Hope and despair
Next month Pakistan will celebrate its 76th independence day. It will do so in an environment of political uncertainty and economic fragility. Today public optimism is in short supply as people see that the vision of the country’s founding fathers has remained unfulfilled while governance failures continue.
There is widespread disappointment that political leaders have not inspired hope by offering a vision or roadmap of where they want the country to go. In fact, Pakistan’s history shows that both civilian and military governments have spent a great deal of time fire-fighting or in crisis management mode, postponing meaningful reform and seeking ad hoc, short-term ‘solutions’. This has ruled out a longer-term approach to deal with the country’s structural problems – economic, institutional and social.
The challenges confronting the country are formidable. Most are interconnected and have been feeding off and reinforcing each other in an unbroken cycle. They include the structural crisis of the economy, erosion of the state’s institutional capacity, persisting education deficit, uncontrolled population growth that includes a youth bulge and climate change. Security challenges also persist with an unstable Afghanistan on the western frontier and a hostile India on the country’s eastern flank.
Pull-quote: A band-aid approach is now unsustainable. The only way the country can escape from the trap of anemic growth, low savings and investment, high deficits, heavy borrowing and soaring inflation is to address the structural sources of its problems.
- Maleeha Lodhi
The most consequential challenge is of course an ailing economy as Pakistan struggles with its worst economic crisis in decades. Continuing resort to IMF bailouts – there have been 23 – is the result of the vicious cycle the country has been mired in for decades, of high budget/ balance of payments deficits, rising debt and chronic foreign exchange crises. Mainly responsible for present day economic challenges and a consistent feature of Pakistan’s history has been the reliance by successive civilian and military governments on dysfunctional economic policies. This has involved excessive borrowing at home and abroad rather than mobilizing domestic resources and raising sufficient revenue to address the country’s widening twin deficits of the budget and balance of payments. Pakistan has one of the lowest tax to GDP ratios in the world, which is the source of all its fiscal problems.
A band-aid approach is now unsustainable. The only way the country can escape from the trap of anemic growth, low savings and investment, high deficits, heavy borrowing and soaring inflation is to address the structural sources of its problems. This requires wide ranging economic reform and a political consensus so that reforms are implemented and sustained with wide support.
Over 75 years after its creation, the country’s quest for political stability and continuity remains elusive. Consensus is needed not just on the preservation and continuance of democracy but also on its functioning on the basis of tolerance and accommodation. The role of the military is another core area that needs agreement. A firm popular consensus already exists that elected representatives should be in charge of governance. But this has yet to be fully translated into reality. The political system in place today is a hybrid one in which the military exercises extensive informal power over governance.
The instruments of governance also need to be fixed. The state’s institutional capacity has weakened over time. This makes reform of the civil service an imperative. Unless an outdated institution is made fit for purpose to meet the requirements of modern governance and improve service delivery, even the most well-formulated government policy cannot be effectively executed. This requires comprehensive reform not just piecemeal tinkering. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. There are plenty of good recommendations in reports by successive official commissions to draw on and implement.
Education is another critical challenge that needs urgent attention. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah once said, “Education is a matter of life and death for our country”. Yet his advice was never followed. Pakistan still has the world’s second highest number of out-of-school children – 22.8 million. The country has always underspent on education even though investment in education is the surest way to transform the country’s destiny. It is the key to economic progress and global competitiveness and also to countering extremism and promoting a more tolerant society.
Another compelling area for policy action is the country’s rising population, still the fastest growing in South Asia (other than Afghanistan). This has far-reaching economic and social consequences and security implications, especially as there is an absence of planning for the growing numbers of people. This urges the need for population management steps to be nationally implemented. Otherwise, a demographic disaster looms when educational opportunities and jobs do not keep pace with the uncontrolled increase in numbers.
Pakistan’s history has been replete with governance failures. But socio-economic changes that have been underway in the country – greater urbanization, an expanding middle class and a more ‘connected’ society – have created an opportunity to align both politics and governance with these transformations. A leadership that can do that will be able to steer the country toward a hopeful future. The people of Pakistan deserve no less.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha