Take a map of Southasia, remove the national frontiers and instead superimpose the Subcontinent’s poverty index by districts, states and provinces. What you see emerge are hotspots of deprivation and destitution that are transboundary in nature and that leave no country shining brightly in its totality. The region’s persistent and widespread poverty is a serious indictment of the inability of successive national governments to address the crisis; they make a mockery of their international commitments. Southasian governments as a whole are given to megalomania, wasteful spending on the military, and lavish expenditures on showcase projects, all while their citizens remain mired in misery.
National security for each of the Southasian countries should be less about military preparedness and more about addressing the destabilising aftereffects of having more than half of their populations living in extreme poverty. Defence should now be redefined as defending the citizens from hunger, disease and deprivation – not against a rebel group or neighbouring country.
In 2000, world leaders, including those from Southasian countries, met at the UN headquarters in New York for a ‘Millennium Summit’, where they committed themselves to eight targets to be met by 2015. While burdened by an unwieldy acronym (MDG – the Millennium Development Goals), the programme commits to eradicating extreme poverty; halving hunger; ensuring that all children go to primary school; promoting equality between women and men; reducing child mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-fourths; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB; and making sure that economic progress does not harm the environment.
The MDG exercise is said to be unique because the goals are supposed to be measurable, time-bound and easy to track and monitor. But the flaw in the process is that there are no penalties for governments and regimes that do not meet them. The only deterrent to failure is that a country’s name would be stuck at the bottom of a list for not meeting the goals. As 2015 draws closer, those countries getting failing marks would then be spotlighted in the international arena.
With five years down and with only a decade to go before the deadline, Southasia appears to be way behind, and with little energy to play catch-up. The majority of countries are far behind target in most of the eight goals. Even the individual countries that have acceptable national averages have a dirty secret: regions within the countries lag far behind on the MDG register.
In India, for instance, the poverty and health figures for Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan are a disgrace. But within those states, there are districts where education and health statistics are significantly below even the poor state-wide averages. Two of these states are contiguous with districts in Nepal’s central and Midwest tarai region, which are also both lagging. Nepal has shown progress in reducing child mortality and providing safe drinking water in some pockets, but even on national averages it is off-track on most targets; the dislocations brought on by the Maoist insurgency is certainly not helping to improve matters. Indeed, if Southasia is at the bottom of the global heap, Nepal is at the bottom of Southasia. Bangladesh is making strides at the national level, but 88 percent of children in Sylhet District are stunted because – quite simply – they get too little to eat. In Khulna, that figure is just over half. Pakistan is off-track on many MDGs, and its northwestern regions are not at all likely to meet targets on reducing child mortality or promoting gender equality.
The Asia-Pacific MDG progress report is optimistically titled, “A Future Within Reach”. While releasing the report in Manila in September, Haruhiko Kuroda, president of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said: “Not all parts of the [Asia-Pacific] region, and certainly far from all the region’s poor, are feeling the benefits of our region’s accomplishments.” Given the deep disparities both between and within the region’s countries, that sounds like an understatement. The economic gap between Singapore, Taiwan and Korea, measured against Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal, is as stark as the inequality between Africa and Europe. There are also wide gaps within Asian countries: not everyone, for example, has benefited from the breakneck growth in China and India. The fact that more and more people are being left further behind is creating social stress that threatens to escalate into political disorder.
The ADB prepared “Future Within Reach” in collaboration with the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and presented it at a summit of world leaders in September in New York. The report notes that despite the slow response of the laggard countries thus far, the MDG goals can still be attained. But for this, the Asia-Pacific countries must strengthen governance and improve delivery of development service on a war-footing. A region known for the miracle of its economic tigers currently has 680 million people living in absolute poverty. This rankles ESCAP’s executive secretary, Kim Hak-Su, who says that Asian poverty is always overshadowed by Africa’s need. “Asian voices are just not heard. There are more absolute poor people in the Asia-Pacific than anywhere else, yet the perception that Asians are doing all right is difficult to break,” Kim said. What he did not mention was that the bulk of these “absolute poor people” are inhabitants of Asia’s Subcontinent.
