Where are the opportunities for the poor?

written by Dr. Nadeem ul Haque

PM has announced an EHSAS program for poverty alleviation — an admirable step. But more than government aid the poor need to be included in cities of opportunity. Handouts and credit and online opportunities are not a substitute for opportunity.

Think about it many of our poor have climbed into the middle class thanks to the opportunity of migration which they grasped eagerly even at huge cost to themselves.

Contrary to what Pakistani analysts put out, poverty is always caused by exclusion from opportunity. Give the poor a chance and they will lift themselves out of poverty.

A starting point could be an attempt to look into the apartheid social regime we have created. Could the extreme degree of exclusion of the poor (basically the non-elite) be at the heart of our troubles? Ask yourself the following questions and see if you agree with the answers and you will see for yourself how the poor are excluded:

1. where do the poor live?

The poor are totally excluded from elite space; they are seen only as servants and the only place allocated to them in the cities are servant quarters.

Most of the population needs small — one- to two-room — flats. But where can they be put? Zoning laws in our cities do not allow this except on the outer reaches. Council houses in London exist side by side with expensive housing. Not so in Pakistan. The rich and the poor cannot mix. We cannot have high rises looking into the residences of the rich.

The rich want conveniently located polo grounds and golf courses, giant parks to jog in and, of course, nice big lawns for their parties. They want sleek, low-rise cities where their cars can move easily from their estates to their leisure activities — golf and polo. The rich want zoning laws so that there is no high-rise construction or congestion in their park-like setting.

2. What do the poor do?

The elite policymaker, who is often an industrialist, looks to industrial parks and subsidies for employment of the non-elite; no matter that factory employment lags way behind employment in the services sector.

With technological advancement, no longer are giant factories employing millions of workers. Large numbers are now employed in construction, shopping malls, hotels and the leisure industry. But that is anathema to planners and zoners, who are from the elite civil service. All retail, warehousing, leisure and community enterprises, and the non-elite, are regarded as non-essential. These then expand informally on residential property. Limited development of these activities means less employment for the non-elite.

3. How do the poor work their way out of poverty?

Traditionally education has been an equalizer. However, in the Pakistani apartheid system, this is not happening. The rich educate their kids overseas to leave the local education system in a permanent state of disrepair. Many years ago, driver Majeed declared quite openly his intention not to educate his son because Urdu-medium public schools do not offer children upward mobility even after years of education. Only a few months ago, talking to me a 26-year-old driver in Dubai cursed his over twelve years of Urdu-medium education from Pakistan that only qualifies him for menial jobs — a waste.

4. So, what about entrepreneurship by the poor?

The poor have traditionally helped themselves by running street hawking businesses and khokhas (kiosks). They used to be around a few years ago. But administrations have become vigilant and do not allow these in rich areas. And, of course, there can be no zoning for them.

Where is the space for poor entrepreneurship? We need wide avenues for the Porsches and the BMWs! We also need large urban tracts for golf courses, polo grounds and giant parks (lungs of the city). So, let these people go to shantytowns in the outskirts of our cities.

5. Does the state not help the poor?

Every now and then, politicians set aside a large amount and give it a donor-inspired name like Income Support Fund or Social Protection. Much bureaucracy, Land Cruisers, consultants and plush offices later, the poor get some minor rationing subsidy. Most often, it is some form of food coupons, cash transfers, a yellow cab scheme or micro-credit. How strange: give them food and capital but no place for entrepreneurship.

Interestingly enough, the state subsidy to industry is way more than the state has ever spent on the poor. And the subsidy to the industry goes directly into the pockets of the rich.

6. What about enlightened self-interest and noblesse oblige?

In history, enlightened self-interest has led the rich to invest in some social mobility. Philanthropy has set up universities and community infrastructure to level the playing field for the poor. Royalty always patronized intellect. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, philanthropy means building for the rich — country clubs, polo grounds, LUMS and Aitchison College: places for elite use that, for the most part, do nothing for the excluded.

As a footnote, the rich do not even visit the poor campuses to mentor and interact with the underprivileged. They have no time for these trivialities.

