Pakistan: A Tale of two Countries

Mohsin Zeb

Pakistan is a country deeply divided. Not so much between moderates and radicals as the
vast majority of Pakistanis have rejected radicalism – as evidenced both by the widespread public opposition to extremism who because of their inability to convince the people have had to resort to shooting schoolgirls who they cannot beat in intellectual debate, but also in the routine failure of religiously based parties to make any impact in national elections. No, Pakistan’s biggest and most telling divide is an economic one – or perhaps more accurately a divide in opportunities between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have not’s.


The nature of this divide encompasses all facets of life, from economics, education, access to healthcare, public services and pretty much everything else. The divide can be broadly seen as one between rural and urban Pakistan – although even within this basic schism, further divides exist.

The data underscores this reality quite starkly. The last internal Human Development Report within Pakistan took place in 2005 and it highlights the development disparity between both urban and rural Pakistan and between the core cities and other urban areas. As per Haroon Jamal and Amir Jahan Khan’s report, the HDI score for Urban Pakistan is 0.656 on a 0-1 scale. For rural Pakistan it is 0.496 – a vast gap between solidly middle and low human development levels. Now, whilst this data is from 2005, a newer report has not been commissioned and having visited Pakistan twice in the years between 2005 and now, the chasm in development strikes me as accurate and true.

However, there is further disparity within the urban areas. Islamabad, the picturesque capital enjoys a HDI score of 0.802 – high human development. Karachi, the economic engine of the country, is also pushing ‘high development’ with a score of 0.789 – which may well now be over 0.8 if data is upgraded – although there was in 2011/12 a change in formula used to calculate HDI. Pakistan’s other core city – Lahore, scored slightly lower at 0.688 in the 2005 report.

Now some smaller cities score well, but largely, other areas fall far behind. Not only does this leave a divide between the rural and urban populations, it also isolates Pakistan’s core cities from the remainder of the urban areas. Nor does the divide stop at levels of development – the gulf expands to isolate Pakistan’s growing middle class – defined as those with income in purchasing power of $10,000 + per year – from the rest of the population. The size of Pakistan’s middle class is, according to the World Economic Forum “approximately 30 million” – or about 1/6 of the population. This segment – almost entirely found across the core cities with additional sections found in the major industrial cities like Faisalabad and Sialkot – enjoy access to all the conveniences of modern life. This includes access to the luxury brand names across all goods that are beyond the dreams of the common Pakistani.

However, whilst this middle class of 30 odd million creates a substantial consumer base –
it does underscore the gap between the privileged and the masses. Pakistan’s GDP in PPP terms is estimated to be $514 billion – meaning if the privileged 1/6 consume 300 billion of it, the remaining 150 million people have annual incomes of a touch over $1400 – or about 1/7 of the income of the ‘middle class’.

In actuality, these rough figures don’t count the super rich 1 percent or so, who have tremendous wealth, nor can they account for the undocumented economy or the impact of remittances (now thought to be $14 billion annually) but they serve to highlight the wealth disparity that scars Pakistan. Such a divide is exacerbated by the common decision of those in the middle and elite classes to enrol their charges in private schools – bypassing the shambolic state secondary sector entirely. This same group of people make up Pakistan’s civil society – academics, journalists, thinkers, writers, commentators et al – and unsurprisingly dominate the main political parties in the country. Thus Pakistan represents a case where the economic power, political power and true civil society have coalesced broadly into one – being as each group overlaps massively with each other and all fall into the privileged 1/6 of the population.

At its core, this coming together of economic and political interests is why the common
Pakistani can find little hope under this system. Why would those who can, change a system that suits them perfectly? They have money, material comfort, good schools, good healthcare and power and, by virtue of a massive underclass, access to an unlimited pool of cheap labour to cook, clean, wash, drive or shop for them. The system has come to perpetuate itself by closing off access to the underclass. The only escape for a boy in a village is the army, or as hundreds of thousands do every year – emigration to another land to earn for his family back home. I penned some thoughts of this near economic apartheid whilst in Pakistan a month ago, only to now flesh it out into this piece.

The solution – short of a military coup with a leftist General committed to a more egalitarian society coming to power – is a change in outlook from the ‘haves’. This will not happen unless Imran Khan comes to power. His democratic socialism is a boon to the masses, but he faces down the entire system. In this inequality lies the core of Pakistan’s other issues. Radicalism (the poorest go to madrassas), ethnic tension (flare ups occur in the poorer provinces) and a loss of hope. Underfunding of education undercuts growth prospects, but those in power continue to devote a tiny fraction of GDP to it. To educate the masses would expose the situation they have created where all cards are stacked to perpetuate the advantages they now enjoy.

There are as witnessed two Pakistan’s. One is urban – isolated into affluent sectors of main cities, with material comfort and modern conveniences and increasingly detached from the masses by virtue of wilful ignorance fostered in their country clubs and schools and physical separation. Then there is the ‘common mans’ Pakistan – a struggle to get by, either in the urban outskirts or the rural backwaters. This Pakistan represents most of the people who can aspire to better their lot only through the military or emigration (with rare exceptions). This societal system has created a situation akin to Tsarist Russia with the elite exploiting a serf class who have been browbeaten into ‘place’, or perhaps Batista’s Cuba where a relative few enjoyed good lives whilst the majority struggled.

I am not calling for a revolution ‘Cuba style’, or indeed an uprising. I am calling for a
controlled shift in outlook from those who have the levers of influence – perhaps it will come when the younger generation of ‘haves’ replace the current set and bring in more egalitarian perspectives. Solutions are complex, but it must include an increased tax take (get the richto pay and expand the tax infrastructure to the areas outside of big cities) that is then spent on education and development for the poorest.

The 30 million strong middle class and the small elite above them represents a population larger than most countries. But it must try to raise the remainder up with it. The years from 2000 to now will be known as the time when Pakistan’s middle class truly emerged, but the next phase must be expanding the humanist touch in that society to assist all and place the country on a stronger long term footing. To date, only Imran Khan seems to understand that this gross inequality, which sees most of the people exploited, lies at the heart of most of Pakistan’s political and social ills.

I have been to Pakistan a few times. Each time shows an increasing divide between the
Pakistan that exists for the privileged and that which represents the ‘other’ Pakistan. Pakistan has in recent times slipped down the income equality rankings, with the richest 10 or 15 percent consuming an ever greater slice of the pie. Perhaps that is a step in development, but I don’t get the feeling that the elites intend to bring the masses up. Nor do the masses hold out much hope from those I talked to.

All large developing states have a sizable consumer class which is a positive development.But the sign of social and moral maturity is when those who have opportunity try and expand opportunities to all their fellow citizens. Only when the masses can get a decent education and access to social mobility will Pakistan – or any developing state for that matter – truly reach its potential.

I hope when I next visit Pakistan to see such developments taking place.

Mohsin Zeb, PhD candidate University College London.


‘When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite’.

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