Sensitizing big business

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

LAST week it appeared that the focus in Pakistan was on the population issue. First, the prime minister inaugurated the “population summit” in Islamabad where he highlighted the link between the demographic growth rate and the economy.

Two days later came the “corporate summit” in Karachi organized by the Human Resource Development Network (HRDN), a non-profit organization that, to use its own words, brings together key stakeholders in the development process for forging partnerships. The Karachi moot was designed to draw in the corporate sector into the population welfare net.

The idea is appealing, considering the fact that in the capitalist world of today which glorifies the market, the private sector is seen to be the dominant engine of growth, as once pointed out by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan. Corporations control the national resources and it is time big business assumed its social responsibility as well.

So far its role has been more charity oriented and, according to Shahnaz Wazir Ali, the chairperson of the philanthropy commission, who was present at the meeting, only a small section of the corporate sector is actually donating to such causes. In a study her commission is in the process of conducting, it has found that quite a large number of companies say they have never been approached for donations. Needless to say, many of them have not considered it important enough to take the initiative to help a social cause.

While it would be a positive move if companies were to help the organizations working in the population field which are always short of funds, it is also important that companies’ managements are made aware of the problem the country faces on account of the high fertility rate. The hosts of the meeting played their cards well. They shed ample light on what was happening in Pakistan and how the population boom would adversely affect the country’s economy which would hit the corporate sector as well.

There were plenty of statistics that were thrown in to underscore the disastrous scenario which can be expected if nothing is done to slow down the population growth rate which today stands at 1.9 per cent. The implications of a high fertility rate have been highlighted by the media for decades. With 153 million people, Pakistan has added 111 million in the last 42 years. At the present rate, its population is expected to double by 2040. Today, 65 million people are living on less than $ 2 a day. The country has 3.7 million child workers.

It has been reiterated on numerous occasions that the country’s development has been retarded because the rapid pace of population growth has neutralized whatever progress has been made. According to the HRDN, Pakistan’s GDP has increased 273 times from Rs 20 billion in 1950 to Rs 5,458 billion in 2004, but the per capita income has increased only 61 times.

Similarly, the number of primary schools has grown from 44.000 in 1961 to 156,000 in 2004, but we have 30 million more illiterate people than what we had 45 years ago. Despite a 100 per cent increase in jobs in the country from 1971 till 2004, unemployment has increased nine fold in the same period.

What is startling is that the corporate sector by and large does not seem to be informed about and sensitized to the social needs of the people. Thus a textile mill owner attending the meeting expressed shock at the information that was presented saying he was not aware of this at all. But one would find this lack of knowledge shocking considering that the media is flooded with information on the population problem.

The organizers of the summit presented the advantages of a small, educated and healthy population from the perspective of the corporate sector. The workers would be better skilled, would not take sick leave so frequently, their families would be happier and they would be better workers and so on. Similarly, it was emphasized that fewer consumers with better purchasing power and education would constitute a more attractive market than a large but impoverished population.

With the corporate sector in Pakistan not playing the social role expected of it, there is need to strategize its induction into human development projects. The impression one has is that there is more concern for maximizing profits rather than the well-being of the people.

In a social welfare state the business sector would have been heavily taxed and the revenues used for the social development of the people. But Pakistan is not a social welfare state, neither does the government have the commitment or the funds to undertake the social responsibility of providing the people education, health and family planning services.

The meeting decided to set up a working group to evolve a strategy to bridge the gap between the corporate sector and the public sector in population planning. It would be interesting to see how this experiment in public-private partnership in the population sector evolves.

A few suggestions would not be out of place in this context. The corporate sector should adopt a holistic approach because family planning does not work in isolation. It must be backed up with education and health facilities. Hence the corporate sector should undertake the responsibility of providing education to the children of all its workers, arranging adult literacy classes for the uneducated labour, health care for all the workers and their families, and with that family planning services (information and motivation as well as contraceptive facilities) should also be brought in.

It is important that these facilities are actually set up and a company should not absolve itself of its responsibility by handing out a cheque to one of the NGOs working in the field. Of course, they may still contribute but their own workers should be seen as their own responsibility.

If a company does not have a manpower big enough to justify separate institutions, it may join hands with some other smaller concerns to set up a school and a clinic for their workers. It is important that all these aspects are treated holistically because each of them — especially education and low infant mortality — have a positive effect on fertility growth.

One item missing conspicuously from the corporate summit’s agenda was the status of women. Although there was the picturized story of Bholi — a young woman who had suffered because of poverty and lack of education and health care — what didn’t emerge from the discussions and statistics was the little esteem women in Pakistan enjoy that is confirmed by the gender inequalities rampant in the country.

This is one major cause of the failure of the population programme in the country. Until the public’s perception of the commodification of women is not changed, the girl child will never be valued and the parents’ quest for a male offspring will continue, however dynamic the family planning services offered in the corporate sector may be.

There is need for a mobilization campaign to change perceptions and behaviour. This must be underpinned with a programme that focuses on the importance of recognizing the rights of women as human rights. The corporate sector is no different from the rest of the country. One can well ask how many female CEOs we have in Pakistan and what percentage of the workforce comprises women?