Protecting the Vulnerable
By Shahid Javed Burki

In his October 18 address to the nation — the second in a few days — President Pervez Musharraf explained why it had taken so long for the agencies of the government to reach the entire population affected by the earthquake of October 8. The areas inhabited by some of the people were so inhospitable that even helicopters could not reach them. He had ordered three army divisions to fan out in the area to locate the affected people and bring them the supplies they needed. The dead and the injured will have to be brought on the backs of mules or soldiers that were attempting to reach the affected people.
There were two aspects of his address that are worth noting. One is the graphic account of the physical environment that surrounds tens of thousands of people who were killed, injured, or left homeless by the earthquake. These people have been forced into these areas on account of the enormous increase in their number. In 1947, when Pakistan became independent and Kashmir became a problem, there were only one million people who lived on this side of what is now called the Line of Control. They now number 4.8 million with a density of 331 persons per sq km. Population continues to increase at a relentless pace; it could reach 10 million in the next quarter of a century.
What has made these people extraordinarily vulnerable is the fact that the pressure of population has forced them to live in the areas where they can barely subsist. These areas are also hard to reach when natural disasters hit them.
The other important point about the president’s address was the promise to bring not only relief to the people hurt by the disaster but to rescue them from their current situation, provide them relief, re-house them, if need be relocate them, and economically rehabilitate them. These five “R’s” — relief, rescue, rehousing, relocation and rehabilitation — will then be the focus of the government’s attention for years to come. In the article, I will examine these two aspects of the crisis: what makes some segments of the population more vulnerable to a sudden change in their environment and how should the state deal with vulnerability. In other words how to build the five R’s and the two V’s — the vulnerable and their vulnerability — into a strategy?
Notwithstanding all the analytical work done over the last many decades, there is still debate on how to handle the problem created by the presence of hundreds of millions of vulnerable people and vulnerable groups that live in many areas of the world. They live not only in the developing world but also in many parts of the developed world. The United States’ recent experience with Hurricane Katrina is a vivid reminder of the fact that there are many vulnerable communities even in the world’s richest country, if “rich” is defined in terms of the size of the economy or average income of the population.
Perhaps the most intense work on vulnerability was done by the British in India when they set up a series of royal commissions to study the periodic famines that took a heavy human toll in their Indian domain. The colonial government came to the conclusion that the best way of protecting the poor from nature’s ravages that visited frequently in the form of floods and droughts and affected food supply was to develop the areas which were less affected by weather. This led to the development of canal colonies in the virgin lands of Punjab which became the granary of British India.
The British also constructed an extensive network of roads and railways and developed the port of Karachi in order to ensure that supplies of Punjab’s grain reached in time the chronically food deficit areas in the eastern part of India. The British, in other words, focused on the supply side of the equation for dealing with natural disasters.
While this approach of increasing food supply to combat famine has little relevance for dealing with the havoc and distress caused by an earthquake, it did provoke a debate among academics that is of great significance for dealing with the crisis in Pakistan today. The Indian economist Amartya Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize for his findings that the repeated famines in Bengal were seldom caused by a sharp drop in food supply. They were usually the result of a significant decline in household incomes.
In the famines studied by Sen there was abundance of food supply; what were lacking were incomes to purchase the needed food. What make people really vulnerable are persistent poverty and a sharp fall in incomes during crises. In working for a strategy that would deal not only with providing immediate relief to those who have suffered, the government must also seek to improve their situation so that they are not hurt the next time an earthquake hits the area.
Since the focus of this article is on the “vulnerable” and “vulnerability”, I will start with a definition of these two terms. The two terms can be fully understood only when they are juxtaposed. Vulnerable are those who cannot sustain themselves without outside assistance. Vulnerability is a condition that is produced by a change in the environment surrounding the people or in their circumstances.
