Social Inequality and Sustainable Development in Pakistan


According to the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022, in some countries, women are more than twice as likely as men to experience discrimination on the grounds of sex. One third of persons with disabilities experience discrimination. The pandemic has further intensified structural and systemic discrimination whereas the post-Covid recoveries appear to be sluggish. A rise in income inequalities has been witnessed, jeopardising decades of progress and worse yet, this increase may become entrenched due to the pandemic induced disruptions with the low-income households bearing the brunt, exacerbating intergenerational mobility.  Discrimination remains pervasive among women and people with disabilities with roughly one in five people having experienced discrimination on at least one of the grounds prohibited under international human rights law. Social inequalities have been plaguing Pakistan and evolving into a vicious self perpetuating cycle of crises that is incapacitating the development opportunities for the country.

While the world moves towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Pakistan’s performance remains modest at best. While Pakistan has shown some progress in SDG 1 (no poverty) SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 17 (partnership for goals), its progress on certain dimensions of Sustainable Development lacks ground. With respect to SDG 4 (quality education), Pakistan’s progress remains dismal, with a surging 9.2 million children out-of-school. The national literacy rate remains stagnant at 60%. Performance along SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) indicators is sluggish, with high levels of income inequalities and declining real GDP per capita rate. In the times of climate change urgency, Pakistan’s contribution to SDG 13 (climate change) is minimal with growing greenhouse gas emissions and current highly monopolised fossil fuel system.

Pakistan is no exception when it comes to social inequalities. There are evident multifaceted inequalities within the country along spatial, ethnic, gender demarcations and concomitantly affect the human development prospects. Pakistan remains a highly unequal society and the gnawing divide between the have and have-nots seems to be ever increasing, not only in terms of economic disparity and income inequality but is also influenced by gender identities. Women, generally, bear the brunt of poverty more than men, hence the phenomenon “Feminisation of Poverty”. In Pakistan, the 18 million richest people’s total consumption is 1.5 million more than the poorest 75 million. Inequality has varied manifestations – racial, economic, gender – and they all work in conjunction to make it pervasive.

Pakistan ranks last in women participation in the workforce among South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), as per Oxfam study. Women comprise 42pc of total family labour but unfortunately this major contribution goes unrewarded and unacknowledged as their output has never been recorded in national statistics. Female labour participation has a 17pc rate as compared to a major 71pc that of males. Agriculture might have the largest female participation but approximately 80pc of women are unpaid workers. What’s even more worse is the fact that women own less than 3pc of the land despite being such a strident force.

The number of out of school children in Pakistan is the second highest in the world, even though Pakistan’s constitution promises education as fundamental right and assures free and compulsory education for all children up to 16 years of age. Gender disparity in education represents an even bleaker picture indicating that for every 100 boys only 86 girls are attending primary or lower secondary school. These numbers represent the social and economic impediments and pressures that prevent girls from attending schools.

The declining middle class may be attributed to Pakistan’s drive towards adopting liberalisation of trade, the stringent conditionalities imposed by International Financial Institutions (IFI)  for debt restructuring, ongoing inflation and surge in global commodity prices to name a few. Elite Capture can explain the low levels of direct taxation and overall low tax-to-GDP ratio, both contributing to economic inequality. Within a regressive taxation system, the burden of taxes fall on the poor and marginalised sectors of the economy, thereby impairing their ability to spend and invest in productive ventures such as education and healthcare, thus further deepening inequality.

Extreme inequality dynamics as such pervading in the society plagues the society with the menaces of corruption, poverty trap, stifles social and economic mobility and thwarts potential for development. It not only presents a threat to the democratic system but also deepens the quandary of poverty, engulfing the society into  self-perpetuating destructive crises.

Such social inequalities become an impediment in achieving sustainable development, threatens long term social and economic development, harms poverty reduction and destroys people’s sense of fulfilment and self-worth, which in turn engenders poverty, crime rates and environmental degradation. Sustainability cannot be achieved if people are excluded from the hope and chance for a better life. Sustainable development can be achieved making the planet better for all only when it’s all-inclusive, leaving no one behind.

 There may be no simple panacea for solving social inequalities in Pakistan, but responsibility to make a change should be actualized and the buck must stop somewhere.

For starters, the government must prioritise and enhance expenditure in Public Sector Development Work (PSDP) and social safety nets. More programmes such as Benazir Income Support Group (BISP) should be implemented to reach the poorest and marginalised groups of the society via an all-inclusive participatory approach. Secondly, the government needs to improve the asset holding capacity of the poor and marginalised through tangible asset for instance loan programmes, land reforms, agriculture and micro credit for farmers, as well as intangible assets such as educational, technical and vocational skills and training. Furthermore, as an economic security measure, the government should introduce a minimum wage and a minimum employment guarantee scheme and ensure its implementation across federal and provincial levels.

For reducing inequalities, greater efforts should be mobilised towards transformative change, by eradicating extreme poverty, hunger and prioritising investments in education, healthcare and social protection. Political, economic and social policies should be formed paying special attention to disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable communities. Governments, NGOs, Civil Society and other major stakeholders need to ensure that developing countries are better represented in decision making on global concerns in order to make the solutions more credible, accountable and effective.

In the midst of struggling with a moribund economy and plethora of crises, Pakistan cannot afford to delay its development opportunities due to social divides. Understanding the various manifestations of social inequalities in Pakistan and preparing tailor made solutions rather than resorting to adhocism and cookie cutter approach, is crucial in mitigating the current quagmire by taking the first step towards sustainable growth.

Rameen Siddiqui
Rameen Siddiqui
I am a young leader and activist and my main focus areas are Sustainable Development, Political Economy and Advocacy. Also a Youth Member of United Nations Association of Pakistan (UNAP), Currently pursuing BS Economics and Finance from Greenwich University.


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