Pakistan Region

South Asia needs a joint offensive against regional poverty

By Saddam Hussein

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister-in-waiting, after getting a majority in the July 25 elections, pronounced in his victory speech that his government will take the ownership of the poor. Moreover, Khan also said that the poor segment of the society will be the top priority on his policy radar.

He further stated that the incoming Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government wanted to learn from the Chinese experience, as how they brought 700 million people out of poverty and will send teams to Beijing in this regard. While commenting on Afghanistan, he said, “Afghanistan is a country that has suffered the most in the war on terror. Afghanistan’s people need peace. We want peace there. If there is peace in Afghanistan, there will be peace in Pakistan. We will make every effort to achieve peace there. We want to have open borders with Afghanistan one day”. Khan also look forward to have good relations with India. “We need to have trade ties, and the more we will trade, both countries will benefit”.

Is Imran Khan’s positive and solid standpoint towards the two neighboring countries a window of opportunity for Pakistan, Afghanistan and India to let go of the past and look forward towards a better future? Is the ambiance for cooperation in the making?

The deadly triangle of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India’s perpetuating tensions has always proved to be detrimental for the future of the region, especially in view of the fact that the biggest chunk of global population also lives in this region. Any positive attempt to normalise Pak-Afghan bilateral relations is clouded by Indian influence or a deadly terrorist attack in either of the two countries, disrupting the peace process. However, there is a renewed hope in Pak-Afghan relations recently.

This has become possible under the new framework of Afghanistan Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS).This bilateral agreement has been a result of the long awaited willingness from both sides to work together and seek solutions for critical issues faced by the two countries. APAPPS is an agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan on a broad-based, structured engagement on issues of mutual interest and both sides have decided to operationalise five working groups which include; political/diplomatic, military/intelligence, peace and solidarity, refugees, and a working group for economic issues. However, on the other hand, Pakistan’s wish for peace with India continues to be snubbed by the extremist Hindutva ideology that penetrates deep into the Indian establishment.

As a result, South Asia is one of the most volatile regions across the globe. While conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have attracted sufficient global attention, India, too, has had its fair share of long-running strings of conflicts, whether it is in Kashmir or the Khalistan movement, resulting in human misery, destruction of infrastructure, erosion of social cohesion, and loss of human lives. The knock-on effects are huge and poverty is a natural by-product of these circumstances, turning this conflict in to a vicious cycle that keeps on going.

While all states have conflicts; as it is inherent to politics, the divergence of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India in their interests takes significant resources and focus away from the real ills that lie within these nations.

Looking at the poverty statistics of India, the World Bank’s Poverty and Shared Prosperity report noted that, amongst the total poor population across the globe, every third person is an Indian. The point of concern here is that extreme poverty worldwide is taking a dip, despite the global economy’s under-performance. “India is by far the country with the largest number of people living under the international USD 1.90-a-day poverty line, more than 2.5 times as many as the 86 million in Nigeria, which has the second-largest population of the poor worldwide,” the report states. The actual number of Indians living below poverty line is reported to be 224 million, making it about 30 percent of the total Indian population.

The situation is quite dire in Pakistan as well. The Ministry of Planning Development and Reforms recently informed the Senate that about 29.5 per cent of the country’s population, encompassing about 55 million people, is living below the poverty line. The calculations are done by using the latest available estimates of Household Integrated Economic Survey data (HIES) 2013-14. The Cost of Basic Needs (CBN) method determines the poverty line by using minimum consumption bundle comprised of food and non-food essential consumables necessary to live. This poverty line translates into a monthly Rs. 3,030 per adult to cater to their basic needs.

The poverty rate in Afghanistan is currently at 39 percent. This implies that one third of the Afghan population is unable to satisfy their basic needs. According to the World Bank’s Poverty Status Update Report, since the beginning of the withdrawal of international forces in 2011 and of the political transition period, Afghanistan has suffered declining security and employment opportunities, despite economic growth at the aggregate level. One of the key reasons for the increased poverty rate is significant decline in labour market conditions, a setback that hurts rural and youth populations the most.

Pakistan has shown fine commitment in dealing with extremism, and in the backdrop of CPEC, it is also determined to use its strategic position positively to promote regional connectivity. Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi openly opposed CPEC, Pakistani and Chinese leadership is determined to engage all states within South Asia, including India, for the prosperity of the entire region.

Economic connectivity would undoubtedly help in reducing animosity among neighbouring states, which is Islamabad is actively encouraging their neighbours to invest in CPEC projects. Such investment will only help in enriching the significance of the project, helping with economic prosperity and in alleviating poverty. It is a catalytic project that will help the regional countries form a conglomerate for their geo-economic interests. The corridor also represents Pakistan and China’s commitment to fashion a win-win partnership that threatens no one, and benefits all. Consequently, CPEC would pay dividends for the entire region.

Thus, economic policies should be triggered not just to maximize economic growth, but also to address the distributional or political factors that led to the conflict. Policy choices must be structured to reduce real or perceived inequality. Cross-border cooperation between Pakistan, Afghanistan and India should be an integral part of any strategy to reduce conflict. Many of the internal conflicts in South Asia have cross-border dimensions. Going forward, regional cooperation initiatives, which have so far been underused, are likely to be important in countering terrorism. The trio should follow the global shift from geo-politics to geo-economics and fight together the common enemy of poverty.

In attaining such goals, Islamabad, Kabul and New Delhi should complement each other rather than negatively compete with each other. With that, it is also the time to realize that we live in a post-super power world, and it is not possible for any one country to rule the world or an entire region. The contemporary times call for cooperation and reaping the benefits that come from economic connectivity and integration. South Asia’s real competition should not be augmenting rivalries between its states, but against the mutual concern of growing poverty.

The writer is a Research Fellow/Program Officer at Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), Islamabad. He graduated from School of Public Policy, Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Islamabad. He tweets @saddampide

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