Re-imagining Pakistan’s Development Sector

Re-imagining Pakistan’s Development Sector
Celebrating 75 years of Independence, it is way past time for denizens of Pakistan – nay, stakeholders of the country – to take stalk of the debilitating state of the development sector that has led to where we as a state, nation and an economy stand. Nonetheless, the right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have in order to move beyond mere crises identification or mudslinging to effective mitigation and organically implementable solutions; improving lives and benefitting society as a whole.

Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world and has experienced its share of fluctuations in development, growth and economic performance. The country’s bumpy pattern of growth can largely be attributed to bad governance, unstable political system, fragile economic structure, abject poverty, illiteracy, precarious healthcare infrastructure as well as environmental degradation.

Marred by political unrest and systemic deterioration of governance institutions especially during the first 40 years of independence; economic and social disparities increased multifold with the Musharraf regime in the 1990s doing no better with declining foreign investments as well as growth. And with more than 22 occasions when Pakistan sought loans from the IMF beginning back in 1958 – not counting other agencies – it is safe to say human development can only be a mirage standing on the shoulders of crippling debts.

While history shows positive, yet sporadic growth spurts in various economic sectors, these certainly do not commensurate with the performance of the different social sectors as its indicators remained far behind and lagged behind other South Asian countries such as Bangladesh.

In 2016, Pakistan became the first country to incorporate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in its national development agenda through a National Assembly resolution.  In 2017, World Bank statistics presented Pakistan as among the five fastest growing economies registering a growth rate of 5.7 percent. That said, the country’s ranking has declined on the Human Development Index from 145th out of 187 countries in 2011 to 154 out of 189 in 2020. Truly a dismal dissent to deterioration.

“The development sector in Pakistan has faced several challenges in recent past in light of growing local and international positions. Pakistan's inclusion in the FATF list for instance led the authorities to regulate NGOs and dissent was silenced. In addition to that, targeted campaigns against journalists and activists further shrunk space for civil society and stigmatizing labels were employed as an age-old strategy to discredit their work. The increasingly shrinking space for the development sector has further impacted the nascent and already ruptured democracy and democratic norms in the society which need urgent strengthening,” remarks Nida Usman Chaudhary - advocate of diversity and inclusion and policy consultant.

What also needs to be realised is the absolute necessity to contextualize the SDGs from a homegrown perspective. According to a report prepared by Federal SDGs Support Unit in partnership with the UN and UNDP, titled ‘National SDGs Framework for Pakistan’: “An important step towards developing the National SDGs Framework is ‘localization of SDGs’.

It is also important to note that even though each Goal and target cover specific development areas, many of them are directly or indirectly inter-connected. For instance, ensuring progress in Goal 3 (Good health) depends on Goal 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), that subsequently feed into Goal 4 (Quality Education), Goal 2 (Zero Hunger), and Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth).”

Relevance and context is important on many levels. Isfandyar Inayat - GM Strategic Partnerships and Community Outreach, Resource Mobilisation, The Citizen Foundation Pakistan (TCF), remarks. “Context is really important. If you are aiming to introduce financial solutions for the development sector that has for example worked for Brazil. It is certainly not necessary that it works for Pakistan. There is an entire evolutionary process that takes places and if you are jumping on the tenth step and missing the nine behind, chances of failure are likely. You cannot copy paste a solution, you can bring the idea but the work needs to be localized, organic and evolutionary. Furthermore, it is really important to ascertain what is it that the beneficiary wants and needs.”

Moving on to the role of the financial sector, Inayat says: “The financial sector has a long way to go as far as the development landscape is concerned, if we take out micro or nano financing. But if you look at education. About 42 percent of Pakistani children go to private schools and around 90 percent of them go to low-fee private schools. It is the fastest growing industry which in itself is unprecedented. Now these schools are struggling and can really be supported by the financial sector.”
With more than 22 occasions when Pakistan sought loans from the IMF beginning back in 1958 – not counting other agencies – it is safe to say human development can only be a mirage standing on the shoulders of crippling debts.

