A Summary on Poverty Alleviation Seminar

I thank Allah for enabling us to meet in this seminar, discuss an issue that is of paramount importance to the entire humanity. During these two days we were lucky to have a galaxy of scholars, intellectuals, social scientists, practitioners of economics and other disciplines who sat around the table and discussed threadbare a number of dimensions relating to the poverty syndrome and how to face this challenge. Besides research papers, we had discussions, comments and summing ups.

We are lucky to have in this seminar participation from all parts of Pakistan, as well as three scholars from abroad — Dr. Aftab Cheema from Jeddah, Dr. Murat Cizacka from Turkey and Dr. Sulaiman Mahbob from Malaysia. That enriched our knowledge and enabled us to look upon this subject not merely from certain stereotypes but from a variety of perspectives.

Naturally, we began with the dominant themes of economics and found that although we are completing half a century of independence, the situation vis-a-vis poverty remains alarming. According to various estimates given in the presentations here, we find that between 30 to 50 percent of our people live in poverty, some in abject poverty. There are gross inequalities of income and wealth and the gap is widening. It is a painful fact that there is net transfer of wealth from the poor towards the richer sections of society and not the other way round as it should have been.

We also discussed the global dimensions of the poverty problem. We ventured into the historical aspects both of the colonial and the post-colonial periods. Along with examining the current situation, we tried to look into our own history to see how Muslims in the past tried to face the challenge of poverty. In this respect Prof. Murat's paper has been a very valuable contribution.

We then moved to the most substantive issues which deal with poverty situation. We emphasised and discussed different aspects of distribution of income and wealth and reflected upon the need for structural changes: land reforms, restructuring of ownership and redistribution of assets. We also tried to look upon the whole issue not merely from an economic dimension but also from moral and ethical dimension, because poverty and its alleviation are fundamental moral issues. This is why we believe in zakah which is one of the main pillars of Islam. It means that the Islamic approach represents a unification of the spiritual, religious and moral aspects on the one side and material and economic on the other. Salat and zakah come together and, according to Qur'an and even in the teachings of earlier prophets and faiths based on Divine revelation, zakah together with salah was a part of the religious beliefs and practices. So, Islam is concerned with the problem of poverty from the day one. It has never ignored the issue and if Muslims are ignoring it today, it is as much a moral crime as an economic folly.

We also moved into the realm of power relationships. This is the dimension which is normally ignored. Whether you look upon the poverty issues at the macro or micro level, these are very deeply related to the power structure and the way power is shared in the society. In this respect we had to reflect upon three influences: our own history which had many shining aspects along with its disturbing aspects; the colonial model and its influence upon our power structure; and the current power situation where domestic despotisms and international linkages are also very important in  the  study  of  the  poverty  problem. We realized that not only restructuring of power is necessary but in all the three forms, in which we find power responding to the challenge of poverty, there is lack of commitment. Partial responses cannot solve the problem, rather they are made on the basis of expediency and self or group interest.

Coming to more specific aspects, we reflected upon the very concept of poverty in terms of consumption and income criteria. In my view more important than both of these is that there is a relative aspect of poverty and that poverty in essence is a position of deprivation or helplessness of a certain strata of society. There can be inequalities and diversity in levels of living but going beyond that line where a human being is unable to meet his or her needs honourably and with dignity is something against humanity. It is that degree of deprivation, destituteness and helplessness that really defines poverty. Although the definition would be time and region specific, yet this is the heart, soul and core of it. This is why concept of zakah defines who are fuqara (destitute) and masakeen (needy), and who are sahib-e-nisab (those who are to pay).

For us, therefore, these concepts are very clear and we have tried to understand poverty not merely in the light of the World Bank definitions but in the context of our own cultural and historical background. We also tried to address ourselves to the specific issues like child labour, population, food production, employment, need for growth, etc. so that the total size of the cake could be expanded to facilitate more equitable distribution. We discussed and reviewed shortcomings of the Social Action Programme. Though Pakistan was the main focus, we examined public strategies in respect of poverty alleviation we also had case studies of Malaysia and Turkey (of Ottoman era). So it is not merely the unfortunate major failure in the Pakistani case but there are also some success stories indicating the possibility that if we redesign our strategies and pursue them with full commitment, the menace of poverty can be lifted off the brows of Muslim society.

