By Zubeida Mustafa
GIVEN the public outcry against the government’s failure to invest adequately in the social development of the people, the authorities in Pakistan have become more wary about making loud pronouncements about their commitment to the social sectors. What better occasion would they have of speaking about this commitment and receiving media publicity than the time of the presentation of the budgets — federal and provincial. Hence, it was no surprise that in the budget season this year each and every finance minister spoke in exaggerated terms about the social sector being his government’s major priority.
But the problem with budget speeches is that they are accompanied by budget documents and preceded by the Economic Survey which do not always substantiate the official claims. This year too the provincial governments have attempted to focus on health and education, which are central to any programme of human resource development. Although there has been an overall increase in the budgets for these two sectors, one cannot but feel sceptical about the progress that will actually be made.
The falling axe
In the first place, the budget figures can hardly be taken to be sacrosanct. Invariably the revised estimates of spending in the social sector are considerably lower than the budget estimates. It is significant that the axe always falls on the social sector when resources are scarce. Hence a more accurate measure of the government’s commitment emerges from the previous year’s records for which the GNP figures are also available. It is significant that according to the Economic Survey the government’s expenditure on health as a percentage of the GNP has been falling steadily since 1988 when it had touched a record high of 1.02 per cent. In 1991-92 it was 0.6 per cent. Education has not fared much better either. The expenditure in terms of the percentage of the GNP has stagnated at 2.3 per cent since 1989-90. Before that it was 2.4 per cent.
Hence one cannot be too hopeful for the budgetary prospects for health and education in the coming year. The allocation pattern of the earlier budgets has not been changed too drastically. Thus, the defence expenditure accounts for 38 per cent of the federal budget. The bulk of the allocations for the social sector in the provincial budgets will go towards the revenue spendings. The development programme will receive only a small ratio of the budget which means there will be hardly any expansion in the health and education infrastructure. Moreover, most of the increase will be absorbed by inflation. Leakage and corruption will also take a heavy toll. As it is, the major chunk of the development budget will be channelled into on-going plans, with very few new projects on the cards.
Given Pakistan’s overwhelming backwardisation in these sectors, the budgetary allocations are not big enough to promise much of an impact. It is evident that the necessary political will and policy framework are also lacking to give social development the boost it is in dire need of. An innovation this year is the Social Action Programme — which is a three-year crash plan to boost the literacy rate and primary health coverage. Of the Rs 53,050 million to be spent under SAP until 1994-95, half will come from foreign aid donors, a quarter from the federal government and the remaining from the provincial governments.
How effective SAP will be time alone will show. But the record of the aid-giving agencies gives little cause for optimism. A bulk of the aid money flows back to donors in payment of the services of consultants and “resource persons” who are called on to prepare reports and hold workshops. This heavy dependence on foreign assistance for health and education projects, both of which must be rooted firmly in the indigenous culture and social norms to be successful, could prove to be the undoing of SAP.
Another negative factor in the growth of the social sectors has been the government’s emphasis on inducting the private entrepreneur into the fields of health and education. Although this strategy has helped in bringing about a qualitative improvement in the institutions used by a small elitist crust of the population, its effect has not trickled down to the grassroots level. That is not surprising. The private entrepreneur is interested in making profits which inevitably makes his schools, universities and hospitals beyond the reach of the masses.
Small wonder then that the private sector has not responded in a big way to the government’s incentives, including the setting up of the Foundations, whose presence has not been felt — at least in Sindh. (While the Sindh Finance Minister claimed that the Health/ Education Foundation had been set up in the province in the current fiscal year, the Private Schools Association had complained only a few months ago that the Foundation had yet to see the light of day. Even if this body has actually been set up, those who are supposed to benefit from it are unaware of its existence. Hence it would be of little use.)
The failure and inability of the private sector to reach the masses at a time when the government has abdicated its responsibility are indicated by the slow increase rate in the institutions that essentially serve the common man. While three private universities have been set up in the last decade bringing the total to 23, the primary school system has not expanded correspondingly to ensure that the triangle is not inverted. Similarly, hospitals in the urban areas have grown quite fast but rural health centres stand neglected. This points to the government’s failure to treat health and education as basic human rights of the people so essential for their wellbeing and personal development. These sectors which were for years regarded as economically too unproductive to merit substantial investment have now been reduced to the status of a marketable commodity. Economic considerations have come to replace the human dimension of health and education.
What better proof is there of this non-idealistic approach than that the government is contemplating declaring education an industry in the Eighth Plan. Thus, this sector will permanently lose the special status it has been assigned by virtue of its role in promoting learning and the intellectual development of the people.
This approach to education has unfortunately been adopted at a time when it has come to be universally recognised that good education and health-care are vital for human resource development which is central to the productivity of a people. It is therefore hardly surprising that Pakistan ranks a lowly 43rd out of 141 countries (worst to best) in the Washington-based Population Crisis Committee’s Human Suffering Index. It scored a high 67 in ten measures of suffering which included the non-availability of education and health cover.
Source: Dawn 20-06-1992