Aziz Abro
6 min readMay 15, 2023

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A sociological analysis of Pakistan’s lack of social development

(The image is AI-generated, so don’t mind the inaccuracies!)

According to UNDP, Pakistan’s Human Development index is 0.55 (at 161 out of 191) and the country is classified as having a low HDI. Its other neighbors from the region, particularly Bangladesh and India, have moved up from low to the middle HDI category.

Pakistan is a lower-middle income country. But its HDI is closer to the lower income countries of Africa than those of lower-middle income South Asia. The reasons for this are complex: a part of the problem is because of the never-ending political instability in the country and economic mismanagement by its extractive elite.

Societal factors, however, have also played a significant role in the situation. Rescuing the sinking economy of Pakistan will not only be about better economic policies and political will (both of which are VERY important to achieve that goal), but it will also involve significant change in the prevalent social attitudes/culture within the country.

Political Instability and Economic Mismanagement

A history of political instability

In its history of over 75 years, never has an elected prime minister completed his/her designated term of five years. Any new civilian government is essentially just fighting for survival, and in that survival mode it is hard for them to make meaningful reforms. Every successful government has been involved in kicking the proverbial can down the road instead of tackling the fundamental problems (inefficient subsidies/SOEs, the famous twin deficit, the debt trap, and expanding the tax net etc.) head on.

Economic Mismanagement: A habit of living beyond means

Due to the political insecurity that every government faces, they are more inclined to make decisions that provide short-term relief (and long-term losses) instead of making the hard choices. This means borrowing more and more money, making the country’s debt unsustainably high.

Fiscal Deficit, 2009–19

Due to this large borrowing, a big portion of the budget is now spent just on debt servicing.

Debt Servicing 2004–18

Looking at these figures, it is easy to conclude that the reasons for Pakistan’s stunted social development are purely political (policy related). But that impression would be wrong. There are socio-cultural factors at play as well.

Social stratification and a lack of upward mobility for the majority

In Pakistan, the chances of a person being born in a working-class/lower-middle-class family and progressing up to the upper-middle classes are slim to none. This happens in multiple ways:

Barriers in education

In the modern age, good education is arguably the most straight-forward ticket for a lower middle-class person to jump up into the upper middle class through the chance of securing a well-paying job. But in Pakistan, ‘good’ education is accessible to a very small minority.

  • Elite private schools are very expensive, and are hence out of budget for about 90% of the population.
  • Good public schools and the private schools that are more affordable are few in number, and are mostly located in big urban centers. This makes them inaccessible to the big rural population of Pakistan.
  • Because of these factors, the basic education of a big chunk of the population is flawed (many 5th graders can’t even read an english sentence properly). These students have almost no chance of getting into a good university (universities that are also too expensive for the majority and have a handful of scholarships at best).

Barriers in the job market

Ammar Ali Jan, in his Ted Talk on Pakistani education, stressed the fact that the Pakistani job market is also hostile to students from the lower classes. This happens in two ways:

  1. Many corporate jobs are filled based on references. And students from the lower classes seldom have any, and that puts them at a huge disadvantage.
  2. Many private sector jobs expect fresh graduates to start at unpaid internships or very low paying jobs due to a lack of industry experience. Many lower class graduates cannot sustain themselves in such jobs and are hence pushed away.

Barriers to entry in business

There are many barriers to entry in business for new comers in Pakistan. The overall environment is often risky and people find themselves at the mercy of a bureaucracy that is often dismissive of their concerns. This pattern can often be seen in the capital where an assistant commissioner sweeps in with a battalion of police and starts asking small stalls and street businesses to relocate without giving them any other option. The overall business environment pushes even the vast majority of the middle-class away from venturing into entrepreneurship.

The cultural factors at play

Sometimes, its outdated cultural practices of Pakistanis that can get in the way of their social development. Dr Ishrat Hussain adeptly outlines these cultural issues in his 2018 book Governing the Ungovernable:

Poor work ethic — Pakistanis have a very unprofessional attitude towards work. They often try to get away with the minimum amount of effort put into work and never miss an opportunity to not work while being at the workplace. Those working in customer service generally have a far-from-ideal attitude. Projects have cost overruns more often than not. The overall work ethic in the population is often found lacking especially when compared to other countries like India and Bangladesh.

A sense of hopelessness — People have lost all trust in their system. They feel that they have little to no chance of progressing in a hostile environment that is rigged against their class. This dissuades them from putting genuine effort into improving their situation and hence the cycle of misery perpetuates itself.

Discouragement of women from the workforce — Women in Pakistan are discouraged from pursuing a career and are instead pushed towards becoming stay-at-home housewives. The general thinking is that it is extremely hard for women to cover both house work and a career at the same time so they have to prioritize house work (partly because men are never expected to participate in that). This is often seen in female doctors who make up the majority in medical colleges but are in a minority in almost every major hospital/clinic in the country. Problems such as workplace harassment, a lack of women-friendly transport infrastructure and a general patriarchal environment also discourage women from working.

Seeing through different sociological lenses

Conflict theory

Conflict theory can both be applied to classes and genders within Pakistan. The class conflict can be studied through the book Big Capital in an Unequal World by the Australian anthropologist Rosita Armytage. She explains in her book how the Pakistani elite uses many techniques — such as patronizing in business, exclusive clubs and marriage etc., — to bar entry of the masses into their own class. Such barriers can be seen at many different levels (as explained above) and create a sort of a class conflict within the society where the majority feels that the elite is extracting their country’s resources and robbing them of a chance at a better life.

This theory can equally be extended to genders too. Many feminist women feel that Pakistani women are intentionally kept away from work opportunities to ensure financial dependence on men. They often claim that men feel insecure when the women in their families are earning more. People who exist out of the gender binary — namely the khuwaja sirah community — have almost no access to education and work opportunities. Disowned by their own families and the society at large, this oppressed community is often left to fend for itself through begging and sex work.

These conflicts within the Pakistani society have contributed to a lack of social development in the country.

Symbolic interaction

A simple glance at the micro-level habits of the Pakistani population that determine their social progress shows the reasons behind a lack of progress. Factors such as a lack of a culture of savings and investment, the disdain of entrepreneurship in general, the work ethic etc., all paint the picture of an environment that does not promote growth.

In a nutshell

Much of the blame for Pakistan’s current dismal condition of social metrics goes to the political instability and economic mismanagement that can solely be attributed to the country’s ruling classes. But some of the responsibility sits with the population itself as it erects barriers for those below to progress, hence stalling the progress of the country itself. The poor work ethic, the hostile business environment and other cultural factors contribute towards keeping the country in its current dismal economic state.

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Aziz Abro

Technical Content Writer by profession, blogger by hobby | CSS Aspirant | Tech Enthusiast | NUST Grad