economics and society

Major revolutions can be created by everyone doing the little bit that they can. This was the driving idea behind the article below, written for the Pakistani context. It was published in the Express Tribune on March 16th, 2017

The right nutrition between pregnancy and the second birthday has a dramatic effect on a child’s ability to grow, learn and thrive. Failure to provide adequately for the baby’s needs during this critical window can never be compensated for later. With one of the largest population of young people in the world, Pakistan faces a unique challenge. How can we ensure that all babies conceived and born in Pakistan receive the best care that we as a nation can provide? Our future literally depends on how well we can meet this challenge. At a rough guess, about 10 million children in Pakistan would lie in this critical target range. The challenge of providing adequately for all of them is too large for any organisation, including the government to meet. It would be entirely correct to call this situation a silent mega crisis, a problem bigger than the earthquakes and floods which received far more publicity and attention. Meeting the challenge requires all of us to work together on an out-of-the-box campaign, which could provide all the children of Pakistan with a brighter future. If approximately 100 million adults work together for a common goal, we can easily solve the problem which would be impossibly difficult to tackle by any other method.

The first step in this campaign is to take responsibility. We must not ask what other people or organisations are doing to address this crisis. We must ask ourselves what I can do to solve a tiny part of the problem that is within my reach. Ownership and responsibility have magical powers to create solutions. When it comes to my own children, I do everything in my power to ensure that they receive the best possible care. We must take collective ownership of all the children in Pakistan, and strive hard to do everything in our power to serve the needs of those children that fall within our circle of capabilities. The goal of our campaign is to create a million drivers of change — every driver takes creative responsibility for thinking about, and executing, what he or she, or the institution within which they work, can do about the mega crisis that faces our children. The possibilities are endless, and no one person can even conceive of all the projects that could be undertaken by one million drivers of change. Nonetheless, for the sake of illustration, let me list a few major areas which require attention.

Starting from the beginning, we need to take better nutritional care of pregnant women. Doctors and hospitals could design awareness campaigns about their dietary requirements, including micronutrients. The media could play their role by creating shows and news items which highlight the importance of providing the right kind of nutrition to pregnant and lactating women. Different institutions, like shops, restaurants, small scale business enterprises could offer to provide resources to women and children in their neighborhoods, according to their capabilities. Food manufactures should introduce special lines of nutritious foods, to provide delicious and healthy alternatives to junk food. Larger organisations like universities, big business, NGOs, etc., should participate on a grander scale. They should provide thought leadership in design and execution of appropriate strategies, as well as providing research input on the effectiveness on different types of interventions. If every individual and institution can take responsibility for changing a few lives, this would create the desired mega-response required to solve the mega crisis. But the key to this campaign is that we should not wait for someone to tell us what needs to be done. Just as we take responsibility for our own children, making plans without expecting other to help us in bringing them up, so we need to take ownership of all children that we can reach. As Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” We need to change our mindsets from being a spectator of events taking place in Pakistan to a game player and a game changer, who creates the events that others talk about.

The government should play the role of enabler and facilitator, cutting through bureaucratic red tape for the sake of our children. The First Thousand Days campaign must rise above political, racial, ethnic geographic, linguistic, religious and sectarian divides. There are many government programmes already in existence which deal with issues related to mothers and infants. Inefficiencies in these programmes exist because dying, malnourished and stunted babies do not figure prominently on our priority list of problems to be solved. Political obstacles could be removed if all relevant parties agreed to put our children first, ahead of all other concerns. Anxieties of Malthusians concerned about population growth should be relieved by research which shows that the poor have excessive children as old-age life insurance. When health and prospects for children improve, the birthrate goes down.

