I have come across several well-educated, well-off people lately who seem to believe that the poor somehow “want to be poor” or are simply “too stupid” to escape poverty. Members of my own family, friends from school, colleagues at office, the so-called “development workers” and professionals who think the beggars they are surrounded by at the traffic signals and those lining up at charity handouts this Ramzan are outright lazy. The arguments forwarded seem to suggest as if there is a “culture of poverty” and the poor suffer from this culture.
As silly as it may seem to argue against this line of reasoning, I invariably get embroiled in exchanges, stressing that failed economic and social policies followed by successive governments in this country are creating poverty and act as barriers to poverty reduction. The result is persistently the same: these folks tend to switch off and find something better to do than listening to me. Perhaps it is not a “culture of poverty” which perpetuates poverty but instead this “culture of apathy.”
The rising poverty is a result of deepening societal apathy towards poverty and poor. It is indeed, a spectacular failure on part of so many people therein – voters, politicians and development experts and workers – that poverty exists and persists. However, those who are really responsible, would not even want to talk about it.
My middle-class compatriots have yet to come to grips with the reality that poverty in Pakistan is caused by myriad factors important amongst them a lack of real discourse on poverty. What we need to understand is: What constitutes poverty? How is it measured by the successive regimes whereby poverty figures always successfully make those primarily responsible for it looking good? What really are the causes of poverty? And the likes.
The government’s poverty figures do not count the poor living in katchi abadis (slums) and on the street. What figures are being missed out? There are over 3,000 katchi abadis in the country with a population approximating seven million. More than half of them – four million – live in Karachi. What are their living conditions? Between 10 to 15 persons live in one tin shed covering on an average three marlas (one marla is equal to 272.00 sft) plots having one to two rooms and no sanitation facility.
It amazes me how our poverty calculators, and indeed people like you and I who buy these figures without a wince, are isolated from reality and how little an idea do they have about poor, poverty or even how to count them. Whatever poverty figures the government economists may tell, I know when poverty is on the rise. There is more poverty when there is increased beggary, deprivation, suicides and lawlessness in the society
While economists describe poverty incidence as the percentage of poor compared to the total population, poverty cannot be described – it can only be felt. One knows about poverty when he is hungry and cannot purchase food, he and his children want new clothes but they can’t purchase them, he’s sick and doesn’t have money to have medicine, he wants to send his children to school but can’t bear educational expenditures.
We also need to focus on the nexus of poverty and human well being. As a health professional I am keen to look at the vicious cycle of poverty and ill-health which one would argue should necessitate health services to be addressed to the poor and needy. However, even a cursory look into health care system indicates that only one third of all those who need or seek care utilise public health services. The remaining two-thirds end up seeking care from private sector by paying from their own pocket.
Ayyaz Kiani is a public health specialist. He heads Devnet – a network of development consultants. Based in Islamabad, he has travelled around the world and continues to do so to meet fellow travelers.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.