A recently published report by the United Nations has found that economic privileges accorded to Pakistan's elite groups add up to an estimated $17.4 billion - roughly 6% of the country's economy.
The privileged group includes the South Asian country's corporate sector, feudal landlords, the political class and the country's powerful military, reports the Al Jazeera citing the UN's National Human Development Report (NHDR).
UN Development Programme's NHDR for Pakistan, released last week, focused on issues of inequality in the country of 220 million people. To examine the stark income and economic opportunity disparities in the developing country, the report used the prism of "Power, People and Policy".
"Powerful groups use their privilege to capture more than their fair share, people perpetuate structural discrimination through prejudice against others based on social characteristics, and policies are often unsuccessful at addressing the resulting inequity, or may even contribute to it," the report said.
UNDP Assistant Secretary-General and Regional Chief Kanni Wignaraja has been on a two-week "virtual tour" of Pakistan to discuss the report's findings. Wignaraja held talks with Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan and other top members of his cabinet. Pakistani leaders have taken the findings of the report "right on" and pledged to focus on prescriptive action, she said.
"In our remarks in meetings, we focused right in on where the shadows are, and what is it that actually diverts from a reform agenda in a country," she said in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera.
"My hope is that there is strong intent to review things like the current tax and subsidy policies, to look at land and capital access," she said.
According to the report, Pakistan's corporate sector accrued an estimated $4.7 billion in privileges - the biggest beneficiary of the privileges. The benefits came in the form of tax breaks, cheap input prices, higher output prices or preferential access to capital, land and services.
The second and third-highest recipients of privileges were found to be the Pakistan's richest 1%, who collectively own 9% of the country's overall income, and the feudal land-owning class, which constitutes 1.1% of the population but owns 22% of all arable farmland.
With most major political parties' candidates' drawn from either the feudal landowning class or the country's business-owning elite - both classes have strong representation in the Pakistani parliament. Kanni Wignaraja noted that this creates a paradox where those responsible for doling out the privileges were also those who were receiving them.
"If with one hand you are providing a gain that benefits yourself, and taking the gain with the other hand, then what we have lost is that sense of separation of powers and oversight," she said.
Pakistan's military, which has directly ruled the country for roughly half of its 74-year history, was found to receive $1.7 billion in privileges - mainly in the form of preferential access to land, capital and infrastructure, as well as tax exemptions. Pakistan's military is also "the largest conglomerate of business entities in Pakistan, besides being the country's biggest urban real estate developer and manager, with wide-ranging involvement in the construction of public projects", the report added.
"These things are not neatly separate entities. You do see some of… these are overlapping so you almost get a double privilege by the military. The minute in a country the military is a part of big business, it obviously doubles the issue and the problem" said Wignaraja, warning that in a country like Pakistan, where the military continues to hold power over many aspects of governance, it would take "almost a social movement" to displace structures of power that were so entrenched.
"It is a tough one that has to be taken on because this is about power politics and it would be naive of me to expect or to recommend to leaders on what to do in this respect," she said.
"I am very clear that we can provide the analytics, we can put the impartial story out there and then it is up to the country, both the state and the people to say: 'Enough, here is how we need to take break up these strongly-held power groups and dynamics in this country.'"
Inequalities with deep roots, and deeper for females
The NHDR on Pakistan provided detailed data on deep-rooted inequality in the country's economy. While the richest 1% held 9% of the country's income of $314.4 billion in 2018-19, the report found that the poorest 1% held just 0.15%. Overall, the richest 20% of Pakistanis hold 49.6% of the national income, compared with the poorest 20%, who hold just 7%.
Aliona Niculita, deputy resident representative of the UNDP in Pakistan, wrote in the report: "The poorest and richest Pakistanis effectively live in completely different countries, with literacy levels, health outcomes, and living standards that are poles apart."
Pakistan ranks second-to-last in South Asia based on HDI, outperforming Afghanistan but lagging behind all six of its other regional neighbours. In the recommendations part of the report, the UNDP has suggested Pakistan's government to take on increased spending as part of a macroeconomic model that focuses on closing the gap between its Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.570 and that of other countries in the region.
"This is something actually that the leadership brought up themselves, as to this conundrum of feeling like one is stuck at a certain point," said the UNDP's Wignaraja.
"Is there a glass ceiling to human development and why, and what is needed to crack it?"
The UNDP has recommended policies that focus on removing privileges and targeting spending on outcomes that provide both structural support for the country's poor and on the infrastructure – such as education and healthcare – that would provide them further economic opportunities.
"If I had just that one extra rupee, and you asked me where I would put it, I would put in girls education," said Wignaraja.
Pakistan ranks 153 out of 156 countries on the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index (PDF), with 32% of primary-school-aged girls out of school.