Vol.1 Why Should the World Worry About Poverty?—The Case of South Asia (I)

Consulting Fellow (Until November 30, 2008)

One of the few things the world leaders seem to agree on unanimously nowadays is to reduce poverty. In September 2000, the 191 member states of the United Nations adopted a UN General Assembly resolution called the "UN Millennium Declaration." (www.un.org/millenniumgoals/) With this resolution, all member states committed to a set of socioeconomic development targets with deadlines, commonly called the "Millennium Development Goals." At the top of the list is a concrete goal on poverty reduction: "to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world's people whose income is less than one dollar a day."

Japan is a signatory to this global resolution. And the nation provides a sizable amount official development aid. Yet, Japan's general public appears mostly unaware of the Millennium Development Goals. And, with a weak economy at home, even the public support for ODA has been waning. Regardless of individual views about ODA, it is about time the Japanese people develop a collective and strategic understanding of why we should be worried about poverty elsewhere in the world.

The Asia we don't think about

Sub-Sahara Africa dominates the world's policy debates on development, as well as various antipoverty campaigns. This is a Euro-American centric trend that reflects their political and business interests. What is too often overlooked is the fact that the world's poverty is mostly in Asia, right next door.

In envisioning the future of the world, say, about 50 years from now, the globe turns to Asia as the center of the Earth's economic gravity. This future would show an "Asia" that spans the northern and the southern hemispheres like a sliced apple--from China and Japan in the north, all the way to "Down Under," i.e., Australia and New Zealand, through countries of Southeast and South Asia. Pumping this Asia's economic dynamism would be the world's two most populous nations--India with the largest population by then, followed by China.

This is not the Asia commonly thought of by the Japanese public, politicians and business leaders alike. South Asia has been a particular blind spot, attracting the least Japanese interest. But, it is in South Asia where the world's poverty is concentrated: roughly half of the world's poor people call South Asia their home--500 million living on less than $1 per day.

To be sure, the plight of Africa's poor is not to be devalued. But, its dominance on the global poverty agenda needs to be balanced. Japan has to begin thinking more seriously about poverty reduction in Asia. And, it is necessary to do so for South Asia.

A few words about South Asia

South Asia is most commonly known as the abode of ancient civilizations along the Indus and Ganges rivers, and as the birthplace of some of the world's great religions including Buddhism. Today, South Asia is home to about 1.5 billion people, and the region's economies are some of the fastest growing ones in the world.

"South Asia" usually refers to seven countries that make up the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation, commonly referred to as SAARC. Established in 1985, it has to date been quite active in regional technical cooperation, including preparations for a free trade agreement. The recent thawing of India-Pakistan relations has also injected energy into SAARC's political impetus.

Four of the South Asian nations, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, were once part of British India. They share the legacy of the British civil service, legal philosophy/codes and commercial institutions, as well as an enormous pride in having won independence through years of struggle for self-determination. The remaining three, Bhutan, Maldives, and Nepal, have never been colonised throughout their modern history. They share an equally strong pride in having held various foreign powers at bay by the courage and ingenuity of the people and their leaders, aided in part by their respective geographic advantage.

As such, perhaps the most striking, and the least known, character of the South Asian peoples is their spirit of fierce independence and self-reliance. Another equally unknown characteristic of these peoples is their enormous ethnic diversity--straddling Europe, Middle East and East Asia, and having hosted the ancient trade routes overland (the Silk Road) as well as by sea.

The worry is not just in the number

Of that half of the world's poor in South Asia, the lion's share is in the region's three most populous nations: Bangladesh (2005 population, 153 million), India (1.1 billion) and Pakistan (161 million). But, it is not the sheer magnitude of poverty per se that makes it a strategic agenda for Japan and her citizens.

In much of South Asia, perhaps more than anywhere else, poverty has been synonymous with countless generations of repression. (Bhutan and possibly Maldives are the two exceptions to this and what follows in the remainder of this note.) In part, the repression has been social, such as discrimination based on caste, race, and religion. The repression has also been severe against women; with its various intergenerational implications that affect the health and well-being of family life and children. The repression has also been political in nature, due in part to the landlord-dominated political landscape, or a corrupt civil service and equally corrupt elections.

Either social or political, it is bad governance of all sorts and associated abuse of power that is--and is perceived by the poor to be--the ultimate cause of poverty.

The reality of bad governance

There are two particular manifestations of bad governance that must be highlighted: public health and education systems that enrich those with power instead of delivering services to the poor. Governance issues in these systems prey on the worst fear and the only hope of the poor people, making poverty a "strategic risk" for a number of South Asian countries.