Babies come into the world as a bundle of joy, trusting and trustworthy, full of love for all, and with the capability to spread sunshine and happiness. If this campaign achieves nothing more than increasing our own personal interactions with the children of Pakistan, this will contribute tremendously to our own personal happiness in our daily lives. Just the memory of a baby’s smile full of love and trust is enough to bring warmth and happiness into our lives, and refresh our confidence in the future. To solve the great problems of the world — wars, terrorism, greed, violence, intolerance, hatred, etc., — we need to learn the qualities of innocent babies. As the Bible states, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Ancient wisdom, which we have neglected or forgotten, tells us that if we take good care of our children, they will take good care of us. Let us pledge ourselves to take better care of our children in Pakistan, and to personally ensure that at least a few children receive adequate nutrition through our own efforts. Amazingly, children thrive on love, developing stronger immunity, and better cognitive skills. Perhaps we don’t have enough material resources for all, but surely we can provide enough love to make our children feel that they are most beloved people on the planet.


1000 word summary of Quaid-e-Azam Lecture at PSDE 33rd AGM held on 14th Dec, 2017 at Islamabad. Published in Express Tribunethe Nation 13th Jan 2018. 43m Video Lecture on YouTube:

The main thesis of our lecture is that our quest for prosperity has failed to deliver the sought-after goals because we have misunderstood the meaning of prosperity , and looked for it where it cannot be found. We base our economic policies on modern economic theory, which is based on the amazing assumption that human beings act to maximize lifetime consumption, since this is the sole source of human welfare. Human beings are far more generous and cooperative than the assumptions of economic theory allow for. Even more important is Richard Easterlin’s discovery that enormously increased levels of consumption do not bring about corresponding increases in happiness. Consumption only brings short-run happiness; long-run happiness has no correlation with consumption, and is far better correlated with character traits like generosity and gratitude. Mindless pursuit of wealth, implemented by policies to maximize growth, has led to increasing misery, instead of prosperity . Growth-oriented policies have destroyed family lives, engaging all members in production of wealth, and they have damaged our environment, destroying the future of our species for short run gains. Can this damage be reversed? Can we improve human lives and welfare, and also stave off the impending environmental crisis? At the core of the crisis we face is the prioritization of wealth over human beings. A market economy cheapens human beings because it is based on the idea that human lives are commodities for sale in the labor market. Reversing these priorities requires the recognition that all human lives are infinitely precious, with amazing potentials and capabilities for growth in dimensions unknown. Taking this principle seriously would require re-writing all economics textbooks, and radically re-organizing our economic, political and social institutions. Taking collective responsibility to ensure that all members of a society get the chance to develop their capabilities would be a new definition of prosperity , very different from GNP per capita, which is the current focus of policy makers across the globe.

Modern economic theory makes accumulation of wealth the goal of economic activity, and values human lives only to the extent that they contribute to production. How can we reverse these priorities, putting the enrichment and empowerment of human lives at the center, and valuing wealth only to the extent that it is helpful in achieving this goal? The first requirement is to win the battle of ideas, creating consensus on the prioritization of human beings over material wealth. To do this, we need to recognize modern economic theory for what it is, instead of what it claims to be. To accomplish this goal, it is useful to label modern economic theory as Economic Theory of the Top 1% — or ET1% — and explain how all aspects of this theory are designed to portray increasing wealth of the top 1% as the goal of society, and also to show that this serves to benefit the entire society. For example, use of GNP per capita as a yardstick of social welfare exactly fits this description, since gains to the top 1% are first divided over the entire population and then measured, thus appearing to be generally beneficial, when in fact they are not. Overcoming this deception will involve replacing ET1% by ET90% — a new economic theory for the bottom 90%.

Karl Marx clearly recognized the deceptive nature of economic theory, and stated that functioning of capitalism requires convincing the laborers of the necessity and fairness of their own exploitation. ET1% does this by arguing the growth is the best policy to pursue for all, since benefits which obviously accrue to the rich will eventually trickle down to the poor. In contrast, Marx offered us ET90% by asking for a shift from each according to his abilities (to gather wealth) to “each according to his needs”, thereby prioritizing the needs of the poor over growth to provide more wealth to the already wealthy.

As a prescription for change, Marx urged the laborers of the bottom 90% to unite, and throw off their chains.  Experience shows that we can successfully unite laborers to revolt against the capitalists, but after the revolution, control necessarily remains in the hand of a small minority. The nature of power is such that this small minority is likely to be corrupted by it, and use it for personal gains, and to oppress the majority. Just like democracy has failed to give ‘power to the people’, so alternative systems of government also fail.

