Reasons for Pakistan’s low human development


By Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Pakistan’s current ranking in the Human Development Index (HDI), based on 2018 data, is lower than of other South Asian countries, except Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal. 

Comparing the country with India, which became independent on the same day in 1947, and Bangladesh, which separated from it in 1971, is a fair measure of judging how Pakistan has done and is doing. Among 189 countries, India ranks 129 and Bangladesh 135, while Pakistan is 152nd. Interestingly, Dr. Mahbub Ul Haq, the economist who devised human development as a standard of development, departing from the conventional notion of economic growth, was from Pakistan and had served as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission of Pakistan under the first military regime of Ayub Khan (1958-69). While leaving his position, he questioned the conventional paradigm of economic growth. 

Pic20-070 KARACHI: Dec20 – NTS Passed Teachers lodge a sit-in protest while teachers clashed with police officials, who baton-charged the crowd. Tear gas shells were fired to disperse the crowd, who pelted stones at the police outside Sindh Assembly in provincial capital. ONLINE PHOTO by Anwar Abbas

In the decade of the 1960s, Pakistan achieved a significantly higher growth rate than other regional countries. The empirical evidence Dr. Haq gathered at that time led to the conclusion that the benefits of economic development had become concentrated in 20 business and industrial families of Pakistan, increasing inequality. With his path-breaking study, Haq influenced the work and direction of the UNDP, which has popularized inclusive human development as the most important and fundamental objective of a state.

The central theme of the UNDP’s 2019 human development report is inequality within and between states, and how it helps the well-entrenched interests in political power and economy to amass wealth and marginalize further the poor of their societies. This is also the story behind Pakistan’s low performance in the index. 

The most important reason for Pakistan’s human development lagging behind its neighbors is that political and economic elites are not pushed about the miserable conditions of the country’s voiceless poor. They are the ones who dominate economic and social policy decisions, and they have avoided investing enough in health care, education, and addressing the issue of horizontal inequality among gender and ethnic groups. 

Evidence from other countries that have done better over the decades suggests that their elites got elected into power as a result of being responsive to the aspirations of the people. In other words, they acquired legitimacy – the right to rule – by performing in the interests of the poor while in power. In the case of Pakistan, dynastic politics from the constituency level to the national, makes electoral elites take their positions for granted. 

They know they can get elected, no matter what they do or fail to do while in power, and thus have no drive to strive for distributive justice. One of the sad facts of Pakistani politics and society is that the poor are not organized to articulate their demands for higher allocation for health care and education and better delivery of social services. These are the mechanisms that can empower people, help them dream and realize their aspirations.

According to the human development report, 38.3 percent of Pakistanis suffer from multi-dimensional poverty, 21 percent live in severe poverty and 12.9 percent face the risk of being pushed to poverty. The good thing is that Pakistan has steadily made progress from 0.404 in 1990 to 0.560 in 2018, inclusive of all four dimensions of human development – life expectancy at birth, expected years of schooling, mean years of staying in school and per capita gross national income. 

An average Pakistani can now hope to live seven years longer than in 1990. Schooling per child has increased by 3.8 years, and gross national income by a big margin of 62.4 percent. However, primarily because of inequality, growth in national income is not reflected in social development indicators. It still keeps its place in the classification of medium human development countries, as second-last in the list. It will take a few years more to see if pro-poor policies, reforms in governance and economy will reflect in the human development ranking of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s political stability and internal security hinges on removing structural impediments in the way of addressing all forms of inequalities, vertical as well as horizontal. For this to happen, the poor have to organize themselves and use every social and political forum to articulate their demands for equality in processes and outcomes. Otherwise, the elites may remain non-responsive, despite risking political instability.

In many parts of the world today, we are witnessing unrest among the poor, which is a manifestation of anger, anxiety and a sense of deprivation. Pakistan itself has been through lots of internal turmoil, militarization, insurgencies, and counterinsurgencies. In a way, it has been dealing with symptoms, while the real causes are rooted in low human development. The more it delays developing the potential of its young population, the more it risks social disorder and instability.

(Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Twitter: @RasulRais )