But even though outside resources may be needed to address poverty, especially in Southasia, nations in the region first need to realise just how far behind they really are. Then they need to put more effort into improving the efficiency of government health and education services. The naming and shaming that goes with the MDG goals may provide just the kind of impetus needed for countries that continue to lag behind. “How well we do in Asia will determine how well we do in the world,” says Geert van der Linden, ADB’s vice-president. “And how well China and India do will determine how well Asia does.”
Indeed, Asia’s overall averages have been brought down by the weak performance of India on criteria like hunger and poverty. The proportion of Indians getting less than their daily energy requirements did decrease from 25 to 21 percent between 1991 and 2001. However, the report notes, because of the increase in population, the absolute number of hungry people rose from 217 million to 222 million during the same period.
The Asian development gap has also opened up the debate on how to get on a fast-track to equitable development: whether to follow the Chinese or Indian model. At present, it looks like neither model works particularly well. China’s post-socialist but still-centralised command economy has left many behind, even as it races ahead. Meanwhile, India’s open society and liberalising free market is also not lifting the neediest out of poverty fast enough. But as agencies like the ADB pin their hopes on economic growth, the blistering pace set by the national economies of China and India are seen as the only way to ensure large-scale human development. Beijing, however, has now officially stated that this is not enough, given that the Chinese hinterland continues to lag behind the booming eastern seaboard. Since August, even China’s tightly-controlled state media has been officially allowed to draw attention to this regional disparity. The trickledown has not materialised fast enough in India either, despite the roaring 8 percent-and-above growth rate.
So something is missing, and the report provides a hint about what it could be. “Countries will need to change how they do things,” it urges, “developing sufficient skills and capacity … and well functioning institutions to help accelerate progress towards delivering health, education and vital services to the poor.” Shorn of UN-ese, this means reinventing politically decentralised governance that is answerable and responsive to the needs of the poorest citizens, by efficiently managing service delivery. Compare Kerala and Bihar, and the two Indian states seem to exist on different planets. One has 96 percent literacy; the other has barely 40. One has less than 10 percent poverty; the other has more than 50. One only needs to compare the quality of governance in the two states to see why these statistics so starkly diverge.
The best example of the huge difference that political will can make is a comparison of Bangladesh and Pakistan. These two countries used to share the same human development indicators, when the two countries were still one. But in the past three decades, Bangladesh has surged ahead of Pakistan in female literacy, which is a litmus test of socio-economic advancement. In turn, this achievement has reduced fertility rates by half and brought down child mortality. In Pakistan, fertility rates are stuck at above 5.4 per family, while Bangladesh has achieved a low 3.2.
This extrapolation can be taken further, taking into account political systems, by comparing Sri Lanka with Malaysia. To start with, there is a large difference in per capita income between these two countries. One is a fully-functioning Westminster-style democracy despite a devastating civil war; in Malaysia, on the other hand, basic political freedoms have been sacrificed to ensure economic growth. But in terms of human development and social welfare, the two countries are nearly equal. The lesson seems to be that, where lifting the citizens’ standards of living uniformly is concerned, it matters less whether or not a country is ‘democratic’ or not; more important is how accountable the political leadership is and how seriously it links performance to legitimacy.
Poor but democratic countries like Bangladesh, Nepal or the Philippines are sometimes tempted by the ‘Mahathir model’. In fact, they have all tried dictatorships for decades, which have not worked either – strongmen simply plundered these countries. It is now more clearly understood that the antidote to malfunctioning democracy is to fix it, not to discard it. Bihar has had elections for decades, but they do not seem to have made a difference in lifting the Biharis out of poverty, because elected leaders were not accountable. Burma has been ruled by an iron-fisted junta and is almost as backward. The lesson: elections do not guarantee accountability, just like a dictatorship doesn’t guarantee development. The answer, then, is to have elections and insist on accountability.