The Islamic solution works along different dimensions. It seeks to co-opt the rich and powerful, instead of killing them off, and replacing by another set of rich and powerful. This is done by creating social norms of generosity and social responsibility. Fourteen centuries ago, the revolutionary teachings of Islam led backwards and ignorant Arabs to world leadership. These teachings include the ideas that the best leader is the servant of the people, that power is given to us in order to protect the weak, and wealth is meant to be given to the needy. Widespread acceptance of these ideas created a society which provided basic needs, health care, and education to all members using the institutions of Waqf, and the norms of collective social responsibility and brotherhood. Because these ideas have been forgotten, they continue to have the same revolutionary potential today, as they did 1400 years ago. The most important first step in this revolution is sensitizing our hearts to feel compassion for sufferings of all mankind. The feeling that all of the creation is the family of God, and service to humanity, and all living creatures, is the highest form of worship, is essential motivation for the Herculean efforts required to create revolutionary changes required to reverse the increasing concentration of wealth at the top and misery at the bottom.

Current food challenges involve issues ranging from land and food access to commodity price volatility, besides national and international regulation. Although the scope and intensity of these challenges vary according to the different economic and social situations of countries, the debate has been global.

Today, once again, these issues arise deep concerns on behalf of the 2017 WTO ministerial conference  that has just been closed, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Indeed, the WTO has not seemed to enhance effective actions on long-standing proposals. Agriculture negotiations remain among the most important and challenging issues. These negotiations began in 2000 as part of the mandated “built-in agenda” agreed at the end of the 1986-1994 Uruguay Round and, then, they were incorporated into the Doha Round launched at the end of 2001.

The process of globalization of capital in agriculture and food production has shaped a global network of institutions that supplies the worldwide food markets. Contract farming and integrated supply chains are deeply transforming the structure of the agriculture and food industries and, as a result, they have put the local farm sector under high pressure. Further, the expansion of big investment projects, led by transnational companies and institutional investors, has expose small farmers to a situation of hunger and food insecurity by expelling them from the land where they live. In addition to these challenges, the biotech revolution and the introduction of genetically improved varieties of seeds have fostered structural changes.

While the agriculture and food systemic changes are linked to financial and trade flows – mainly profit-driven – international organizations and non-governmental organizations have shaped hunger reduction projects. More recently, for example poverty and hunger reduction targets have been included in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). In truth, hunger and poverty are correlated issues. They are primarily linked to land access, income distribution, employment and food prices, among other factors.

In this scenario, even with the global financial crisis, international prices for agricultural commodities remained substantially above historical averages. Some factors contributed to these high prices:  growth of the world’s population, growth of the Chinese GDP and the urbanization of China. As a result,  at the end of the 2000s, the FAO predicted the global challenge of “a decade of high food prices” and pointed out the need to increase food production.

Since 2014, global commodity crop prices have come back to pre-food-crisis levels. Indeed, the pre-crisis rising food prices turned out to draw investment into agriculture, mainly in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine, and other exporters of commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans. However, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), the American exports of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton at prices has been characterized by significant “dumping margins”.

What seems relevant to recall is that the financialization of cop prices and their volatility are systemic challenges. On behalf of these challenges, there has been a global increase not only in the vulnerability of small farmers but also in the number of chronically hungry people – that amounts more than 800 million. Considering this background, after a decade of high prices, current low crop prices and dumped crops – without effective WTO proposals and actions – will drive the most vulnerable people even more into hunger and poverty.


FAO. The future of food and agriculture – Trends and challenges. 2017. Rome.

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Excessive Speculation in Agriculture Commodities: Selected Writings from 2008–2011. Ben Lilliston and Andrew Ranallo (Editors). IATP, 2011. Available on line at:  Accessed 29 July 2016.

United Nations. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2012. Available on line at: Accessed 20 April 2016.

WTO. 2017 Ministerial Conference. Agriculture.

The roots of gender and poverty studies began with Pearce (1978) who coined the expression ‘feminization of poverty’. Pearce considered female-headed families, excluding poor women who live in male- headed families, based on the argument that the proportion of families headed by women among the poor has been  increasing since the 1950s. In her opinion, women have become poorer because of their gender.