We also examined the role of NGOs covering both positive as well as negative aspects. All is not bad in the NGOs. Doubts are expressed  about  them  only  when  they link themselves to goals, policies and programmes of external powers. Otherwise, there is a positive side to both national as well as international NGOs. We also emphasised that all should not be left to the government. Individuals, voluntary institutions and organisations have to play very important role. In this context, we had been trying to emphasise the Islamic dimensions again and again, both at the conceptual level as well as at the level of institutional framework that is needed in a contemporary modern Muslim society.

I would conclude by saying that some agenda for future should also emerge, from discussions and presentations of this seminar. To suggest:

First, there is need for further research and analyses. Collection of more dependable, desegregated and more decentralised data and its analysis is essential. It is only on this basis that more detailed and accurate poverty profiles can be built, target groups identified, major forces and factors responsible for generating and perpetuating or alleviating poverty understood, and programmes formulated to face these issues. So, more work is needed on both levels of research and analyses.

Second, there has been and should be a shift towards private initiative and voluntary work as government-sponsored poverty alleviation programmes have miserably failed in Pakistan. If there is any silver lining, it is through private transfer payments. About a third (28 percent) of poverty alleviation support to poor families has come from voluntary private individual contributions and not the state agencies. Even the public sector collection of zakah and its disbursements has not affected even one percent of the population or three percent of the poor. This is an area where further work is needed at research, intellectual and operational level.

Third, we have realised that if economic growth, ignores social developmental efforts, it would not be able to deliver the goods in the long run. The question is not merely of current transfers. The question is of economic development of such a mode that leads to distributive justice, employment generation and increased productivity of the worker. It is worthwhile to suggest that although market mechanism has been accepted as the major institution for economic decision-making and location of the resources, it alone would not be able to achieve the social and moral objective, There is a need for supplementing it by a moral filter at the individual level — the farmer, the producer and the consumer — and a judicious role for the state to monitor the system and intervene where social obligations so demand.

Major emphasis during the course of our discussion has been upon education, particularly primary education. This is a great challenging area. Similar emphasis was placed on technology. The core issue is that we have to have command over new technology and not merely the transfer of technology. It is only through this grip over technology that we can bring about changes at the grass root. The case in point is agriculture. Being the largest sector in the country, it deserves utmost attention. Much would depend upon improvement in productivity in agriculture which is possible only if the landless farmer becomes the main focus of our policies. It is through this employment-oriented decentralised development approach that revolution in agriculture can really take place.

An important aspect of the problem is that real changes would not take place unless power relationships are changed and the vested interests of those few thousand persons who own land or capital or belong to bureaucracy, administration, army and thus monopolise power and resources are cut to size. So, restructuring of power, ownership and administration is the agenda for future. And unless we address ourselves to all these issues, we might be tinkering with problems but would never be able to ever solve any.

The issue is not merely poverty alleviation. The issue is how to restructure the society and turn it into really participatory body where a few do not rule over the many. It is the will of many that needs be channelled not only for articulation and expression but for influence in decision-making in the country.

Finally, the international dimensions should not be ignored. While we want to avoid isolationism and dissociation from the rest of the world, we  are  also  constrained to say that the present world order is inequitable in its distribution of power and resources. As such, we have to see how we can protect ourselves against the evil influence of the system. How far we can influence and work to change and improve it for the betterment of the humanity at large.

It is the humanity that is to flower and blossom and, therefore, ideas have to have an outreach for the entire mankind. And in this context, individuals, intellectuals and NGOs can play very important role. This provides us with an agenda for future work which can also be the basis for evolving a new set of strategies to face not only poverty but al! the problems confronting the humanity.

Prof. Khurshid Ahmad


Source: Poverty Alleviation in Pakistan: Present Scenario and Future Strategy, Mohibul Haq Sahibzada. Republished with permission. 

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