State priorities demanded for social protection of poor

KARACHI: Economists, academia and researchers, while discussing social protection priorities in the budget for the next year have asked the government to ensure implementation of the social justice in its economic policies.

They were speaking at a seminar on ‘Social Protection as a Citizenship Right’ organized by Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) at a local hotel on Wednesday.

The seminar aimed to discuss the economic vision of the state expressed in the recent budget by the Government of Pakistan. The speakers highlighted the missing links of social protection, equitable distribution of resources, ecological considerations, and most importantly access to rights enshrined in the constitution.

Senior Economist and Head, Chief Minister’s Policy Reform Unit, Balochistan Dr. Kaiser Bengali said he has many times dealt with annual budget of the government but has observed that it is meaningless to say that the government has a priority to reduce poverty in Pakistan. The reason, he mentioned was that no government is serious to deal with the poverty and ensures social protection to the poor.

Sharing observations, Dr. Bengali said the low-income people may feel easy if they get financial support to meet their needs. The social security is an instrument of the poverty alleviation but not a tool to eradicate it. Giving examples, he said it could be the responsibility of the state to help the elderly people, who neither feel able to work due to deteriorating health nor enjoy the support of successors.

Similarly, those families, which suffer economic problems due to a terminal illness of a family member, need support from the government. He said he had conducted a research of families whose one member was terminally ill because of cancer or kidney failure and such families sold their all assets including shelters, car and at last plunged into below the poverty line and at the time death of that person, the other family members were fighting the war for survival.

He said transport problem is the main contributor of poverty in Pakistan. The working class people, especially in urban areas face hardships due to ineffective transport problem. He gave examples of a security guards in his previous office, who was being paid low salary but he was spending more share of his income and time on the transport to reach the workplace and return home. It shows how the state is incapable to improve the transport facilities for poor and middle class, he remarked.

In this situation, Dr. Bengali said, women suffer more due to lack of transport difficulties. It seems these issues are not on the government’s priorities and it never takes the issues of poor in its budgets and policies.

He said it seems education, health and employment are not the responsibility of the government. Those can afford the huge costs to get better education through private institution can be able get education, while others are deprived. Those who can get better education are received better jobs, but rest remain poor because of indifferent approach of the state to majority of population.

Dr Assad Saeed, another senior economist and head of Collective of Social Science Research spoke about the welfare state and the facilities it can assure to its citizens. He said it is the state’s responsibility to take care of the citizens from cradle to grave. They should take care of mothers for their treatment and health and then ensure care of the children.

He said the states takes care of school children and provide food to maintain their nutritional level, which also come under the social protection. If the state does not change its system then there is targeted social protection to provide benefit to the people, who live below poverty line. It can be area specific or a community specific to reduce their problems.

In this regard, he said there is another way of self targeting of social protection, like helping the internally displaced people (IDPs) and flood victims. He gave examples of PPP-led previous government, which introduced employment programme in the party’s election manifesto but it could not implement it during its government. Instead it introduced Benazir Income Support Programme for cash transfer to alleviate poverty, but we can see it is not doing much to alleviate the situation.

Adriana Conconi, Research Officer, Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, team member “Multidimensional Poverty Index for Pakistan 2014” by OPHI in her presentation via Skype on defined the poor and MPI, saying 44.2 percent population in Pakistan are poor. Similarly, she also depicted the situation related to poverty in other South Asia countries. She said MPI covers poor health, education and food availability.

Dr. Aly Ercelan, activist and academic discussed the social protection, linking it to economy and ecology, specifically portrayed the situation of the fishermen, who are deriving their livelihoods from rivers, seas and wetlands. He said “when we discuss marine ecology, mangroves play important role in maintaining the ecosystems. Therefore, if we want to take care of our children we have to conserve food resources and fisheries is the main sector contributing more in shape of nutrition.”

He said we have shortage of food resources and it is the responsibility of the government to promote food production resources. UN is observing this year as family farming to get food security and maintain ecology. He also linked the quality of products like vegetables and fruits, which are produced through pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Francine Mestrum, Researcher; Lecturer at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium; Member International Council of the World Social Forum; Coordinator Global Social Justice  also spoke via Skype on the social protection system in Europe.

Zeenia Shaukat of PILER, who conducted the seminar, shared the objectives of the seminar and briefed about the Budget 2014-15 and its gaps in terms of poverty reduction and social protection. She said there is a need to understand the state character and dealing with social sector. She also shared the status of multinational poverty index, a new term being used in social protection policies.

She took up the question what the government is doing or planning about the marginalised population. Food security being a major factor suggests 50 percent population out of total 80 million has been malnourished due to food unavailability.

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