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Redefining poverty alleviation goals

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Poverty alleviation and development programmes are ‘faulty, inefficient, old fashioned’ and devoid of accountability, writes Amir Hussain in his latest column in The News. He advocates a complete reconstitution, institutional restructuring making them accountable.

 

‘There is hardly any reason to deny that poverty alleviation programmes in Pakistan need a complete reconstitution, institutional restructuring, and most of all making them accountable for their mandate.

‘There is an increasing indifference and insulation to new ideas within these institutions and transparency of their conduct is even more questionable. What impact do they generate commensurable to resources they were endowed with for decades now? Under the RTI Act, it becomes the right of taxpaying citizens to access all information about the inductions of staff, allocation of resources, comparative perks and privileges as well as income disparities within these organizations.’

These views were expressed by a group of development professionals who themselves served poverty alleviation programmes during the last decade but were separated from their organization for whistleblowing against what they termed as “discretionary decisions to compromise transparency and merit”. “Whistleblowing is generally considered as an undesirable act within these institutions where people rather than systems dictate the organizational policies”, they added.

When these professionals narrated their story, I promised to write a series of articles on these important dimensions of public interest after investigating these issues further for the sake of objectivity and facts. This is not the first time that a group of development professionals came to me suggesting I highlight the challenges of the development sector in the country. Some of them have been reading my articles on this subject and they want me to write on real-life experiences of development workers in Pakistan. There is a long-overdue debate about the transparency and accountability of the leading poverty alleviation programmes in the country.

While state institutions are fighting the pandemic, where are those claimants of poverty alleviation and social transformation when they are needed the most?

Some development workers have opted for legal battles to seek justice, and there are many others whose voices were trampled. Some of them are of the opinion that these organizations which were primarily established to empower the poor to raise their voice are now trampling the voices of their own workers. It is not true in all the cases though as some development organizations are doing an excellent job to empower the poor, women in particular. But then there are some apex institutions which are now suffering visible decay with some people drawing millions as monthly salaries in this impoverished country. Some of these whistleblowers ask if the salaries are commensurable with the value addition these development bosses make in terms of alleviating poverty.

This question needs to be assessed critically in a time when the country is fighting a war of survival in the face of Covid-19. Faulty, inefficient, old fashioned, or whatever term you may use – state institutions and the administration are out to fight the pandemic. Where are those claimants of poverty alleviation and social transformation when they are needed the most? It is an obvious question many people ask today despite some heroics by relatively small organizations to complement provincial governments in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

These are really hard times for us as a nation and we expect more from those who have the resources to contribute. One development expert says that the ivory tower bosses of poverty alleviation institutions need to come down to face the ground realities and help the poor meaningfully. In the time of crisis, it is always good to rethink or revisit conventional strategies and more so in case of poverty alleviation institutions.

Rethinking the methodological and theoretical assumptions, upon which the functions of the institutions are predicated, must be the primary objective of the reconstitution of the institutions of poverty alleviation. The inability of current institutional models to deliver and persistent development failures in responding to evolving challenges of poverty are the key factors for re-thinking the structural changes. This requires an improved public accountability mechanism in that the concept of the poor as citizens (citizens as right-holders and duty-bearers) is central to the notion of socio-economic transformation.

It becomes most important for transformative action that our perspective of the poor is not about a group of aid recipients but as citizens of the state with rights and responsibilities. Poverty alleviation institutions must offer context-specific solutions to development issues through research, knowledge production, and capacity building of the employees and partner organizations.

The burgeoning socioeconomic challenges for the poor in the post-pandemic world can be overcome by protecting key sectors like agriculture and small industries rather than doling out cash only. If food supplies and commodity production is stopped, cash will be of no value at all. The money apportioned for poverty alleviation programmes can be utilized to boost purchasing power which must go side by side with agriculture production and reactivation of small industries.

The cash grant of Rs12,000 for three months will not suffice to address the plight of the poor. The government must adopt the principle of a basic universal income for one year at least. With requisite resources, facilities, and universal income support the development agencies can then play a vital role in devising context-specific strategies for development that are organically linked with the local sub-economies.

It would also be important to work around crowdsourcing of peace funds with the idea of shared responsibility of various stakeholders across conflict-hit areas. This will entail some kind of prevention programming support and capacity building of local organizations and community-based institutions. This must be an ongoing effort, whereby periodic assessments and evaluation of programmes will help build strategic and technical support for making informed decisions to prioritize local development needs in meaningful ways. The mainstreaming of social cohesion, prevention, and conflict sensitivity in development planning processes cannot be achieved without networking, local partnerships, and engagement with key players and sensitizing them.

Social cohesion and geographical integrations in Pakistan has also been the key concern of inclusive development amidst widening religious and ethnic divisions as well as economic disparities. These can be addressed through strategic engagements with major drivers of social and political order and by contextualizing the development strategy with the broad-based objective of building resilient and inclusive societies. Part of this strategy must contribute towards building an inclusive, peaceful, and pluralistic society with the centrality of dialogue as a means of attaining social cohesion.

Strategic engagements can fully be utilized to cement concrete cross-sectoral relationships with programmatic integration, resource-sharing, and finding common goals and translating them into working partnerships with various national and international organizations. While SDGs provide the overarching framework in the identification of areas of programmatic engagement, it is important to link them with various local initiatives to find a real alignment of goals for a durable and win-win context-specific poverty alleviation strategy.

In some of the forthcoming articles, I will be specific with concrete examples of poverty alleviation institutions to suggest the policy framework for their reconstitution and reforms.

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