The recent dynamics of the global labour market has reinforced the precariousness of women’s employment and working conditions. Among other issues, the recent global highlights about the participation of women in the labour markets are listed below:

Unemployment: Women are more likely to be unemployed than men, with global unemployment rates of 5.5 per cent for men and 6.2 per cent for women

Informal Work:      In 2015, a total of 586 million women were own-account or contributing family workers. Many working women remain in occupations that are more likely to consist of informal work arrangements

Wage and salaried jobs: Moreover, 52.1 per cent of women and 51.2 per cent of men in the labour market are wage and salaried workers.

Jobs and occupations by economic sectors:  Globally, the services sector has overtaken agriculture as the sector that employs the highest number of women and men. In the period between 1995 and 2015, women are employed in the services sector: since 1995, women’s employment in services has increased from 41.1 per cent to 61.5 per cent.

High-skilled occupations: High-skilled occupations expanded faster for women than for men in emerging economies where there is a gender gap in high-skilled employment in women’s favour.

Part-time jobs: Globally, women represent less than 40 per cent of total  employment, but make up 57 per cent of those working on a part-time basis.

Hours of work: Across the global labour scenario, one fourth of women in employment (25.7 per cent) work more than 48 hours a week, mainly in Eastern , Western and Central Asia, where almost half of  women employed work more than 48 hours a week.

Gender wage gap: Globally, women earn 77 per cent of what men earn.


Indeed, although women have been increasing their participation rate in the labor market in the last decades, they worked in more precarious occupations. This situation characterized by precarious jobs, mainly based on short-term contracts, enhances the vulnerability of workers, mainly women, as the financialization of management strategies turns out to be subordinated to economic efficiency targets, that shape employment relations, overwhelmed by longer working hours, job destruction, turnover and outsourcing. Workforce displacement and loss of rights could also be part of the spectrum of management alternatives aimed at cost reduction. In addition to the wage gap, women’s participation is stronger in the services sector where working hours are longer and wages lower.

Besides, unpaid work could also be considered an extra onus on women. In addition to women´s challenges in the labour market, the increasing weight of unpaid work is more likely when women become unemployed and return to their homes and take more responsibility for housework than men, or because the loss of family income makes it impossible to support the remuneration of domestic workers. Gender-differentiated time use patterns are affected by many factors, including:  household composition (age and gender composition of household members); seasonal considerations; regional and geographic factors; availability of infrastructure and social services. But social and cultural norms also play an important role both in defining, and sustaining rigidity in, the gender division of labour.

Building on the United Nations goals, gender equality is required for the erradication of the many dimensions of poverty and to promote sustainable human development. Taking into account a macroeconomic approach to the labour markets, the “vicious circle” of impoverishment could be surmounted if policy makers rethink employment an income policies under a gender approach to the labour markets.


Ilo (2016)—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_457086.pdf

Pearce, Diana (1978). “The feminization of poverty: women, work, and welfare”. Urban and Social Change Review, Special Issue: Women and Work, Vol. 11, No. 1-2, pp. 28–36.

Because of Western dominance, brilliant thinkers from the East get very little attention in global media. Even though brilliant economists from East Asia and China have created globally acknowledged economic miracles in their countries, none of them have received a Nobel Prize. On the other hand, Western economists whose theories were demonstrably in conflict with the events that took place in the global financial crisis — like Lucas, and Fama — have received Nobels. One of our greatest un-sung Eastern Heroes is Mahbubul Haq. My recently published article describes the revolution he created in economic thought:

Goethe starts his famous East-West Divan with a poem about the journey (Hegire), both physical and spiritual, from the West to the East. In this essay, we consider the analogous journey from Western to Eastern conceptions of development. This involves switching from viewing humans as producers of wealth, to viewing wealth as a producer of human development. To start with the Western conceptions, both Adam Smith and Karl Marx defined economic growth as the process of accumulation of wealth. The range of diversity of Western thought is bounded by the Left-Right spectrum. Ideas on which both extremes agree command widespread consensus in the West. Consequently, a core concept of modern economic theory is that wealth is the means and ends of the process of economic development. Unfortunately, due to the dominance and influence of Western paradigms, this concept has been widely accepted and adopted in the East today.

