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Foreign work provides lifeline for poorest regions of Pakistan

A study commissioned by the Pakistan government and conducted by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) surveyed 500 households in nine districts of Pakistan where one family member worked abroad.

The study – which included coverage of households in Sindh and Punjab - found that on average, remittances sent back to Pakistan totalled over 13,000 dollars and helped families pay for land, farm machinery, food, marriages or to build up savings. Most importantly, money sent from abroad raised the households out of poverty and had a significant impact on improving the quality of life for children and women, providing better access to health and education services. And whilst families had at least one child (under the age of 18 years) in work before the migration, once money came from abroad, no households reported their children as being economically active. With results of the survey showing such a huge positive effect from migration, the Pakistan government is expected to look at ways of increasing the benefits from and opportunities for working abroad.

As agencies continue their work in the provinces affected by the floods, the extent of the poverty endemic in some regions of Pakistan is becoming all too apparent. In large parts of Sindh and Punjab, old feudal systems still operate with vast estates owned by landlord families. According to the World Bank, around 2 per cent of households control nearly half the total land area. Millions of rural poor in these provinces exist as agricultural labourers, either paying back loans from the landowner in a form of debt bondage or giving half to two-thirds of their crops in rent. This feudal system keeps many families in poverty and some political activities say it is only through land reform, that this kind of abject poverty can be addressed.

Last month, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) drew attention to the grave nutritional situation of children in Sindh Province. Here, the devastating effects of the floods have served to deepen the existing problem of malnutrition in the region. In a survey of children aged between 6 and 59 months, UNICEF found acute malnutrition rates over 20 per cent in both southern and northern Sindh, well above the 15 per cent emergency threshold level set by the World Health Organisation. Malnutrition levels were also high among women. One senior UNICEF field officer in Sindh told the news agency IRIN, “malnutrition was not caused by floods but by poverty”.

Without significant reform, it is likely that millions of rural Pakistanis will remain mired in poverty, unless of course, they belong to the lucky minority who can educate their children well enough for them to find employment abroad, one of the few ladders available for families in Pakistan to climb out of poverty.

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