Showing a way forward -Express Tribune

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Pakistan’s politics and economy for the last several decades has been in a quandary. The leadership has failed to address the intrinsic weaknesses in these areas. As a consequence, Pakistan regrettably is lagging behind in all the economic growth indexes in comparison with the regional countries. Its politics too lacks the maturity and institutional strength that was expected of a country that acquired independence seventy-five years ago.

In a recent talk at the Atlantic Council, a prestigious US think-tank, eminent economist Atif Mian stated that Pakistan’s economy suffers from major structural weaknesses. And according to him the unfortunate aspect is that there is no effort on the part of government to undertake major reforms as these would require long and sustained corrective measures that would undercut the interests of the power elite. Any advice given to government ministers to correct the nation’s course is brushed aside with replies that we have heard this before or we know it.

Pakistan’s deeper structural weaknesses is slowing down its economy that reflects in many ways and hits the poor most. During the first few years of independence, the GDP of Pakistan grew at a faster rate than other South Asian countries including India and Sri Lanka; but in the last twenty years it has fallen badly in comparison due to deeper core problems. Since independence our exports have increased three-fold whereas those of India fifteen times. There are efforts in the public and private sector to restructure and modernise while dealing with the productivity stagnation factor but these are not enough.

In every discussion of national economies, the success story of South Korea, Taiwan and of course China is highlighted. Clearly, the economic progress in these countries has been transformational. The main reason for it is that the thoughtful leadership took a long-term view and invested heavily in education and health sectors and placed their countries on a stable foundation. In essence it is focusing on human capital that then generates its own momentum and opens up several avenues for overall development of the country. As it has productive people that are willing to build the nation. The focus is on producing engineers, scientists, IT technologists, and medical doctors with advance qualifications and specialisation. On the contrary in Pakistan, education and health have never been accorded the priority or attention that it deserves. It is not surprising that 30 per cent of the youth today is illiterate — a fact that should have rung alarm bells but the indifference to this situation in the leadership is baffling. Whereas, Pakistani women have been doing well in academics, but the private sector and government have not fully utilised their talent.

The state of higher education is also facing a serious crisis of credibility and apart from agitating the minds of well-meaning academics it has failed to arouse any specific action to correct course. There are also serious reservations regarding the uniform syllabus introduced by the PTI government. The fear is it would bring the educational level to the lowest denominator that could have far-reaching implication for the future of the country. How is this measure preparing the coming generations to deal with the growing challenges the youth would be facing with this quality of education? Moreover, in democratic countries it is not generally the business of politicians, ministers or the PM to decide on the content or syllabus. It should be the prerogative of the educationists and those who are associated with teaching and are amongst the experienced and well recognised to undertake these changes.

Economist Atif Mian in his briefing expressed deep concern over the very high mortality rate of children in Pakistan which is 400,000 under the age of five. Whereas, in India and Bangladesh it is less than half this figure. This weakness has far-reaching implications as it also affects the growth of children.

All these weaknesses reflect serious structural issues that can only be ignored at the peril of our people. So, the question arises what would it make things to change for our priorities and policies to be set right that serve the interests of the people. The elite capture of power and incompetence is reflected in every major sector that is seriously impacting the lives of our people. The fundamentally bad design of power sector is its worst casualty that is affecting the poor the most but has broader and far-reaching implications by acting as a brake on productivity and economic growth.

For this the politics of the country has to change. The Chinese brought about structural shift when their leadership were able to keep elite capture in check. In Pakistan, the hold of the elite is too strong and same applies to the party in power and opposition. The classic example of this is reflected in the power of the sugar magnets and how they keep on advancing their interests collectively. Any move to weaken their hold by the present or previous governments has not succeeded so far.

Foreign capital that helps in building the intrinsic technological and industrial base of the country should be encouraged. Successive governments have not handled the question of technology transfer very wisely. The present government has allowed the import of different makes and models of car in the country. The government would probably benefit in the short term by collecting taxes but will these companies set up manufacturing facilities in country?

Our future lies in investing in improving human capability and manufacturing what China, South Korea and Singapore have done.

In Pakistan turnover of this category of professionals is relatively far less. Besides, many migrate to developed countries seeking better opportunities.

The more unfortunate tendency in Pakistan is that affluent people invest in property. They buy land and property and hold it as value of real estate continues to go up. This practice acts as a drag on the economy and seriously distorts it. According to Atif Mian, holistically, economy is like an eco-system.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 13th, 2021.