Mahbubul Haq was indoctrinated into the Western development paradigm which gives primacy to wealth at leading universities, Yale and Harvard. He got the chance to apply these economic models as the chief economist in Pakistan during the ’60s. However, because of his Eastern upbringing and heritage, he was able to see the murderous message at the heart of the cold mathematics of the Solow-Swan growth models. These models focus on savings, created by reducing present levels of consumption, as the only route to the accumulation of greater future wealth.

Mahbubul Haq realised what is not mentioned in the economics textbooks: obsession with production of wealth requires us to use the sordid and cruel tactic of making workers produce wealth, and refusing to allow them to consume it, in order to buy machines and raw materials. He was clear-sighted enough to see the consequences of these policies: wealth did indeed accumulate, but it went into the pockets of the 22 families, without providing relief to the misery of the masses. Today the global application of capitalist growth strategies has led to a dramatic increase in inequalities both inside nations and across nations. Just one among many horrifying inequality statistics is that the top 13 individuals now have more wealth than the bottom 3.5 billion on the planet.

Dissatisfaction with state-of-the-art Western growth theories led Mahbubul Haq to a revolutionary insight, taken from the heart of the traditions of the East, and having no parallels in current Western economic theories. Instead of capital, Mahbubul Haq placed human beings at the centre of the process of economic growth, returning to the ancient wisdom that “human beings are the means and ends of development”. Even though he was called a heretic for going outside the boundaries of contemporary economic thought, the pragmatic genius of Mahbubul Haq sought to minimise differences and create bridges to conventional thinking in order to achieve acceptance for his radically different approach to development.

His Human Development Index (HDI) was a master stroke, combining two inherently incompatible conceptions of development in a compromise which ceded ground to wealth in order to create international visibility for poverty. His friend and classmate Amartya Sen was reluctant to accept the HDI because of certain inherent flaws in this marriage of fire and water, but eventually agreed to its practical necessity. The pragmatic approach of Mahbubul Haq paid off handsomely when the HDI measure achieved global recognition as rectifying major defects in the standard GDP per capita. Widespread acceptance and use of HDI has led to a radical change in the discourse on development, by adding poverty, health, education and other soft social goals to the pure and simple-minded pursuit of wealth. The revolutionary ideas of Mahbubul Haq have led to improvements in the lives of millions, as global consensus developed on the social goals embodied in the MDGs and SDGs.

The Human Development approach of Mahbubul Haq was carried further by Amartya Sen, who defined development as the freedom to develop human capabilities. This notion, closely aligned with Eastern thought, was so alien to orthodox economists that they rejected it. Consequently, a new human-centred field of development studies emerged, which combined many streams of dissent from orthodoxy. Unfortunately, leaders at the helm of policymaking in the poor countries of the world are trained in orthodox economic theories, and have not assimilated the radical lessons of Mahbubul Haq, acquired from bitter experience. The paths to genuine development lie open, but with their backs to the doors, they are unable to see them.

Conventional growth theories create the mindset that the game is all about wealth creation. We will worry about our poor population only after we acquire sufficient wealth to feed them. The poor are a burden on the development process because providing for them takes away from money desperately needed to finance development of infrastructure, purchase of machinery and raw material, and industrialisation. We cannot afford to feed the poor, if we want to grow rapidly. The human development paradigm stands in dramatic contrast to this currently common mindset among planners. Instead of utilising humans to produce wealth, we utilize wealth to develop human capabilities. Our human population, our poor, are our most precious resource. This point of view receives strong support in the empirical findings of a recent World Bank study entitled “Where is the Wealth of Nations?” The study finds that the wealthiest nations are rich because they spend money to develop their human resources, and not because of natural resources.

