Pakistan’s misplaced priorities

By Javid Husain
March 28, 2023

Pakistan – beset as it is with internal political turmoil, the meltdown of the economy, and grave external security threats – is once again in a royal mess. The current alarming scenario is the logical outcome of the gross mismanagement of the national affairs by the country’s ruling elite consisting of the establishment, senior civilian bureaucrats, political leaders, judiciary, and feudal landlords over the past seven decades – and their refusal to learn from past mistakes.


For instance, despite the known adverse consequences of repeated military takeovers in the country, every new military ruler naively thought that he would do better than his predecessor but ended up by leading the nation in the wrong direction. Instead of upholding the sanctity of the constitution and law, these military rulers succeeded in undermining rule of law. Instead of strengthening the democratic process, they stifled its evolution and aggravated political instability. They assumed power with the slogan of ending corruption but the lack of accountability of their rule encouraged corrupt practices on a massive scale.

After the disastrous experience of the four military governments, one would have hoped after the recommencement of the democratic process in 2008 that there would be no intervention in political affairs which in any case is forbidden by the constitution. Unfortunately, this hope failed to materialize. Instead, in 2018 a hybrid political system was put in place – preceded by extensive political engineering and electoral rigging. The divorce between responsibility and power under the hybrid system thus imposed has predictably led the country to a disaster in the form of political instability and an economic meltdown.

Besides the institutional involvement in political affairs, another factor responsible for the current dismal state of affairs in the country is its misplaced priorities. Pakistan was faced with a serious threat to its security posed by India soon after it emerged as an independent nation. Building up national power, therefore, was its inescapable necessity. Unfortunately, a flawed strategy with over-emphasis on the strengthening of security was adopted by the country’s rulers in disregard of the lesson of modern history which underscores the critical importance of economic and technological strength in any long-term contest between nations.

Ideally, a country at the initial stages of its development should concentrate on building up its economic and technological power to provide a solid base for the growth of its security power subsequently. However, countries do need a certain minimum level of military power to act as a credible deterrent against potential aggressors even in the short run. The strategic imperative, therefore, is to have the right balance between providing power for the immediate security and developing economic and technological strength for long-term security.

If a government over provides for security, it may strengthen the country’s security in the short-term but at the grave risk of slowing down its economic growth, thus enabling its competitors to pull far ahead in the race for economic growth and development of military power in the long run.

This is precisely the trap in which Pakistan has fallen currently because of over-emphasis on one dimension of its security to the neglect of its economic and technological strength and long-term security. Consequently, India has surpassed us in almost all indicators of economic and technological development.

Just to give a few examples, India’s GDP was estimated to be $3.5 trillion as against $376 billion for Pakistan in 2022. India currently is the fifth largest economy in the world and is expected to rise to the third position by 2030. India’s GDP per capita is about $2466 as compared with $1658 for Pakistan. GDP growth rates of India and Pakistan during 2023 are expected to be 5.4 per cent and 2.2 per cent respectively.

At this rate, Pakistan will continue to lose ground to India economically in the years to come. Further, the larger size and rapid growth of India’s economy will also enable it to build up its military power at a fast pace, posing a formidable challenge to Pakistan’s security.

Over-ambitious foreign policy goals and adventurist external policies have over-strained Pakistan’s limited economic resources, leading to strategic overstretch and national exhaustion. Our short-sighted foreign policies of the 1990s are obvious examples of such flawed strategic thinking. Their inevitable consequences in the form of political instability and economic difficulties are with us as a constant reminder of our strategic blunders.

In the current knowledge-driven world, countries allocating maximum possible resources to quality education would in due course take the lead over others in almost every field of human activity, especially in terms of economic, technological and scientific advancement. Pakistan here again lags far behind other countries.

As against the Unesco recommended minimum allocation of 4.0 per cent of GDP to education, Pakistan’s actual allocation of resources to education has rarely exceeded 2.0 per cent of GDP. As a result, Pakistan is falling behind other countries in terms of both the coverage and the quality of education, especially in critically important STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

The acceleration of Pakistan’s economic growth requires a high national investment rate as a percentage of GDP, which in turn necessitates a high national saving rate to finance national investment projects without over-dependence on foreign loans and grants. Unfortunately, our policymakers because of conspicuous consumption by our elite have turned Pakistan into a nation with a high rate of consumption. Consequently, Pakistan’s national saving rate is as low as 13 per cent of GDP, as compared with 28 per cent and 32 per cent respectively for India and Bangladesh. Our low national savings rate inevitably leads to low national investment and GDP growth rates and our gradual decline internationally.

In conclusion, political instability caused primarily by repeated undemocratic interference in political affairs, overemphasis on security as against economic development in the allocation of national resources, over-ambitious external policies, neglect of education, and low national savings rate reflect the strategic blunders of our leaders and policy makers.

Until we take concrete steps to correct these flaws and pursue a low risk and non-adventurist foreign policy commensurate with our national power, as a nation we will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis endangering our security while lagging behind other nations in the race for economic development and prosperity.

The writer is a retired ambassador. He can be reached at: