Jumpstart Pakistan?

December 06, 2023

As Pakistan struggled with ever-growing challenges in recent decades, a succession of regimes have sought to jumpstart the country – notably its economy – without comprehensively tackling long-term challenges.

It is a tragic legacy whose outcome should have taught enduring lessons to a succession of rulers. And yet the virtual absence of lessons learnt in favour of a more promising future has repeatedly exposed a failure by Pakistan’s competing elite to learn from past mistakes.

In brief, even the best-intentioned ‘jumpstart’ plans have run the risk of getting bogged down unless fully backed by deeper reforms.

This picture taken on January 11, 2023, shows a general view of the Karachi seaport. — AFP

Plans such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) or more recently the Special Investment Facilitation Cell (SIFC) meant to lift Pakistan’s prospects as never before run the risk of getting sidetracked in transforming Pakistan, unless pursued in tandem with a series of changes across the country.

Specifically, three key areas are fundamentally essential to change Pakistan’s destiny alongside bold initiatives involving foreign capital.

First, the country’s crisis of governance has only deepened in recent decades notably since experiments such as the devolution of government authority and the 18th Amendment were undertaken to transform Pakistan for the better. Instead of moving forward, the country has only gone backwards as the writ of the Pakistani state across its administrative divisions, districts and tehsils has weakened.

The idea of swiftly changing the once impactful representatives of the state to mere coordinators has had wider consequences. Newer titles of District Coordination Officers (DCOs) succeeding from the time-tested institutions of deputy commissioners only marked a change for the worse. More importantly, disarming the administrative heads of districts by taking away their previous authority as judicial magistrates, ultimately defanged the authority of the Pakistani state at the grassroots.

Tragically too, the once pursued but ultimately shelved idea of inducting elected representatives to take charge of police oversight boards at the district level, signaled the intent to place authority over the police in the hands of elected representatives with little consideration for future consequences. Additionally over time, the authority of government representatives down the line has been undermined by more than just blatant interference from a variety of political stakeholders. Restoring the authority of the state can just not be done unless the ill-conceived devolution exercise is reversed. Moreover, the 18th Amendment needs to be equally reversed to strengthen the federal government and rebuild its capacity in a number of areas, notably through arming it with significantly larger public finances.

Second, any exercise to rebuild confidence in the economy will just not succeed unless firmly backed by a series of reforms to widen Pakistan’s dismally narrow tax net. In recent weeks, officially sponsored TV ads showing a man abruptly losing his cellphone connection while the lights go out and his gas connection gets cut for failing to comply with his income tax obligations are marked inconsequential symbolism at best.

Pakistan needs to show off cases of tax evaders getting caught and sentenced to harsh punishments, for a powerful message to be firmly delivered. For too long have the country’s community of tax dodgers been lightly let off the hook while Pakistan’s economy has slid downwards. The tolerance for such blatant violation of tax laws cannot continue, as Pakistan risks sliding downwards rapidly under the weight of an increasingly unaffordable fiscal deficit.

Finally, the way forward to secure Pakistan’s prosperity can just not be achieved unless the country’s ruling elite urgently recognize the need to steer their politics to respond to popular needs. Spending must be raised significantly with tighter accountability on vital areas such as education, healthcare, secure housing and employment opportunities for the poor. In addition to pouring more resources in these sectors, a rebuilt structure of the civil service must embrace closer controls over financial management of public services.

Ultimately, Pakistan needs to embrace bold reforms as a prerequisite to revive its economic growth with an eye on raising exports and substituting imports, all to forcefully improve the nation’s balance of payments. Without such an outcome, Pakistan faces the uncomfortable prospect of facing a recurrence of crises surrounding its foreign exchange reserves.

Tragically, however, reforming Pakistan – the economy, in particular – figures hardly amidst the build up to the next parliamentary elections due in February next year. With just about two months to go before the nation goes to the next round of polls, Pakistan’s main political rivals are firmly locked in debates aimed at seizing power with little regard for popular needs.

It is a tragic outcome for a country where the political elite have repeatedly yearned for progressive democratic change. Ironically, however, a failure to present a credible roadmap for the future risks turning the upcoming political change to no more than another inconsequential exercise. And the idea of a robust uplift to the future of Pakistan through another jumpstart runs the risk of no more than becoming just half a start.

The writer is an Islamabad-basedjournalist who writes on political and economic affairs. He can be reached at: farhanbokharigmail.com