Change can come suddenly as in the case of natural disasters such as the tsunami in Southeast Asia in December 2005, or the Katrina hurricane in August 2005, or the earthquake in Pakistan in October 2005. Change can also be sudden when countries are hit by economic and financial crisis as was the case in the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Or change can take place slowly when families and their members grow increasingly vulnerable because of their growing size, prolonged sickness, or the progressive deterioration of the economic situation around them.
Vulnerable people, vulnerable families, vulnerable communities, even vulnerable countries come in many forms. Confining for the moment our attention only to people, empirical evidence suggests that populations in poor countries can be divided into four income groups. The top 10 per cent of the population has the means to protect itself against most causes of vulnerability. Below this group, about 50 per cent of the population — the middle and the lower middle classes — also have the means to deal with adversity by dipping into their savings. That notwithstanding, they may still need some support of the state.
Going down lower, about 20 per cent of the population is vulnerable given the state of the economy. This group may climb above the poverty line or drop below it given the state of the economy. As was seen in Asia, the boom years of 1972 to 1997 resulted in this group migrating above the poverty line only to quickly drop below it after the economic havoc caused by the financial crisis of 1997.
The last group is made up of the indigent poor, people destined to remain poor unless an enormous amount of state investment is made to improve their human capital, provide them opportunities to earn a good living, provide them with assets and protect them against unexpected changes in their situations brought about by natural disasters, epidemics, or changes in the economic and physical environment.
This division of the population into the rich, the middle classes, the poor subject to drastic changes in their incomes given their environment, and the very poor, of course, differs from country to country and from area to area within countries. Although there are no income distribution data available for Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas, it is my guess that both the very poor, and the poor whose fortunes change dramatically with their circumstances probably account for three-fourths of the population.
The very low levels of incomes in these areas have made the people extremely vulnerable to any severe change in their environment. This is especially the case with earthquakes. For them an earthquake brings long-term deprivation since it destroys the few assets they have. While rescue and relief — two of the five Rs — are equally important for all income classes, relocation, rehousing and rehabilitation acquire great significance for the poor. A strategy for saving these people from future disasters must focus on improving their capacity to earn higher levels of incomes.
It is the three Rs that the government’s program must work on. I have no idea how the government has arrived at a figure of $5 billion for reconstruction work which, according to Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, could take 10 years to complete. This implies an expenditure of $500 million a year or $75 per capita of the population in Azad Kashmir, the Northern Areas, and NWFP directly affected by the earthquake. From my way reckoning the estimate of total amount to be spent is low and the period over which it will be deployed much too long. For a meaningful response to the tragedy, the amount will need to be at least 50 per cent higher and the period over which it should be spent no more than five years. This would increase expenditure per capita to $225, three times the envisaged amount.
Can Pakistan raise this amount of money? Can such a large amount — some $7.5 billion to be spent over a period of five years — be absorbed by the areas and the people under so much stress at this time? Answers to both questions are “yes” provided the raising of resources and their expenditure is done with intelligence and foresight. On the financial mobilization aspect of the strategy, the government should seriously consider floating bonds directed at overseas Pakistanis who are very willing to help at this time.
But bonds won’t cover the entire amount needed. President Musharraf announced in his speech that some $600 million in foreign exchange and a multiple of that amount in local currency have already reached his special fund. The International Monetary Fund has said that it is prepared to offer $325 million on concessional terms and without conditions for its use. The World Bank has indicated its willingness to provide an additional $100 million, also as concessionary credit. Other aid agencies and bilateral donors will also come in with significant amounts.
However, experiences with pledges made to other countries in the past suggest that these amounts don’t always become available unless the prospective recipient develops a well thought out program for their use that would also improve the prospect for their absorption in the affected areas and by the affected people. This part of the response has to have a high priority. A program aimed at the earthquake affected people must focus on the income generating side of the equation for the affected population. This is the time to plan to fundamentally change their fortunes by working simultaneously on education, skill development, constructing infrastructure, and introducing significant structural changes in the economy. (Courtesy Dawn)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.