A number of reforms, policies and initiatives have been rolled out over the years, many of which have eventually died out, fizzled or were a complete failure. In 1992, for example, an ambitious multi-sector, policy initiative – the Social Action Program (SAP) – was launched by the government but in June 2002 the ‘controversial’ program was closed down on the recommendation of the Planning Commission, citing corruption, lack of ownership and financial constraints. News reports stated that it ‘failed to achieve the objectives of improving the life of common man , both in the rural and urban areas.’ The initiative was supported by World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other donor agencies.

Talking about donor and intergovernmental organisations and their approach to development, Founder and President Women’s Digital League and Project Lead, Systems Limited, Maria Umar opines: “The problem with donor community is a) they all work in silos leading to a lot of replication of programs sometimes within the same organisation. There is no or very little learning from these beta or pilot projects and programs. And b) they still only fund NGOs when they should be diverting money towards social enterprises because they are the perfect mix of doing social good while keeping sustainability at their core. And c) they keep funding the same few players that have cracked the code for writing funding proposals so you don't see fresh faces and new ideas. If the development sector is really sincere to helping humanity they need to address these issues.”

Noting Maria’s comments, TCF’s Isfandyar Inayat observes: “I think it’s really important for both the development and corporate sectors to learn from one another by sharing best practices. The corporate sector might assume that there is nothing to learn from the development sector and of course vice versa. But there is much learning for both to be had. And in the end, it benefits us all.”

Stakeholders of various social services, especially health, education, water and sanitation as well as climate, need to work together and certainly not in silos.

Access to social services, specifically speaking health, water and sanitation (apart from education) are some of the most pressing challenges faced by Pakistan’s rural, underserved and vulnerable communities. One international development organisation focusing on eye health, The Fred Hollows Foundation, has organically designed and implemented a model that has successfully worked to initiate impact at the grassroots.

The Foundation’s strategies that have successfully worked on the ground include focused programming where Pakistani female agriculture and cottage industry workers are provided eye health services through targeted projects, allowing women to continue working. Other strategies cover training programs for doctors, health workers – especially lady health workers as well as ensuring access by “providing free transport to eye health facilities to reduce geographical barriers and out of pocket expenses.”

Talking about the Foundation’s work, Farooq Awan – Country Manager, The Fred Hollows Foundation comments: “In Pakistan, particularly in healthcare, the government has the biggest footprint on the ground in terms of health infrastructure, reach and human resources, so the best way to deliver healthcare (eye health) projects in Pakistan is to establish relationship and partnership with the government. Through this approach the interested organisations can offer support in many areas e.g., human resource development (teaching and training), strengthening service delivery by fixing infrastructure and technology issues and system development so as to make the investments long-lasting and sustainable. By working in collaboration with the government, organisations add value, increase local capacity and avoid duplication. The Fred Hollows Foundation supports its partners to deliver cost effective and sustainable interventions by making them equitable and accessible for all and has played a catalytic role in the eye sector in Pakistan.”

The key takeaway from the Foundation’s development model of success is organically designing a collaborative program. This not only ensure participation of all stakeholders from the government, local NGOs and civil society, it also creates a sense of ownership and social accountability which forms the basis of any development strategy.

On another positive note, Sara Hayat – lawyer and climate justice advocate also remains hopeful, observing that there is awareness and people are even “cognizant of the gender sensitive lens that now pretty much needs to be incorporated at all development sector and policy related work.” Noting, however,  that “the real challenge for Pakistan is adaptation and mitigation for (for example) climate change (as it) is still on the back burner because there is political instability, health crises, the pandemic or there is an economic instability. And no matter how much you try to spin it for them, they try to sever all these from the Climate Change domain even though there is a strong overlap like how climate change and health are related or climate change and the economy are strongly related. There is a strong nexus but for the government there are other issues that are more important and take precedence.”

Furthering a broad-based development agenda requires an equitable distribution of power, resources and funding among all stakeholders from state, donor agencies, NGOs, and members of the civil society. In addition, participation has catalytic value in developing the ability of citizens to hold the state accountable and also trains them to think more in terms of public good. Thus equal and inclusive participation in decision-making will enable sustainable community development as a result of representation, a sense of ownership and social accountability. The answer can be within reach, the question is do we have the political will?

Sabin Muzaffar is the Founder & Executive Editor of – a globally respected, new media and development platform creating inclusive conversations in the digital realm. Twitter: @critoe