After the restoration of democracy in 1990, Nepal’s political devolution and decentralised decision-making started to deliver development because elected local leaders were forced by voters to be more accountable. Unfortunately, those gains started to go awry again in the mid-1990s, as the Maoist insurgency mounted and confusion pursued the state. In the past three years, a retrogressive royal rightwing regime has promised to take the people on a nonexistent shortcut to development through an autocratic state structure.
Long road to 2015
Currently, four of the five Asia-Pacific countries with the worst records for malnutrition and poverty happen to be Southasian states. Although Cambodia rests at the bottom, Nepal is just above it, with 48.3 percent of its children stunted. Afghanistan is only slightly better at 48 percent, followed by Bangladesh and India with 47 percent. While there is every reason for Nepal and Afghanistan to feel remorseful, the fact is that in Bangladesh – and even more so in India – with their larger populations, the number of people suffering in poverty is so much greater.
The largest number of preventable child deaths takes place in India, with some 2.3 million dying in 2003. That is, 2.3 million young boys and girls, who did not need to die, died in India three years ago. In Pakistan, with its smaller population, that number was a grievous 500,000. At these levels, neither country is expected to meet their MDG targets by 2015. All this is nothing compared to Afghanistan, however, which has the region’s highest rate of child deaths – one out of every four Afghan children do not live to the age of five. In contrast, child mortality in Bangladesh and Bhutan are improving so fast that both countries will surpass their MDG targets for child survival.
Maternal mortality is the other indicator where both Afghanistan and Nepal have rates reminiscent of sub-Saharan Africa: 1900 and 740 mothers respectively die for every 100,000 live births.
It is the spread of HIV/AIDS that is most worrisome in India and Nepal: both countries are actually regressing on the related MDG targets. While Nepal is taking steps to spread awareness, with social mores providing more acceptability to outreach programmes, the problem is much larger and more multifaceted in India. The ADB/ESCAP report warns that India “has yet to tackle the pandemic with the appropriate urgency” and blames both NGOs and the government for not talking about sex and sexuality frankly.
The eighth MDG target concerns environmental protection. Thus far, two Southasian countries, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, have been positively cited for integrating national sustainable development strategies into their plans.
The Millennium Development targets have been criticised because the statistics that they rely on are unreliable or outdated, with some countries appearing to pad or fudge their figures. Because of obvious internal disparities, the national figures are never able to tell the whole country’s story. There are also discrepancies when comparing countries with significantly different starting points – where a country that has higher literacy levels, for example, appears to be progressing slower in meeting targets than one that started with lower initial rates.
Attempting to compensate for these shortcomings, “A Future Within Reach” formulates two categories: by cluster, and whether or not countries are meeting the goals. But whether by one criteria or another, there is no way Southasia can hide from the fact that it ranks as the poorest performing region in Asia. Six of its countries, including Afghanistan, are off-track on the most significant MDG targets. The report singles-out some countries for particular concern:
- Pakistan has the lowest primary enrolment rate and has been making no progress in gender parity.
- All Southasian countries (except Sri Lanka) have either under-5 or infant mortality rates that are worse than the Asian average.
- India needs to take HIV/AIDS much more seriously to avoid an Africa-type pandemic.
- In Nepal and the Maldives, women have shorter life-spans than men, indicating a severe gender imbalance in health care and social status.
All the of the region’s countries must wake up and do something about their poor MDG record – behind these numbers are the tragedies of hundreds of millions of children, women and men. Even if the ‘MDG’ acronym fails to rouse us to action, our imaginations should be able to compensate and force us into an understanding of how poor, unhealthy and hopeless the bulk of the Southasian population really is. If we even come close to grasping the magnitude of this tragedy, perhaps we will begin to do something about the poverty in our region.