The Big Picture

Saadia Toor

Over the last 4 years, the world faced a food crisis of unprecedented proportions. In conjunction with the global financial crisis, Oxfam estimates that the global food crisis has wiped out 30 years of progress in reducing hunger across the world.  According to the FAO, 1.02 billion people are going hungry every day (with 840 million people around the world chronically hungry), a number which comes to one-sixth of humanity.

In Pakistan, this crisis manifested itself in a wheat shortage in 2008.  The wheat shortage was so severe that the World Bank put it on list of 36 countries that faced a serious food shortage.  However, as is the case globally, the problem was not a shortfall in wheat production; in fact, Pakistan had had a bumper wheat crop in 2006-7.  The crucial piece of the puzzle here is the complex role played by the World Bank/IMF:  Pakistan’s grain reserves were low because these Bretton Woods institutions had pressured the government to sell its wheat on the global market since global wheat prices were at a record high.  Consequently, the government exported half a million ton of wheat.

The result, predictably, was a domestic wheat shortage and a concomitant increase in the price of wheat, which went from Rs15 per kg in Jan 2007 to Rs25 per kg in early 2008.  Since wheat is the staple food grain, this resulted in near-riots and the deployment of armed troops to supervise the distribution of wheat and flour. 

There is thus a close connection between national food security and international policy as promoted by institutions such as the World Bank and World Trade Organization. Such institutional policies have also contributed to poverty and food insecurity in other ways. For example, the rising poverty in the 90s in Pakistan can be traced in large part to the initiation of a new IMF enforced structural adjustment package in 1987-1988.  Structural adjustment packages are a bundle of policy measures designed to balance the budget; universally, the first things to go are government expenditures on social sectors such as health and education, as well as welfare provisions such as subsidies for food.  Not surprisingly, the results have been quite disastrous, with the most vulnerable sections of the society being the most adversely impacted in direct and indirect ways.  In Pakistan, development expenditure went from a high of 9.3% of GDP in 1980-1981, to a little over 3% in 1997-8; by 2000-2001, it had fallen to 2%.  Public sector employment is understood, historically, as an anti-poverty measure. Since part of the IMF/WB structural adjustment package is the privatization of key public enterprises such as utilities and transport, structural adjustment in Pakistan has predictably resulted in an increase in unemployment with 43.2% of workers previously employed in public enterprises being laid off by their new employers by the early 1990s. In its latest agreement with the IMF/WB, the GoP has continued this commitment to standard SAP measures.  

Internally, the distribution of rural poverty and food insecurity closely reflects land distribution, which is highly unequal in Pakistan and has become more so since the 1980s.  Less than half of all rural households (37%) own any agricultural land, while the top 2.5% of households account for over 40% of all land owned. As Akbar Zaidi has noted in his book, Issues in Pakistan’s Economy,

‘In the rural areas, the poor are predominantly sharecroppers.  They own the least land, are the smallest landlords, and have not shifted to modern forms of lease contracting.  The lack of asset ownership is both a cause of poverty – since assets generate income – as well as a consequence of it – because ownership is the result of past investment.  Rural poverty has a very strong link with unequal land ownership and the lack of access to land.’

Research has shown that beyond its income effects, improved land access cheapens the relative price of food for families and, controlling for income, results in better nutritional outcomes, and the multiplier effect of access to land is huge when the linkages between nutrition and educational outcomes is taken into account.  Data from China and India shows that China’s relatively more egalitarian land distribution pattern results in better-nourished households than in India.  Land access also stabilizes income (which is especially important during economic shocks and downturns) and has a positive effect on investment in children’s education.

A broad-based land reform program is thus critical for reducing rural poverty in Pakistan, and a crucial prerequisite for an improvement in people’s food security.  Of course, these land reforms must be substantive in nature – as opposed to the cosmetic ones of the past – and be accompanied by improved access to agricultural inputs as well as the market.

If land reforms have to be undertaken in Pakistan, it is important to note that the military is Pakistan’s biggest land-owner. Issues of skewed patterns of land-ownership, therefore, pertain directly to the Pakistani military’s parasitic relationship to its people.  There is another way in which the military is directly connected to people’s food security and wellbeing, and this is through the development and proliferation of a security state. In every budget since independence, Pakistan’s allocations and expenditure on defence has dwarfed that for development. This bloated defence expenditure has diverted money away from investment in other sectors which might directly and indirectly improve the conditions of the poor. We must also focus on the more direct role of the Pakistani military in creating and maintaining conditions of extreme food insecurity today – through military operations in FATA, NWFP and Balochistan.  It is worth noting that Dera Bugti – the ancestral village of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, a major Baloch nationalist leader assassinated by the Pakistani army in 2006 – is the district which scores the lowest on food security in all of Pakistan. The development of a genuine democratic federation, defined by a just power and resource sharing agreement, is thus crucial in Pakistan – both from the point of view of its people and for its own viability.

Ultimately, the problem of food insecurity in the contemporary period is not episodic or short-term – it is chronic and structural and must be addressed in those terms. No doubt, food insecurity in Pakistan, as many people highlight, is at some level the result of wastage through inadequate storage, inefficient transportation, deteriorating irrigation systems and inadequate attention to agriculture.  However, addressing these issues alone will not be enough to resolve the issue of food insecurity in Pakistan.  The underlying structural causes – which have both domestic and international dimensions – must also be acknowledged and addressed.

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