicated an even larger size.

Whatever the reality through the prism of official data, few would dispute that the rapid and unchecked expansion of the population is tilting the dynamic of the demographic transition from ‘dividend’ to ‘ticking time bomb’, and is exacerbating Pakistan’s developmental challenges.

Lack of decent employment: Even though official statistics indicate that only around 6pc of the labour force is unemployed, or around 3.7 million Pakistanis, there are grounds to be sceptical about the number. First, it understates the unemployed by using the category ‘unpaid family help’; with over 12 million people in this ‘unpaid’ category, it is clear that those being counted as employed are being overstated. Second, data on underemployment indicates that many of those with jobs are earning a fraction of their earning capacity with low hours worked. Third, data on ‘decent jobs’ is not readily available, but we know that only a portion of those employed are actually in jobs befitting their education, or in jobs that afford opportunities for personal advancement or provide decent wages.

Finally, with a low participation rate, labour force statistics capture around half the population. Excluding the age extremes of young and old, one is still left with a sizeable number of people who are not counted as unemployed or underemployed simply because they are not deemed to be part of the labour force.

Lack of education and skills: Perhaps the biggest constraining factor for both Pakistan as a country, and individually for teeming millions of its citizens, is the abysmal situation regarding educational attainment. Not surprisingly, Pakistan competes not just for the bottom rankings with some of the poorest and most illiterate countries in the world in terms of overall education statistics, but also in terms of workforce skill levels and labour productivity.

In almost each of the lives I profiled in my previous column, lack of education was holding back the potential of individuals and families to earn a decent livelihood and lead a better life.

Health shocks: Access to affordable, timely and quality healthcare is proving to be a severe developmental challenge. Many families across the length and breadth of Pakistan have been forced ‘under water’ financially by a health shock, especially to a bread-winner. Serious health issues, such as hepatitis, tuberculosis and water-borne diseases including arsenic poisoning, are so pervasive across Pakistan that it is nothing short of a national emergency.

If the state were to provide for not just the curative side of the healthcare system, but perhaps more importantly, for the preventative side, the lives of millions of suffering Pakistanis can be bettered, without having to spend hundreds of billions on infrastructure projects with marginal benefits.

Vulnerability to natural calamities: Increasingly, as demonstrated in the last few years, many in Pakistan are bearing the brunt of natural calamities, a vulnerability which is being exacerbated due to the effects of climate change.

Administrative injustice and heavy-handedness: Finally, as demonstrated time and again, the lives of ordinary citizens — and their income-earning opportunities — are cruelly affected by the heavy-handed actions of the state’s minions. From Model Town, Lahore and Okara, to the demolition of shops in F-11 Markaz and the F-7 flower market, the state’s administrative machinery acts, almost by default, in ways that add to the misery of citizens rather than bettering their lives.

To all the above common strands from the lives of our fellow vulnerable citizens, if access to affordable and timely justice, food security and physical safety/law and order, were added, it would sum up all the elements of a state’s basic constitutional responsibility to its citizens. If the government can focus at least as much on providing these basics as it is on mega schemes for the few, Pakistan will be a better place for all its citizens.

The writer is a former economic adviser to government, and currently heads a macroeconomic consultancy based in Islamabad.