If things go really well, the macroeconomic crisis that Pakistan currently faces will only result in short-term economic pain. To stave off a medium or long-term crisis, the incoming government will need to think out of the box and place the right people at the SBP, BOI, SECP, FBR, Planning Commission, and finance division.
But getting key appointments right will not be enough for the PTI to avoid becoming another PPP 2008, or PML-N 2013. Regardless of who exercises power in Pakistan (including military regimes), there are some enduring common challenges that governing Pakistan entails. Imran Khan not only needs to avoid becoming one of his predecessors, he also needs to dismantle the collective legacies of the system that those predecessors were given, and in turn have left behind. In short, Imran Khan can’t only be a light touch or diet reformer, he must be transformational. This is the very heart of the PTI proposition.
It is not an easy one to be optimistic about. Investigate any challenge that Imran Khan and the PTI-led government face now or will face in the near future, and we find the same three factors driving them. Every single time.
The first? A broken and dysfunctional administrative infrastructure or government organogram. The second? Public financial management, or how government spends and accounts for what public funds. Third? The civil service – or public servants, whose job is to serve the people.
First, every public policy challenge in the country exposes how weak, outdated and irrational the administrative system in the country really is. There are ministries, divisions, departments, and autonomous bodies that have no business existing, managing businesses that government has no business running, run by people who have no business running anything, offering services that no one in their right mind should buy. Think tap water, or the nearest road that keeps getting dug up and rebuilt, or the hospital that doesn’t have medicine, or the medicine that expires sitting in a cabinet, or the cabinet that was purchased for three times the price ordinary people pay for it. Take any one of those examples and start counting the number of federal, provincial, and local government bodies established to deal with the problem. And then add to those bodies the proliferation of companies that are supposed to have magically solved the problem. The administrative infrastructure is a catastrophe of myopia and inefficiency.
Second, every public policy challenge in the country exposes a crisis of public financial management. Pakistan’s public sector knows neither the value of anything nor its cost – which explains budget underestimates, and the cost overruns for anything more expensive than a pen, or chalk, or a blackboard or a notepad. Speaking of which, ever try buying something as inexpensive as a pen or chalk in a government school? Of the thousands of head teachers and principals that do, many end up dealing with something called audit paras. An ambassador posted to a major European country was once hauled in for having exceeded the budget provided for the purchase of towels at the official residence. Why? Because the budget provided was zero. Low budget utilisation, zero value for money and rarely fit for purpose, public expenditure in Pakistan is a disaster-zone.
How does a country with a GDP of over $300 billion have trouble figuring out how to buy chalk for schools, or towels for its ambassadors? The same way it has trouble building the Peshawar BRT in the stipulated time, within the stipulated budget. Now that the PTI will be firmly in charge of most of the country, it is about to discover that the entire PSDP is a long, unwieldy, unsavoury stretch of Peshawar BRT. It isn’t easy to beat the systemic paralysis that Pakistan’s outdated, confusing and opaque public financial management system creates. And beating it often means playing fast and loose with the rules.
Third, every public policy challenge in the country exposes a crisis of the civil service. In his seminal work on governance in Pakistan ‘The Culture of Power and Governance in Pakistan 1947-2008’, Prof Dr Ilhan Niaz explains the crisis of the civil service, with a clarity rarely achieved on this important but emotive topic. “In terms of their behaviour, the personnel of the state have been converted into instruments of personal rule,” he writes. He elaborates further that, “the negation of rules and procedures by the servants of the state has impacted the state apparatus in several ways, characterised by arbitrariness, delay, confusion and personalisation”.
These characteristics are dual edged. When used for the public good, the civil servant-political boss relationship can help deliver large projects quickly. But the conversion of public good to private can happen just as fast, and without any systemic warning or trigger that can prevent a contamination of the whole system. Ongoing corruption allegations and cases notwithstanding, there is a long and established trajectory of the symbiosis between political bosses and elite civil servants. Think Salman Farooqi for Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari. Or Fawad Hassan Fawad for the Sharifs. Or even Arbab Shehzad (and Azam Khan) for Imran Khan (though both these officers have a spotless record and reputation).
Every government has had a member or members of the elite civil service as drivers of their agendas. It is unpopular to make fair assertions about such dynamics, but the truth is that there is a meritocracy, even within the decayed edifice of our broken civil service. Those with the most blatant incentives to indulge in rent-seeking behaviour also tend to be the ones with the widest capacity to do good – and often they do both. This is a morally repugnant reality that will confuse PTI supporters, and confound the efforts of a government that has risen to power partly on the basis of its claims of moral superiority.
The imperative for reform is inescapable. As of 2014, there were over 18,000 full-time, pensionable employees at the federal secretariat alone, and over 400,000 across the federal government. When the superstar team of the newly-appointed, highly competent heads of SBP, BOI, SECP, FBR, Planning Commission, and the finance division negotiate Pakistan’s fiscal health with international lenders and financial institutions, our dysfunctional administrative system, our ineffective public financial management system and our disabled civil service will be central to the discussions. At that time, the question will not be whether to reform, but rather how, because PPP 2008 and PML-N 2013 have been here before. They both chose wrong: offering a pretence of reform, whilst postponing serious conversations and important decision till tomorrow.
Tomorrow has arrived. Until evidence otherwise accumulates to a critical mass, we can assume that reform is the central intent of Imran Khan’s plans. For simplicity’s sake, there are two schools of thought available to Imran Khan. One is the traditional conservative model. Dr Ishrat Husain is the oracle for this school of thought. His NCGR reforms are now a decade, old, but the proposals are so thorough, detailed and based on ground realities that they can be dusted off and implemented relatively quickly.
The other is the bold, transformational model. Dr Nadeem ul Haque represents the kind of public intellectual whose ideas would qualify for this approach. Taking this path would necessitate an unapologetic frontal assault on some of the key perpetuators of the status quo – including the almost unlimited perks and privileges that senior civil servants, especially those accurately described by Ilhan Niaz, are able to draw from the public sector.
Imran Khan wants to be transformational, but reports suggest he will surround himself with voices like Razzak Dawood and Dr Atta Ur Rehman – great Pakistanis that have contributed immensely to this country, but perhaps not transformational thinkers of a thoughtful and thorough reform agenda.
The question Khan faces now is whether he only wants to avoid becoming Pervez Musharraf, Shaukat Aziz, Yusuf Raza Gilani or Nawaz Sharif, or whether he is interested in dismantling their collective legacies too.
Diet reformer or transformational leader? The choice is Imran Khan’s.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.