SAARC and the task of tackling poverty in south Asia
Poverty alleviation is basically a political decision, because economic support for such an effort can surely be found if the Government has the will to confront the issue head-on. There could not have been a more appropriate time for the South Asian countries to think of tackling the problem of poverty. At a time when most of them are in the process of implementing a World Bank-IMF monitored “Structural Adjustment” programme there could be, at least in the short term, a widening of the gap between the rich and the poor.
The Heads of States/Governments of the SAARC countries, meeting in Male in 1990, mooted the idea of a regional approach to poverty alleviation. In 1991, the SAARC leaders, meeting in Colombo, gave this proposal a concrete shape and appointed an in dependent South Asian Commission on Poverty Alleviation.
Though Sri Lanka opened up its economy even in 1978, there were no concrete support mechanisms that could cushion the poor to face the impact of a liberalised, market economy. And this, his torians say, could well have caused a social ferment leading to the rise of militancy and insurgency in the Eighties.
The silver lining for South Asia appears to be the fact that despite the individual problems of some of the countries, the region as a whole has maintained an average annual growth rate of over three per cent. And this augurs well for a sustained programme of poverty alleviation.
Significantly, the SAARC decided on a politico-economic Commission to assess the poverty situation in the region. Each country appointed two members to the Commission and the former Nepalese Prime Minister, Mr. Krishan Prasad Bhattarai, was chosen to head it.
Tackling poverty was considered basically a political decision, because economic support for such an effort could surely be found if the Government had the political will to confront the issue head-on.
Sri Lanka, as head of the region for the year, became the host for the Commission’s secretariat, and Dr. Ponna Wignaraja, Adviser to the United Nations University on South Asian Perspectives, was chosen the Vice-Chairman and Coordinator. It brought together not only officials and experts in economics from the member-countries, but also eminent individuals who had been in charge of implementing more successful rural development and poverty alleviation projects in the region.
Two of its members are recipients of the Magsaysay award— Mr. Fazle Hasan Abed, Chairman, Bangladesh Rural Advance Committee(BRAC) and Mr. Shoib Sultan Khan, General Manger, Aga Khan Rural Support programme in Pakistan.
The Commission held its first meeting from March 31 to April n Colombo, and met subsequently in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and in again Sri Lanka, to wine up its work in seven months. The final report was presented to tile SAARC Chairman and Sri Lankan president, Mr. Ranesinghe Premadasa, on November 20. It will be taken up for considerations are possible adoption at the Dhaka summit next month.
The Commission’s terms of reference included a scanning of the positive and negative experiences of the poverty alleviation programmes implemented in the region, and a diagnosis of what went wrong with them. Based on this study, it was expected to outline a “coherent overall strategy” of poverty alleviation for South Asia, drawing lessons from the successful and sustainable experiences on the ground. The key components of such a strategy were also laid down—minimum nutritional entitlement, primary education for all children in the 6 to 14 age group by 2,000 A.D., and shelter for the poor. To this, the Commission included the right to food and work, be-sides health care delivery, as vital “entry points” for such a strategy.
At the end of its study and analysis, the Commission came out with a categorical conclusion—that all South-Asian countries should adopt a two-legged planning strategy—to take care of the conventional planning for growth and industrialisation, and to adopt a conscious, national pro-poor strategy, that could fashion human – development and growth along with equity and social justice.
The Commission noted that the poverty alleviation leg could not be based any longer on just “giving a little .charity to the poor, or delivering some fragmented inputs to them through the already overloaded Government bureaucracies, or a fragile voluntary organisation”. This should recognise that the poor themselves could contribute to growth, and the State should only support “sensitively’ to mobilise them and tap their “strength and creativity”.
Analysing the experiences of the past, the Commission expressed the view that “poverty alleviation was not at the core of any strategic option.” It was “growth oriented” and the poor had to wait for the “trickle down” effect.
First came the modernisation phase in the region, which neglected agriculture, the main base of the population. Then came the agricultural or Green Revolution, but this tended to focus 0, the green belts and the rich farmers. Other “targeted” programmes were “fragmented” and centrally planned. Thin resources were spread too thinly. The latest phase of the “open economy” in a situation of endemic poverty could only “further sharpen the contradictions and throw the burden of adjustment on the poor. What was required was to provide the poor with an opportunity to contribute to growth, and keep a greater part of the surplus generated in their own hands.
There are three main messages from the Commission
(1) About 30 to 40 per cent of the 1.1 billion people in South Asia live below the poverty line. And this number is bound to go up in the next 10 years, in the face of growing unemployment and widening income disparities. The structural readjustment process is also expected to swell their numbers unless concrete, pragmatic steps are taken immediately to protect them from the effects of the process. Mere fire-fighting will not do.
(2) On a critical assessment of the development over the past 40 years, the Commission has found not only the “glaring inadequacies” but also some positive features—such as a 3.1 per cent average growth rate for the region, when compared to a negative growth in Latin America or Africa; some impact of the intensive agricultural revolution, and a social services programme.
(3) But the Commission wants the Governments in future to look at the poor differently, in their cultural milieu. Social mobilisation is the need of the hour, but the ultimate success of any programme lies in the participation of the poor, who need only to be organised, enabled and assisted with a suitable support mechanism.
The Commission has not prescribed any common formula for uniform adoption by all the countries.
Some of the success stories examined are the Gramin Bank of Bangladesh and the Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia’s ‘Daal Bhaat’ programme; the Literacy Mission, SEWA, the Working
Women’s Forum in India, Janasaviya in Sri Lanka, Atoll in the Maldives, the small farmers project in Nepal, the health programme in Bhutan, and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, which Fillakistan has decided to apply to the whole country.
Discussing the basic elements of the recommended strategy, Dr’ row Wignaraja, Vice-Chairman of the Commission, said an expansion of the food security programme, decentralisation along with devolution, a focus on labour-intensive small-scale industries rural areas, and a massive social mobilisation programme, were the essence of it. The Government, he noted, would still have to play the lead role. But the objective should be to enable and empower the poor to their legitimate role. “Instead of isolating them from the play growth process or tranquilising them, it is time to involve them and make them participate in their own growth.
There appears to be global concern, Dr. Wignaraja says, for Poverty alleviation. From the UN Security Council and the UNCTAD, to the regional groupings like the NAM and the G-15, there have been initiatives and commitments on this front. South Asia has once again taken the lead role in coming out with a concrete report by an independent Commission. It is perhaps time for us to demonstrate that we can tackle this problem ourselves, with a little help and understanding. We cannot be shown the North Korean example anymore,” he argues.