SIFC: Concept to Reality

December 03, 2023

Almost six months after the creation of the SIFC (Special Investment Facilitation Council) to shepherd large new inflows to Pakistan’s investment starved horizon, the lessons of the past offer a valuable insight for the future.

Just this week, Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar’s visits to countries of the Persian Gulf region, have been followed by news of fresh promises of billions of dollars in new investments set to roll in to Pakistan.

In recent months, official claims have suggested eventual inflows of up to $75billion or more under the SIFC initiative heading in to the country, notably to the agriculture sector.

A truck drives along the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway before the Karakorum mountain range near Tashkurgan in China's western Xinjiang province. — AFP/File

And yet, in its early days, the outlook for the future of SIFC and Pakistan’s past experience with the onset of CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) offers comparable lessons.

Initially, CPEC remained surrounded by widespread skepticism as critics balked on the promise of more than $60 billion backed by China, set to flow in to Pakistan. Ultimately, the skepticism was taken over by guarded optimism at first leading to optimism in future, as tangible evidence of China’s commitment became visible. Even today, a cornerstone of CPEC – the ambitious ML-1 train project is waiting to begin – and the delay continues to fuel doubts over its future. During the CPEC journey, Pakistan went through challenges ranging from teething issues to the simple matter of going through the learning curve. And the learning process still continues on many fronts.

One les son from Pakistan’s CPEC journey has indeed been the downside risk of the public remaining clueless on the exact details of that corridor. Similarly today, there are fine details of the SIFC which remain invisible from the public’s eye, leading to skepticism often built upon scanty information.

Another valuable lesson from CPEC came in the shape of a spectacular rise in expectations early on, built upon the belief that the large price tag of China’s planned investments was ready to be off-loaded in to Pakistan within a short time span. In sharp contrast, nothing could be further from the truth.

Today, the promise of tens of billions of dollars in planned investments under SIFC faces a similar challenge. Managing expectations and outlining the fine details for Pakistan’s mainstream population together stand out as the principal challenge, notwithstanding the promise of this new journey for the country’s future.

Perhaps the biggest question remains over the future of Pakistan’s leadership structure as the country heads towards its next political transition in February next year. Consequently, what will be the future of the SIFC, specifically its model under the watch of Pakistan’s top elected leaders and the top leadership of Pakistan army which is actively collaborating on this front, remains a compelling question. To make matters much worse, the palpable silence of Pakistan’s main political parties on their future economic policies in general and their handling of SIFC in particular, have together done little to inspire confidence on the future leadership’s ability to tackle the toughest prevailing challenges.

Clarity on future economic policies needs to be buttressed with progress on two significant fronts.

First, as Pakistan seeks to lure foreign investors to the agriculture sector under the banner of SIFC, it also needs to involve local stakeholders to build confidence in this initiative. Investors from the farming community who step ahead to rehabilitate government owned land can help visibly lift the visibility of this project. Transfer of lands measuring up to 25 or 50 acres on an ownership basis rather than a leasehold arrangement for larger tracts given to foreign investors, will help to create a community of vital domestic stakeholders. Second, a robust campaign to expose the public to SIFC must be built upon new initiatives such as publicly accessible offices of the council in federal and provincial capital and an aggressive media campaign over its future.

Eventually, the SIFC model can work to lift Pakistan’s prospects for economic and food security, though after a fine tuning process for the road ahead.