7. What about leisure and community for the poor?

Leisure and community are only for the rich. City zoning provides fully subsidized space for the elite to play golf, tennis and polo, even for rich schools, but there is not an inch of space for community and leisure for the poor. No public libraries, no community centers, no publicly provided football fields or even a basketball court for the poor. Even competitive sport as a vehicle for social mobility is completely ruled out as a result.

8. Who offers the poor hope?

Certainly not the government! Certainly not the donors with their minor employees! The liberal elite made big promises and delivered nothing. The promise of globalization and liberalization has rightly lost its luster in the minds of the poor.

Theatre, cinema, or any form of intellectual activity that will offer an alternative vision has been zoned out. Where should the poor look for a vision; who offers them hope; who offers them community; who gives them some opportunity; who gives them the vision of a just society?

But there is hope for them! Think about it. It is the mosque and the maulvi. Mosques remain totally unregulated, need no zoning permission and have been actively encouraged by the state. Not surprisingly, the mosque is the only community center for the excluded poor; the unregulated maulvi the only visionary. This is the unintended consequence of the greedy, unenlightened behavior of our elite.

More than handouts, the poor need space in cities. Include them.


  1. If I am not very wrong Mr. Nadeem ul Haque was the deputy chairman in the planning omission perhaps.In a conference arranged by the USAID in the Serena, he confessed twice,he failed in doing so and so.
    But it would be better if his activities are provided to the public along with success story thus we could thank him and his team who helped the poor and the deprived and the unheard and uncounted in the society had access to justice,that means the people at higher poverty levels were considered before the planning commission for their poverty alleviation and thus by their prudent policies some of the 0.5 % have had access to their economic justice and now the remaining are in the pipe lines for proceeding further.But we did not see such a loved story with that would force us to thank the intellectuals and the think tanks of the planning omission unfortunately.It is thus a lullabying tricks for just posing one’s intellectualism no doubt that serves the elites,the rulers, the power corridors, the Mundi Mafia, the tax thieves.
    The nation since 1947 did not see one policy that have had witnessed the news items or our story, by saying the people, we have been helped in reducing our so so issues up to %.

  2. Dr Sb thanks for the great insight. Here is true story of my parents who availed “opportunity of migration”. My father & mother both belonged to a lower middle class of a rural area. My father moved to a city for further education after his matriculation. He was the only child my grandparents could afford to get university education. He got a public job after his graduation and retired as 19th grade officer. My mother completed P.T.C. living in a village and eventually got a job as PTC teacher there. When we — the three kids — were born our mother also moved to city for our schooling. We lived in an official residence provided to my father. My parents could afford good education for all of us. Both never did corruption; lived moderately; saved and invested in urban real estate. Inspired by the output of real estate investment in urban real estate, they sold land holding in village and put that money in urban real estate. By the time, both of them retired they had 15 marla land in city and could build home in half of the area using the amounts they received upon retirement. While they started collecting pension, we the kids were the new earning force in the home. Had they decided to live in village, the entire scenrio would be different as it is for my uncle who and whose kids remained in village and are still poor. So yes, there are opportunities in urbanization and challenges are 1) Housing 2) Quality education 3) Earning opportunities 4) investment opportunities

  3. Der Artikel ist wirklich toll. Das Thema hat mich schon immer interessiert und ich konnte hier noch einiges ergänzendes finden. Ich
    kann es kaum erwarten, weitere Artikel zu lesen. Danke
    und Grüße aus Heidelberg Marco Feindler

  4. Callousness of elites has made them more insecure in Pakistan, Seditions,extrajudicial killings, Crimes, offences of one elite group on another elite group is making them to suffer .same is happening with the poor ,intensification of their vulnerabilities has become their problem because they are being socially programmed to not comprehend the meaning of community. I am the poorest of the poorest and i have been beaten up by my own community members so many times . We poor should have clear understanding of the connotations community first .isn’t it .

  5. Dr Nadeem UL haq greatly explain the things Which holy prophet Muhammad saw Said 14 hundreds year ago that we don’t allow to expand citites out their boundaries And resources for that purpose we develop other areas And move resources to attractive resources to other places.
    If Dr Nadeem UL haq’s advice are not accepted or implimented than who theses elites Will allow

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