Their worst fear... A poor adult woman or man lives with one overriding sense of insecurity--the fear of becoming ill and unable to earn even a meager living. Whether in their daily farming work or the time spent (six to eight hours per day on average) collecting water, fuel and animal fodder, these people cannot afford to fall sick. For a breadwinner of a poor family, illness simply means falling below the level of basic human dignity, from a life of poverty to a life condemned to destitution.

Bonded labor (i.e., modern-day slavery) for defaulting on debt; selling organs (kidneys and eyes) through clandestine operations; selling children to human traffickers for prostitution, beggary, and crime; and even starvation are part of the reality that is just one mishap away. Yet, in a number of South Asian countries, the public health system tends to enrich the powerful be they bureaucrats, politicians, or even nurses and doctors, rather than caring for the poor. Faces of such bad governance include the following atrocities:

  • Corruption (kickbacks and graft) in public tenders and construction of hospitals and clinics;
  • Corruption in public procurement of medical equipment, vehicles, medicines and other general medical supplies;
  • Misuse of public medical infrastructure for personal use (e.g., rural clinics used for grain storage);
  • Embezzlement and sale of publicly procured medication;
  • Illegal sales, including exports, of human organs;
  • "Ghost doctors" (medical practitioners on the public payroll, but in private practice elsewhere and not reporting to work); and
  • Absenteeism (medical practitioners bribing politicians to obtain transfers from rural to urban facilities).

And, their hope denied...The hopes and aspirations of poor people are no different from the better off. In particular, every poor adult person endures hardship for one ardent hope--to educate her/his children, so that they do not have to suffer like their parents.

Yet, in a number of South Asian countries, the public education system has also tended to enrich the powerful rather than helping the poor see their one and only hope. Examples of bad governance in public education include the following:

  • Corruption (kickbacks and graft) in public tenders and construction of schools;
  • Corruption in public procurement of textbooks, furniture, school meals and other educational supplies;
  • Misuse of public schools for personal use (e.g., use of primary school buildings as residences or as headquarters for political activities);
  • Systemic bribes for textbook printing and distribution;
  • "Ghost teachers" (teachers on the public payroll but not in classroom--unqualified individuals who purchase teaching positions, usually for the purpose of receiving good pension benefits); and
  • Absenteeism (teachers bribing politicians to obtain transfers from rural to urban schools).

Frustration and anger... These are the representative faces of bad governance that affect the poor people directly. Access to a public health system that works would give the huge relief of basic human security. Free public education that satisfies parents as well as children of poor families would give a powerful pleasure of hope for a better future. Such a sense of security and hope gives the feeling of well-being in a life routinely deprived of such "luxuries," the enormity of which cannot easily be comprehended by those who have never tasted poverty.

That their security and hope are denied by such abuse of power--and often by those whose mandate is to represent their voice in political arena--is a fact widely known to the affected poor people of South Asia. In countries where bad governance in health and education is a problem, such abuses are not an occasional incident. The corruption has become systemic over the years. They affect millions of the poor people, which in turn raise the financial stakes involved in various corruption schemes. (In one country, every new education minister is known to "raise" the textbook price by an equivalent of about one yen, which is more than enough to recover his election campaign expenditure.) In some countries, they are systemic enough to finance political parties on a routine basis. At times, they even sustain criminal mafia.

As such, the psychological impact--frustration and anger--these governance problems impose on the poor people cannot be overstated. More so for the poor people of South Asia, who are fiercely independent and self-reliant.

"Development" outcomes have brought to the countries of South Asia an increasingly younger population (many without jobs), a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, and better access to information (via television and other communication tools), among others. Combined, these factors have tended to further fuel frustration and anger among the poor, who feel trapped, left behind, as if they were second-class citizens, and powerless to change the status quo.

It is such conditions, widespread and in existence over a number of generations, that become the ideal hotbeds for political and religious extremists. This is what makes poverty a "strategic risk"--a risk that could potentially destabilize a nation financially or politically. And, this is precisely why thoughtful political leaders in South Asia are already working strategically to reduce poverty, and why the world should be worried about poverty. Whether through a global terrorist network or migration of people seeking security and better living standards, the events of September 11 have taught the world that the security of any one nation cannot be isolated from the rest, and is in fact closely woven together with the fate of other nation-states.

The above article originally appeared in Columns: 0131 on June 14, 2005.

July 29, 2005

July 29, 2005

Article(s) by this author