To have and to have not - Ardeshir Cowasjee - Sunday 10th April 2011

OF all people, it was Woody Allen who not so long ago, on the ball, observed: “More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
In Pakistan, which we have been told constantly, from its very birth, stands at a crossroads, even today, these three sentences apply particularly. Having with remarkable consistency chosen incorrectly for the not unsubstantial period of 64 years, we find ourselves mired progressively deeper in a quicksand of our own making.
Realising that all problems in this country’s life can ultimately be traced to the stomach, religious extremism, polarisation, political chaos, ethnic strife, bombings, target killings, political disappearances, land-grabbing, extortion, kidnappings, galloping corruption and avarice, and all the rest with which we are over-familiar, the ever-increasing consequence has been the widening divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Our poorest 10 per cent consume some four per cent of the national cake, while the richest 10 per cent gobble up 27 per cent. For Pakistan, the Gini coefficient has grown drastically over decades. The ‘trickle-down theory’ of wealth distribution has not delivered. Too many millions are destined to eke out a living under the poverty line.
On April 5, this newspaper carried a news-item entitled ‘IMF warns against the perils of inequality’. Addressing George Washington University in the US, the managing director of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, advised policymakers to do a “major regulatory surgery” to ensure financial stability and to curb inequality: “The old pattern of globalisation … had a dark side — a large and growing chasm between rich and poor,” he said. “The new global governance must also pay more heed to social cohesion.”
The IMF chief observed that while trade globalisation was associated with lower inequality, “financial globalisation — the big story of recent years — increased it”. The tendency was to downplay inequality, to see it as a necessary evil on the road to riches. But the crisis and aftermath have fundamentally altered our perceptions. The lethal cocktail of prolonged high unemployment and high inequality strains social cohesion and political stability, which in turn affects macroeconomic stability.
“Over the longer term, sustainable growth is associated with a more equal income distribution … Inequality can hinder access to finance. It can make countries more prone to adverse shocks. It can reduce trust in institutions and encourage instability.
And without a solid middle class, domestic demand is unlikely to take off.”
The world needs a new form of globalisation, a fairer form of globalisation, a globalisation with a more human face. The benefits of growth must be broadly shared, not just captured by a privileged few (as is the hard case in Pakistan). “While the market must stay centre stage, the invisible hand must not become the invisible fist,” said Strauss-Kahn. “Ask yourselves: what kind of world do you want to live in? Surely one that is more intelligent, more just, and more virtuous than the old one.”
Many rich and middle-class people in Pakistan feel a sense of guilt while observing the overwhelming poverty around them:
the proliferating katchi abadis, the increasing street beggars, vendors and encroachments, the malnutrition, the spreading
filth and disease. Statistics show that the charity of Pakistanis, especially through religious/social welfare groups, feeds the hungry and runs ambulances, schools and hospitals. But is charity addressing the gap of the haves and have-nots, the ultimate cause of our escalating political and social problems? Is charity the solution?
According to the inimitable Oscar Wilde: “The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism — are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; it is easier to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.
“They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.
“But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good … such charity degrades and demoralises…. Charity creates a multitude of sins.”
Can Pakistan, and indeed the world, recognise this? Can we bring about the structural changes — including fairer taxation and enhanced wages — that will make poverty ‘impossible’? And this country a better place in which to live? No, not if we continue on the old path, with the governments we have had.

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