Education / 06.09.2008

In a previous post we had discussed whether illiteracy was the cause of poverty. A number of readers have enquired whether poverty can be the cause of illiteracy. We explore the argument in this post. At one level the proposition can come across as valid. The poor would not have the income to afford education for their children and would, by necessity, keep the latter out of school. The very poor would need to supplement the household income with the earnings of children giving rise to the prevalence of child labor. The very, very poor would not even have enough to afford the upkeep of their children and be forced to give them up to madrassas providing free care. This line of thinking would lead one to conclude that countries with widespread poverty would have widespread illiteracy. How then would one account for the very wide variation in...

Ghalib / 03.09.2008

It is the month of Ramzan and Ghalib has his share of quotes for the season. Ghalib was known for his wit: when asked how many fasts he had kept he is reported to have replied ek na rakha (I did not keep one). Typical Ghalib. But in his tongue-in-cheek manner Ghalib also pushes his readers to think of many other aspects of a situation than the one that seems obvious on the surface. Our choice this week reflects this quality of Ghalib: iftaar-e-saum kii jise kuch dast.gaah ho us shakhs ko zaroor hai rozaa rakha kare jis paas roza khol ke khaane ko kuch na ho roza agar na khaaye to naachaar kya kare the one who has the wherewithal to break his fast that person should indeed keep the fast the one who has nothing to break his fast with what else can he do but be constrained to ‘eat the fast’ The Ghalib...

Ghalib / 28.08.2008

The selection this week: bandagii meN bhii vuh aazaadah-o khud-biin haiN kih ham ulTe phir aaye dar-e ka’bah agar va na huaa even in servitude we are so free and self-regarding that we turned and came back if the door of the Ka’bah did not open This is an expression of pride in one’s being. The poet is saying that we may be indebted to you but you still have to treat us with respect. The point is made by exaggeration – we are servants of God but even God has to come and meet us halfway. A detailed interpretation is available at Mehr-e-Niimroz. Once again we are treated to Ghalib’s ability to think far ahead of his times. Remember, he lived in the age of patronage; artists especially were almost completely dependent on their patrons for their livelihoods. And the patrons were quite willful, withdrawing their stipends at the slightest...

Governance / 27.08.2008

People are frustrated with continued poor governance in Pakistan. So frustrated that one often hears a strange claim – we are afflicted with poor governance because we are bad people; we deserve our fate. This logic implies that good people get good governments while bad people get bad governments. Does this logic make any sense? First of all, there is no country in the world where people are all good or all bad – however good and bad are defined. And no one has yet adequately demonstrated that some countries have a larger proportion of bad people than others. (Of course, some countries have relatively more educated populations but education has little to do with the mix of goodness and badness. In any case, all countries have passed through the stage when education was much less common than it is today. It is difficult to make the case...

Education / 26.08.2008

It would be obvious to readers that in this series of posts we have been challenging the validity of single-cause explanations of the relative lack of economic and social development in South Asia. Thus, while we agree that overpopulation, illiteracy, and corruption can have negative implications, we have tried to convince readers with evidence that neither of them can be considered the root cause of all our problems. In this post we address another such single-cause explanation that one comes across fairly often in Pakistan – that loss of religious faith (or deviation from the true path) is the primary reason for the continued problems in the country. Let us examine this proposition and test it against the arguments of reason and the weight of empirical evidence. There are two components to the proposition: faith and development. Taken separately, they are relatively unproblematic. Most people consider development...

Education, Religion / 22.08.2008

Unacceptable levels of poverty continue to prevail in South Asia. In order to understand the nature of this poverty we have to first challenge the popularly held beliefs about its causes. Just as there are people who believe that illiteracy or overpopulation are the major causes of poverty, there are others who attribute it to corruption and argue that nothing can be done till corruption is eliminated. There is no doubt that corruption is a pervasive and aggravating phenomenon but even a cursory look at hard data and a comparative analysis should make one skeptical of the assertion that it is a major cause of underdevelopment in South Asia. China provides one contrary example. The issue of corruption is very high on the political agenda of the Chinese government and people holding very high offices have been executed for related crimes. But despite the corruption the economy has...

Ghalib / 21.08.2008

This week’s shai’r is the following: bachte nahiiN mu’aakhazah-e roz-e hashr se qatil agar raqiib hai to tum gavaah ho there is no escape from the reckoning of the Day of Judgment if the rival is the murderer, you are a witness too The shai’r illustrates nicely why Ghalib remains relevant to us today and how he is able to look beyond the partial view to bring the broader context to our attention. The conventional interpretation is in the context of the lover and the beloved. The rival has murdered the lover in connivance with the beloved. Ghalib addresses the beloved to say that you may escape punishment in this world but since you knew about the crime and remained silent you will be charged whenever there is a fuller accounting as on the Day of Judgment. (A detailed interpretation is posted on Mehr-e-Niimroz.) We can lean on this shai’r to reflect...

Education / 21.08.2008

There are many people who argue that the biggest problem in South Asia is overpopulation. This assertion has been repeated so often over the years that it has almost become common wisdom. Its adherents include a lot of well-educated individuals and one often hears the argument from government officials as an explanation for the inability to reduce poverty. There are a number of problems with this simple proposition. First of all, population is not a very useful measure by itself simply because it fails to account for the size of the land in which the population resides. Some countries like Russia have a very large area while others like Singapore have a very small one. Therefore the appropriate indicator to use in order to make valid comparisons is population density (i.e., population per unit of land area).
 Using this indicator one would find, for example, that Belgium...

Democracy/Governance, Education, Governance, South Asia / 18.08.2008

It is often argued that illiteracy is the biggest problem in South Asia and also that illiteracy is the reason for poverty. What is the evidence for such assertions? Let us start with a couple of concrete examples: Over the past fifteen years, the proportion of the population living under extreme poverty in Pakistan has risen from 13 to 33 percent but illiteracy has declined during this period. Therefore, the explanation for the increase in poverty in Pakistan cannot be attributed to illiteracy. India has a considerably higher literacy rate than Pakistan but the incidence of poverty in India was comparable to that in Pakistan for many years.  The recent trend in poverty reduction in India cannot be attributed to a sudden increase in literacy. This is not to argue that illiteracy does not matter. Clearly a literate work force can be much more productive than an illiterate one...


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