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Trapped in poverty | Zubeida Mustafa

Trapped in poverty | Zubeida Mustafa

MIGRANTS are in the news all over the world. Recently, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) released in Rome a report titled Sending Money Home which focused on the remittances — $436 billion in 2014 — transferred by migrant workers to their families. This received positive publicity. The countries that provided jobs to such workers were seen as helping alleviate poverty in the Third World.

In Canada, where I am on a visit, I chanced upon a local paper The Golfi Team Real Estate Market Watch which carried an article against immigrants blaming the latter for many economic woes of the country, including the escalation of property prices and suppression of wages. It sarcastically accused the political parties of seeking to capture immigrant votes by adopting pro-immigration policies while pretending to benefit the rest of the world.

Who is to be believed? The fact is that a mass wave of migration is taking place today — 250 million people are living outside the country of their birth IFAD tells us. This is a characteristic feature of the globalisation phenomenon that the world is experiencing. But it has its flip side too.

Thirteen years ago, Noam Chomsky, the American political dissenter, had pointed out to me in an interview that globalisation is a phenomenon that has been there for centuries in the form of international migration, trading and the use of communication technology which have had an immense impact on global economic relations. What he, however, found disturbing was the emergence of a highly concentrated power system that now controls the globalisation process.

We congratulate ourselves for our success in ‘manpower export’.

Seen in that context, remittances acquire another dimension. True, the World Bank believes that “remittances generally reduce the level and severity of poverty and lead to: higher human capital accumulation; greater health and education expenditures; better access to information and communication technologies; and enhanced small business investment”. As such the World Bank says it is “deepening its engagement on this broad agenda”. This will increase the Bank’s hold on the remittance transfer process.

I do not know enough about Canada, a land of immigrants where multiculturalism is fostered concertedly, and many other Third World countries that are supposedly beneficiaries of remittances. But I can make some observations about Pakistan, my own country. I am certain that the scenario is not as hunky -dory as is often made out to be. Pakistan is described as one of the 20-odd countries in which remittances are larger than the forex reserves and amount to a little less than half of the national imports.

With 2.5 million workers registered last year with the Bureau of Emigration and Over­seas Employment in Islamabad and $13bn having been remitted in 2014, the government congratulates itself for its success in “manpower export” for which it has “an active agenda” as per the Pakistan Economic Survey 2014-15.

What is worrying about this policy, its positive dimensions notwithstanding, is that this phenomenon is alleviating poverty for only a small segment of the people in need of employment and livelihood. It has had no impact on the national policies in the social sector as claimed by the World Bank.

Remittances are understandably used by the workers’ families primarily to meet their basic needs, such as food, healthcare and education. Hence no capital accumulation or project-based investments have been witnessed. The economy has not received a boost either and the rich-poor divide is growing.

The main point to be noted is that manpower export is not a feasible substitute for the government’s own investment in health, education and economic development. A major disadvantage rooted in our domestic failures is that our migrant workers do not have many choices in the destinations they travel to, given their poor education and training.

In a way they become hostage in the country where they work. Nearly 30pc of Pakistan’s remittances come from Saudi Arabia, where the largest concentration of the former country’s migrant workers is based. Should we then be surprised at the Pakistan government’s weak-kneed response to the pressure it came under from the Saudi kingdom earlier during the ongoing Yemen crisis?

I am reminded of Chomsky’s words that the globalisation process today is taking place under an organised and controlled power system. Under the World Bank and the IMF’s direction we cannot be too sure in which way the remittance phenomenon is headed.

A look at the 2014 Human Development Index (UNDP) is an eye-opener. Pakistan has slipped into the Low Human Development category and ranks 146th out of 187. What is telling is that our per capita income is higher than that of 13 countries. Yet they rank above us and fall in the Medium Human Development group. Obviously, they are spending their limited resources more judiciously than Pakistan on the development of their human resources.

Trapped in poverty | Zubeida Mustafa


Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2015

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