March Issue 2016

By | Special Report | Published 8 years ago

“Women of Pakistan: Missed the MDGs, Must Achieve the SDGs.” That was the theme of the 2015 Uks diary — which sums it up succinctly. It was probably an optimistic, but possibly not an over hopeful view.

So what do these two mysterious acronyms stand for, anyway? Very few outside the ‘development-set wallahsand wallis’ would know, or even care to know. And therein lies the problem. There is a lack of broad-based interest in, and ownership of these goals in Pakistan, despite their impact on each one of us.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) could not be achieved in Pakistan between 2000 and 2015. Neither the military dictatorship, nor the succeeding two democratic civilian dispensations demonstrated the vitally important political commitment or the requisite resources.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are just getting underway. What will be their fate? And what will they portend for the 48 per cent women of Pakistan?

How did Pakistan fare on MDG 3: “Promote Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment”? This goal focused on girls’ and women’s education, employment and political participation. A brief quote from Pakistan’s 2013 report on the MDGs to the UN is starkly illuminating: “With progress on all four indicators of this goal off-track, Pakistan is unlikely to meet MDG 3.” As we have subsequently seen, it did not do so by 2015.

The eight MDGs included targets pertaining to poverty, hunger, education, women’s empowerment, child mortality, maternal health, HIV/AIDS, malaria, environmental sustainability, and developing a global partnership for development.

Having learned valuable lessons from the experiences of the MDGs, the UN system, working with the global development community, has conceptualised and developed a broader, more nuanced, and more thoughtful set of goals, objectives, targets and indicators for the SDGs.

Nevertheless, one important substantive goal has been omitted, although it is inherent in the process the UN system follows. The missing 18th goal of the SDGs is: “Ensure that national/country reports contain accurate, honest, verifiable data and information.”

As an illustration, the following paragraph is quoted from the 195-page report on the MDGs by the Government of Pakistan to the United Nations:

“MDG 1: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger: Pakistan aims to halve by 2015, the proportion of people living below the national poverty line, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, and halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. There has been a persistent downward trend in poverty incidence over the past decade — the percentage of population below the poverty line fell from 34.5 per cent in 2001-02 to 12.4 per cent in 2010-11 — and Pakistan is on track to achieve the MDG target with regard to poverty. Factors contributing to the drop include increased allocations to the poor under the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP); those contributing to poverty include natural and man-made disasters, despite slow economic growth, the global recession and higher food inflation. Pakistan’s unemployment to population ratio increased from 27.1 per cent in 2001-02 to 30.9 per cent in 2010-11, making the prospect of full employment by 2015 highly unlikely. Malnutrition, measured as prevalence of underweight children under five years of age, decreased slightly from 40 per cent in 1990-91 to 31.5 per cent in 2011-12, but is still far off the MDG target of less than 20 per cent. With two out of three targets off-track, the country is unlikely to achieve MDG 1,” according to the Pakistan MDGs Report 2013, GoP, Planning Commission.


In just this one paragraph, there are elements of truth, juxtaposed with blatant dishonesty, prevarication and contradiction.

For instance, the BISP never was conceptualised as, nor can it be truthfully described as, a “poverty reduction/alleviation measure.” It is a meagre unconditional cash transfer, as a basic safety net for women of the lowest income — or no income — stratum. Simply put, it is a minimum charity handout which, in fact, promotes dependency, but does not contribute to the attainment of MDG 1 targets and indicators.

Further, the data presented on poverty here continues, and even builds on the myth first propounded by the Musharraf-Shaukat Aziz government in 2005-06, which then chief economist Dr. Pervez Tahir disputed. He preferred to leave his post rather than have to affix his stamp of credibility to it.

Ever since then, the Finance Ministry has withheld the release of poverty data in successive editions of thePakistan Economic Survey, which is published annually just prior to the federal budget speech. So from where did the above data miraculously emerge in the 2013 report?

The government reports malnutrition as being “31.5% in 2011-12,” whereas the SDPI/UN-WFP/SDC study: ‘Food Security Analysis of Pakistan’ (2009) puts food insecurity, i.e. hunger or mal/under-nutrition, at 52 per cent which was further exacerbated after the catastrophic floods in 2010 and beyond.

So which account should we believe? Will the real picture of poverty in Pakistan please be permitted to stand up? What is the actual state of income inequality, the poverty headcount and hunger? Who and where are the most vulnerable and the poor?

This is vitally important now, at the start of the SDGs era. If we do not know, or are unwilling to acknowledge, our actual quantitative baseline in 2016, how will we be able to measure our successes, failures, and achievements at the end of the SDGs in 2030?

As stated in ‘Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development:’ “The [SDGs] Goals and Targets will be followed-up and reviewed using a set of global indicators. These will be complemented by indicators at the regional and national levels, which will be developed by member states, in addition to the outcomes of work undertaken for the development of the baselines for those targets where a national and global baseline data does not yet exist.”

In 2013, the incoming PML(N) government of Mian Nawaz Sharif appointed MNA Maryam Aurangzeb as the Convenor of the Parliamentary Task Group on the MDGs. Subsequently, she now heads the Parliamentary Task Force on the SDGs.

SDgs-584x287The selection and development of indicators for the SDGs is already underway in Pakistan, and with regard to engendering them, consultations have been held with the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), with the technical support of the UN Women (UNW) and Shirkat Gah in 2015.

It is vitally important not to confine gender equality and justice to just one goal of the 17 SDGs specifically reserved for women, i.e. Goal 5: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” That would become the equivalent of the ‘women’s compartment’ (zanana dabba) in some Pakistani trains or buses.

Long term and sustainable gender equality requires the integration and mainstreaming of girls’ and women’s concerns in each of the 17 SDGs. In Pakistan, post-18th Constitutional Amendment devolution, it also requires the robust participation and ownership of the provinces along with the federal government, as well as that of civil society and the women’s movement. The federal government bears the responsibility of ensuring this inclusive approach.

We know that poverty and hunger have a predominantly female face in Pakistan, with the alarming female/male ratio of 3:1. Hence, the fate of the SDGs in Pakistan rests primarily on addressing the feminisation of poverty with concrete measures and sincere political commitment.

Pakistani women subsist in absolute poverty and battle horrific levels of gender-based violence, sanctioned by patriarchal control — bordering on misogyny. Rather than doublespeak on the part of the government, a fair start would be clearly stated political commitment, followed by putting one’s money where one’s mouth is, i.e. through Gender-Responsive Budgeting (GRB), which is both visible and measurable, quantitatively and qualitatively.

There has to be an honest assessment of the issues at stake, allocation of resources and effective monitoring to move beyond platitudes to progress.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2016 issue.

The writer is a well known Human Right activist based in Islamabad.