More U.S. Jets Won’t Solve Pakistan’s Crippling Woes

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U.S. President Barack Obama meets Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on October 22, 2015. By repeatedly over-prioritizing the goals of its military, Pakistani leaders are failing on the basic social contract with their society, the author writes. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been in Washington for long-awaited consultations with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Press reports in the week preceding the visit flagged the possibility of a limited “civil nuclear deal” under discussion as a gambit to persuade Pakistan to stop developing battlefield tactical nuclear weapons, but that conversation ended when Pakistani officials told the media that “Islamabad will not accept limits on its use of small tactical nuclear weapons.”

The strategic transaction from the Sharif-Obama meeting now appears, echoing the hoary past, to be another tranche of F16 fighter jets, only the latest in a long cascade of questionable hardware sales with unclear counterterror utility.

Does anyone benefit from this exchange? It is hard to see any value to Pakistani citizens, apart from the limited coterie of military officials who would welcome such hardware. But F16s are not typically the first military resource to deal with terrorists, including those in urban environments, and tackling terrorism is Pakistan’s most urgent priority.

The United States has provided F16s, and upgrades to them, to Islamabad for decades, but Pakistan remains a partner that has not fully acted against terrorists; designated individuals under UN sanctions continue to live openly in Pakistan.

Sharif’s visit this week has brought with it some commentary on how U.S. reliance on the Pakistani military has undermined the health of its civilian institutions over decades. This is surely an inarguable point. What has not been the subject of greater focus is what Pakistan’s “garrison state” civil-military imbalance has meant for the well-being of its citizens. The answer is grim.

Usually it is difficult to assess a “what might have been” scenario for a country, for every place has its own unique situation and history. But the fact that Bangladesh, the East Wing of Pakistan until 1971, has  charted out a different course in human development over the past forty-plus years offers the best opportunity to see a “living counterfactual”—the policies Pakistan could have chosen but did not.

Pakistan continues to overinvest in the military and underinvest in the human development areas so crucial for creating a strong, healthy, productive society—and the end result shows up in lower development indicators in crucial areas.

The UN Human Development Index (HDI) tallies a great deal of data, and the comparison across several indicators for Bangladesh and Pakistan is instructive. In the comprehensive overall measure, the HDI ranking, Bangladesh comes in at 142, ahead of Pakistan’s 146.

Those four places in the ranking mean the difference between coming in at the tail end of what the UN considers “medium human development” versus “low human development.” Pakistan is in the “low” category.

In addition, in the female-to-male HDI ratio, Bangladesh comes closer to parity with a 0.91 ratio, compared with Pakistan’s 0.75. Other countries with a female-to-male HDI ratio below 0.8 include Yemen, Mali, and Central African Republic.

HDI-Bangladesh-Pakistan Human Development Indicators. Source: 2014 Human Development Trends by Indicator, United Nations Development Programme. Council on Foreign Relations

The literacy rate in Bangladesh is 57.7 percent, and in Pakistan 54.9 percent. Bangladeshis have a life expectancy of 70.7 years, compared with Pakistan’s 66.6 years. Bangladesh’s annual population growth is slower at 1.1 percent than Pakistan’s at 1.8 percent.

Bangladesh’s maternal mortality ratio is close to Pakistan’s, with 240 compared with Pakistan’s 260 deaths per 100,000 live births. But Bangladeshi children are far more likely to survive beyond age five: Bangladesh’s under-five mortality rate is forty-one per 1,000 live births, and Pakistan’s is eighty-six. Both countries have a similar metric on under-five child stunting, so there is not a great gap there.

Apart from a couple similarities, all of these indicators paint a picture of Bangladesh as a country better educating its citizens, helping them live longer, helping ensure that children survive, and controlling population growth better.

Things become much more skewed in other metrics. Bangladesh devotes 3.7 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to health , compared with Pakistan’s 2.5 percent. Alarmingly, Pakistan’s homicide rate , 7.8 per 100,000, is nearly triple Bangladesh’s 2.7. Pakistan’s homicide rate more closely resembles those of  Bolivia or Zimbabwe, both at 7.7 per 100,000.

Bangladeshi women are far more likely to bear children during the ages of fifteen to nineteen, with its adolescent birth rate at 88.7 percent compared with Pakistan’s 30.9 percent, but they are also far more likely to be in the workforce. Bangladesh’s female-to-male labor force participation rate is 0.681, compared with Pakistan’s 0.294.

Although its economy has been growing at or around 6 percent for much of the last twenty years, Bangladesh remains poorer on a per capita basis than Pakistan. GDP per capita in Bangladesh (2011 data in purchasing power parity terms) was $2,364 compared with Pakistan’s $4,360.

This means that despite being poorer, Bangladesh has managed to notch up better development outcomes on most of the major metrics compared with Pakistan. Bangladesh started out far behind Pakistan, but has been closing the gap.

All of this points to the separate paths the citizens and their leaders chose. The outcomes seen in Bangladesh are the result of policy choices focused on delivering better health to all and a more equal environment for women. It shows that deliberate policies can create change, and governments can better the lives of citizens even starting from a situation of impoverishment.

Bangladesh was once Henry Kissinger’s “basket case,” but it has moved far away from its earlier woes. Pakistani citizens deserve that chance as well.

By repeatedly over-prioritizing the goals of its military, rather than the more comprehensive ambition of offering all citizens a better shot at living longer, healthier, more rewarding and productive lives, Pakistani leaders are failing on the basic social contract with their society. Washington ought to focus its assistance in this direction, instead of leading with F16s.

Alyssa Ayres is senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.