Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Cutting out a Pro-Poor Budget

Each budget that the Finance Minister presented each year never touched the lives of the poor but the dignified few. Each time the budget has come to mean the elimination of benefits for the poor and elevated benefits for the rich. The hopes for making Pakistan one of the most vibrant economies of Asia is laudable but the development policies have no relevance to the man in street.

The majority of Pakistan yearns for a pro-poor budget. Promoting pro-poor growth requires a strategy that is deliberately biased in favor of the poor so that the poor benefit proportionally more than the rich.

In general a pro-poor budget is one that takes into account the needs of the poor. It is one that seeks to make a difference in the lives of the poor. It is one that would impact positively on the poor so as to enable them to actively participate in and benefit from the process of development. A pro-poor budget would enable the poor to have increased opportunities In order to be healthy, educated, productive and responsible people. Such a budget would have to have a deliberate bias so that the poor would benefit proportionately more from government expenditure than the rich.

The first step in achieving a pro-poor budget is the identification of who the poor are. The understanding and measurement of poverty has evolved over time. Today it is generally accepted that poverty is not only a money related deprivation, but a combination of several deprivations that result in lack of well being. Consequently budget provisions must respond, to this complex situation of poverty. This is no easy task. In formulating a pro-poor budget there is need to have up to date information of the levels, intensity and types of deprivations that make up poverty.

There are many reasons, both practical and strategic, to establish a conceptual linkage between gender and poverty for promoting gender-sensitive budgets. It would be a mistake to simply equate the two categories. Gender imbalances and inequalities should run across every social, economic and political classification. The exclusion and deprivation experienced by the poor is not the same, and tends to be even more acute for women than for men. Gender allows us to stop envisioning the poor as a homogeneous category of people, whose needs can be addressed in a uniform way.

Pro-poor growth should direct resources disproportionately to the sectors in which the poor work (e.g. agriculture), areas in which they live (underdeveloped regions), factors of production which they posses (such as unskilled labor), outputs, which they consume (such as food), translated into strategy of pro-poor growth - employment generation combined with price stability of goods and services which are essential items. Policies need to be designed to reflect concerns of poverty.

In order to address poverty effectively the budget will need to have more direct rather than indirect means of taxation. This would help reduce prevailing high-income inequalities and help spread the benefits of economic growth.

Pro-poor growth means that the poor benefit disproportionately from economic growth. This is to say the proportional income growth (i.e. their income growth rate) of the poor must exceed the average income growth rate. The per-capita income growth rate of the poor must exceed growth rate.

Three obvious policy messages emerge. First, policies to promote growth should help the poor although they could do so more if they made growth pro-poor rather than neutral as it currently is. Second, reducing initial inequality, particularly asset inequality, should receive highest priority, due to its triple effect on poverty. Third, reducing gender inequality should equally be of highest concern to policy makers that want to achieve pro-poor growth.

It is clear that pro-poor growth that directly reduces poverty must be in sectors where the poor are and use the factors of production they possess. The vast majority of the poor is in rural areas, a majority depends directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihood, and the factor of production the poor possess and use most is labor, sometimes land, and even more rarely human capital. Thus pro-poor growth must be focused on rural areas, improve incomes and productivity in agriculture, and must make intensive use of labor. These things are nearly tautological, but often forgotten and are clearly not reflected in public policies or in the allocation of public funds by national governments or donors.

Heavy investment in the human capital of the poor will yield two benefits on poverty reduction. It will increase economic growth and it will make growth more pro-poor. The record of East Asia is a good illustration where high human capital accumulation promoted growth and poverty reduction.

Beyond a concern for increasing average incomes and reducing poverty, there is a greater appreciation for a need to enhance the security for the population if one is to ensure sustainable pro-poor growth. The security of the poor is threatened by physical threats. Thus, the poor are forced to avoid risks that may carry high rewards, can get trapped in cycles of poverty and insecurity, and are regularly pummeled by shocks that militate against sustainable reductions in poverty.

Our budget-makers need to remember that real enemy is poverty and deprivation, that their key weapon is their skill and professionalism and that their modus operandi is their humility. They are the custodians of a value system that defines our objective as demonstrating every single day that we are a caring democracy.

Attaining a pro-poor budget is a big challenge. It requires a bottom-up approach; that ensures that poverty eradication is a central issue and not a donor driven requirement. The principles of equity and accountability with particular attention to efficiency and effectiveness have to be continually respected at each stage of the budget process. (