Thus, instead of being a burden, our poor are our most efficient means to development. If we use available wealth to improve their lives, to empower them, to educate them, and to provide them with the support they need, they can rapidly change the fate of the nation. Furthermore, they are also the end of the development process — that our goal is NOT to produce more and more wealth, a la Adam Smith and Karl Marx — but to ensure that our people lead rich and fulfilling lives. If we use our energies to achieve this goal, we have already arrived at the destination — we do not need to wait for a distant future where sufficient wealth will accumulate to enable us to take good care of our people.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 20th, 2017.

By 2020, the largest pools of pension fund assets are projected to remain concentrated in the US and Europe. In North America, pension fund assets reached $19.3 trillion in 2012 and PwC estimates that by 2020, pension fund assets will rise by 5.7 percent a year to achieve over $30 trillion of the $56.5 trillion in total global assets, more than 50 percent of the global total.

Indeed, according to the PwC report, Asset Management 2020: A Brave New World, demographic changes, accelerating urbanization, technological innovations and shifts in economic power are reshaping the asset management environment where pension funds have been playing and  will play an outstanding role in the global saving and investment process.  Three key factors seems to stimulate the global growth in assets: i) changes in government-incentivized or government-mandated retirement plans that will turn out to increase the use of defined contribution (DC) individual plans; ii) faster growth of high-net-worth-individuals in South America, Asia, Africa and Middle East regions up to 2020; iii) the expansion of new sovereign wealth funds.

However, in spite of the pension funds’ power to centralize huge amount of “savings from workers”, in this scenario of financial globalization, workers do not seem to have strong defense against the impacts of the current global scenario on the savings of workers and the flows of workers’ income.

In a context of uncertainty, the pension funds’ portfolio management is based, as Keynes warned, on precarious conventions.  Pension funds are part of a set of interrelated balance sheets and cash flows between the income-producing system (hedge, speculative and Ponzi firms) and the financial structure that affect the valuation of the stock of capital assets, the evolution of credit and the pace of investment. Current pension funds’ performance ultimately relies on the endogenous nature of financial instability.  Throughout the business cycle, when profits decline, as they inevitably do, credit and external sources of funding generally become restricted and the price of assets also fall. This scenario affects the performance of these institutional investors and reduces the value of the stock of workers’ savings in pension funds.

As a matter of fact, the connection between pension funds and speculative finance is one of the contemporary features of the management of the working savings. Continued low interest rates would impact the future profitability of pension funds, particularly in those portfolios where income-fixed assets predominate.

Among other current challenges to the management of pension funds is the evolution of austerity programs. In many countries, austerity programs have also relied on changes in retirement plans. Soon after the global crisis of 2007-2008, many European countries  announced austerity measures that included  changes in retirement age and pension payments. As a result, loss of retirement rights has turned out to become part of the new set of public policies.

Indeed, many governments, under global investors’ pressure, should meet budgetary targets and pursue further structural reforms- also related to age and amount of pension within retirement plans.  In truth, the current era of financialization and austerity – and its impacts on retirement plans and job creation – is certainly affecting day-to-day life of workers and the future of pensions. In other words, it is affecting the flows of workers’ income and the savings of workers.


Part 2 of Lecture on Spirituality and Development: Friday, 27th Jan 2017 by Dr. Asad Zaman, VC PIDE — for Students of Religion & Development Paper, Center of Development Studies, University of Cambridge. Link for part 1: Spirituality . 50m Video lecture:


    1. The meaning of development has varied dramatically across time, space, cultures.
      1. When Britannia ruled the Waves:
        Development definition suited Britain: Sea-Power, Coal Mines, Industry, Climate, Race
        No entry for “democracy” in Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1930
      2. Post-War Rise of USA
        Initial Definition: Democracy, GNP per capita – both criteria serve to ensure leadership of USA.
      3. Later, some Oil Economies had Higher GNP/Capita than USA
        So REDEFINE Development to include Income Distribution, so as to keep US on top
      4. Later, Switzerland, Japan and some other Scandinavian countries had Higher Wealth + Lower Gini. How to measure development to ensure USA is on top? Answer: Redefine Development to include Infrastructure
      5. Conclusion: Definition of Development Changes to suit the powerful. Criteria are chosen to ensure that the powerful are on top.

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