The year is 2019. People have taken to the streets in their thousands in Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Lebanon, protesting issues such as extreme poverty, scrapping of fuel subsidies, and the rise of transport prices. Back home, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan releases a statement on Ehsaas, a poverty reduction program that lays out policy actions, to “reduce inequality, invest in people, and uplift lagging districts”. South Korea’s searing social satire on inequality, Parasite, is released and becomes part of the global zeitgeist. In his annual Goal Keepers Report, Bill Gates talks about how inequality “separates the lucky from the unlucky”. To close out the year, UNDP publishes the Human Development Report outlining inequalities in human development in the 21st century. 

A year later, inequality is still on everyone’s minds.

The Pakistan National Human Development Report (NHDR) on Inequality, set to be released this year, recognizes the need for a nuanced discussion of inequality in the country. Authored by former Finance Minister and former UN Assistant Secretary General Dr. Hafiz Pasha, the report looks at the political economy of inequality in the country from a multi-dimensional perspective. Ultimately, it aims to highlight the gap between Pakistan’s richest and poorest, who may as well be living in entirely different countries.

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Work on the NHDR on inequality started in 2018, soon after the release of the NHDR on Youth. The process began with an analysis of the current literature on the issue in Pakistan and beyond. Gaps were identified, and innovations implemented to account for these gaps. As an example, children are hugely affected by inequality, but little research has been done to explore inequality from their perspective. This led to NHDR’s creation of Pakistan’s first Child Development Index, with the recognition that alleviating inequality in children can be more resource-effective than attempts to redress the imbalance later on in life. In a similar vein, the conventional measures of inequality - the PALMA ratio and the Gini coefficient - were seen to ignore developments in the middle classes. This is why a new inequality measure - the Pashum Index - was created, with the aim of adding more depth to analyses of inequality in the country.

After this, secondary research was undertaken, with the team poring through dozens of national data sets relating to income, health, education, and more. Inequality indices on gender, labour, youth, and child development were created, and the research drilled down from the national level to provincial and even district levels. With this, the theme of the 3 key drivers of inequality, called the 3 Ps, began to emerge:

  • Power:  This relates to groups that exploit loopholes, networks, and policies for their benefit.
  • People: This refers to the deeply embedded belief systems that encourage bias against marginalised groups.
  • Policy: This speaks to the political systems and laws that are either ineffective, or at odds with the principles of social justice.

The report therefore pays specific attention to the way this nexus of power, people, and policy combines to shape inequality in Pakistan. This creates a vicious cycle, with inequality in one area informing inequalities in another.

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Historically, discourse on inequality in Pakistan has been dominated by discussions of income and wealth. The Pakistan NHDR wanted to do more by examining in detail how inequality of opportunity affects people in the country. To this end, focus groups were conducted all over the country, with especially vulnerable communities such as the transgender population, women living in poverty, religious and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, refugees, domestic workers, displaced persons, and a lot more. 

The stories we heard were crucial to informing our perspectives on inequality. We spoke with coal loaders in Quetta, Balochistan, who work 14 hours a day in extremely poor conditions, owing to shrinking employment prospects in agriculture and livestock rearing. This was the result of droughts, poor water management in the region, and the creeping effects of climate change. When diesel prices rise, these coal loaders begin burning scrap tires to make Tire-Derived Fuel (TDF). This obviously has a detrimental effect on the environment, and leads to respiratory problems for these workers. We realized that their inability to demand better working conditions was a huge marker of inequality. This inequality in many ways exacerbates other ills such as climate change, which again disproportionately affect the country’s most marginalized communities. The report therefore attempts to reflect this cyclical nature of inequality.

Similarly, persons with disabilities told us how crucial technology was in helping them study, earn a living, make friends, and even shop in a world that just does not seem to be physically accessible to them in other ways. This prompted the report’s analysis of technology as the great equalizer of our times, and a discussion of what Pakistan’s sprawling digital divide will cost us if we do not keep up with the modern age.

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All of this culminated in the Pakistan NHDR on Inequality, set to be released in 2020. Our goal is to infuse this deeply statistical perspective of inequality with human stories. This will allow us to not only create a robust reform agenda, but also to endorse a culture of empathy in dealing with Pakistan’s most vulnerable communities.

Author:

Momina Sohail works at UNDP as Communications Officer for the Pakistan National Human Development Report. She is a Commonwealth Scholar with a Master’s in Medical Anthropology from the University of Durham, UK. Momina is interested in ethnographically-grounded research, and the impact of opportunity and sensemaking on life outcomes.

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