Pakistan is among the poorest nations in the world. However, it is also oxymoronically rich in natural resources: “the country has the second largest salt mine in the world, fifth largest gold mine, seventh largest copper mine, fifth largest coal reserves, seventh largest wheat and rice production capacity…” and the list goes on. But does it really matter when almost 40 percent of the people live in extreme poverty? The Human Development Index ranks Pakistan 147th out of 188 countries for 2016. According to several reports, there are a number of reasons why Pakistan is poor, even though it is rich in resources and has the potential to grow. Why is Pakistan poor? Discussed below are the three leading reasons.
Why is Pakistan Poor?
Corruption and Elitism in the Government
First is the fundamental flaw in Pakistan’s political system. Politics in Pakistan have always been dominated by the elites. These elites comprise politicians, generals and bureaucrats (the ruling oligarchy). Many politicians come from large land-owning families or very rich industrial backgrounds. They share key common interests and together look after each other, neglecting common people’s interests.
This scenario has become cyclical because most people vote according to what these elites deem convenient. This type of political culture may be changing with education and emerging democratic norms in the recent past, but it has affected the country for a long time.
The elites in Pakistan are also involved in corruption. The current Prime Minister stepped down in July 2017. He did so because the Supreme Court ordered his removal on accusations of corruption. Additionally, Transparency International ranks Pakistan as one of the worst countries for corruption.
Why is Pakistan poor? Corruption prevents any real change from occurring.
Lack of Democratic Ideals
Second is the absence of real democracy. Democracy remains an illusion for many due to “the lack of proper, meaningful and non-discriminatory representation for all regions in decision-making.” The absence of democracy and lack of political development in Pakistan are a consequence of direct and indirect military rule.
The military has dominated politics from the early years of the country’s independence because it was the most powerful and organized institution. Coupled with that, the military presented itself as Pakistan’s protector against India, which is considered an existential threat to Pakistan’s survival. One analyst writes, “It is little wonder, then, that Pakistan became a national security state during its early years, subordinating economic and democratic development to military improvement and tilting the balance of power away from civilian rule.”
Why is Pakistan poor? A lack of democracy in the nation prevents citizen-oriented development.
Both Religious and Secular Conflict
Furthermore, empowering Islam over secular ideals in a country which is much more diverse culturally by the military establishment, has not only created a fictitious national unity but stunted even further, the democratic and economic development.
The use of religious proxies against Bengalis dates back to 1971, then in Afghanistan against the Soviets during the 1980s. Additionally, their alleged involvement in Afghanistan for countering India in the past two decades, have brought home only conflict and violence.
In Pakistan’s context, violent conflicts and pervasive poverty are very much interlinked. Unfortunately, extreme poverty motivates the country’s disaffected youth to join forces with terrorist organizations which desire to establish the Sharia rule in Pakistan.
Why is Pakistan poor? Religious and secular violence plague the nation.
The desperate education crisis is another answer. As of 2015, Pakistan spends only 2.6 percent of total GDP on education, which is the lowest in South Asia. In 1997, it was 3 percent, the highest in the country’s history. As a consequence of this low expenditure overall, more than half of the country’s population is uneducated. And hundreds of thousands of poor children are out of school.
In contrast, the country spends the largest part of its national expenditures on defense. A May 2017 report shows that “Pakistan’s defense expenditure in the next financial year (2017-18) will be around 7 percent higher than it was in the outgoing year to Rs920.2 billion (USD$8.65 billion).” It was Rs841 billion (USD$7.9 billion) for the year 2016-2017.
Why is Pakistan poor? The nation invests more in present conflicts than development towards a better future.
However, there is pleasant news. Poverty in Pakistan has fallen from 54 percent to 39 percent in the past decade—a 15 percent drop. The deaths from terrorist incidents have also declined recently. Today, 47 percent of Pakistani households own a washing machine; in 1991, only 13 percent owned one. Nonetheless, there is more work to be done to improve the lives of people in the context of global development.
– Aslam Kakar
The people of Pakistan have, among other issues, suffered from a prolonged military rule and lack of democratization. The military’s historical focus on India as Pakistan’s arch-rival has diverted most of the country’s national expenditures toward defense, leaving behind education and economic development for decades. The military has ruled over the country for more than 33 years, which makes almost half of its lifespan.
Moreover, over the years, the military empowered religion as the guiding pillar of national unity. This has undermined secular ideals and the sociocultural diversity of Pakistani society. The same institutions also created religious proxies to counter the legitimate, but exaggerated, Indian threat to Pakistan. The history of using such proxies dates back to the conflict against the present day Bangladesh in 1971 and the Russian-Afghan War in the 1980s.
One way the U.S. can help people in Pakistan is to support democratization and development, because they are essential to improve the lives of people in the long run. While the U.S. has given economic aid for such development, however, historically it has put its weight behind generals in power by giving more military than economic aid to Pakistan.
The U.S. has, since 1982, provided $17 billion in military assistance compared to $13.5 billion in economic assistance mostly during military operations in Afghanistan that started in the late 1970s. Some analysts believe that such support to military rulers has derailed democracy and hindered development in Pakistan.
While Pakistan has, since 2008, entered into a new democratic phase of its history after the 1990s, the military still controls important policy domains such as national security and foreign policy. One reason could be the increased military assistance in the 2000s.
The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009 aka the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act was a welcome step and a major shift in U.S. foreign aid to help people in Pakistan. The Act authorized $7.5 billion in non-military aid over five years for “democratic governance, economic freedom, investments in people, particularly women and children, and development in regions affected by conflict and displacement.” Nevertheless, it is still small compared to the overall direct assistance to the military.
There is a need for more civilian assistance in the future. The U.S. needs to further increase educational aid because Pakistanis highly value education, but unfortunately, there are meager learning opportunities in the country, especially among poor communities in rural areas. The good news is that Pakistan is among the highest recipients of educational exchange programs like the Fulbright program, the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program, etc. Maintaining and possibly increasing such opportunities will further help the people of Pakistan and strengthen the long-term engagement between the two countries.