Business-as-usual is no more an option for Pakistan. Years of dabbling with the economy without a formidable, sustainable, and innovative strategy, relying on ad hoc decisions, frequent U-turns and backtracking, depending on Ordinances and SROs, yo-yoing on import duties, tariffs, and rules, frustratingly lethargic approval processes, not striking while the iron is hot, and never really focusing resolutely on the economy, have resulted in a daunting economic scenario. Every so often, the economic managers attempt to resuscitate the economy through infusion of amendments, changes and incentives, but the panacea that they prescribe, although energises the economy in the short run, but not enough to be sustainable and not enough to pace briskly on the track.
The pandemic crisis has given an opportunity for policymakers as well as those stakeholders, such as private sector, workers, politicians, academicians, etc to have individual and collective conversations to forge a new roadmap that would deliver the nation from the economic morass as well as design a new structure to boost the economy and maintain its sustainability.
The practice in vogue has been to tackle each issue or matter through a tunnel vision and the outcome has never been entirely positive or longer lasting. Hence, the new thinking should be to widen the scope of the thinking and decision making process by adopting a holistic approach enveloping all facets and aspects.
Pakistan needs a new shift. Pakistan needs a new national transformative agenda. There are at least four components of this agenda and, though it may look idealistic or optimistic, the fact of the matter is what else would the country lose when a lot has already been lost?
Ownership by all citizens
The positive aspect of any policy or initiative envisioned by the sitting government is that the government must have the wherewithal to formulate such far-reaching policies that are grasped by the citizens and that most of them comprehend, understand and approve these policies and initiatives.
It is incumbent upon the government supporters to take on board the denizens by presenting the vision in practical terms instead of spin doctoring. One factor behind China's overall success has been the ownership by citizens of policies and decisions taken by the political hierarchy. It is obvious that when the currency is under immense pressure, when prices worldwide have risen, and when myopic mindset is prevalent in the corridors of decision makers, then it is but natural that prices of essential commodities and other inputs would go higher and higher.
Panic decisions to provide subsidies are short-term solutions. And, hence the populace, especially worried and many with financial constraints, routinely blame the party in power. The situation is further compounded by the influence of rent seekers who always come out richer and stronger with each passing day.
Therefore, it is imperative upon the government to come out of the shadows of this elite capture and ensure that policies would be beneficial for all and not the just the privileged few. It is also important that the citizens are informed about the foreign loans and conditionalities as well as Pakistan's global policies. The irony is that even the private sector is not oriented with these policies.
Economy, economy, economy
This is the mantra that everyone in the corridors of power should keep on thinking, discussing and repeating. First, a word of caution! Keep the information and party spokespersons, those who have no idea of Econ 101, far away from espousing their views and opinions on economy in the media. The sad situation in Pakistan is that the economic managers have this fallacious notion in their heads that they have the solutions and they are the saviours of Pakistan. They, along with officialdom in their ministries, abhor asking for innovative and pragmatic solutions from the private sector despite the fact that the real movers and shakers are in the private sector. They do set up so-called Councils to "advise" them but, in real terms, these advisors are representing the rent-seekers who live in golden castles and are distances away from mainstream business and industrial environment.
The present economic scenario manifests a demoralising and depressing situation for the poor and marginalised population. Despite some positive signs of growing exports and higher inflow of remittances, the bare fact is that prices of commodities, rates of utilities, growing unemployment, and the panic-imports of essential commodities, etc, have made life difficult for citizens who are not able to subsist due to their financial and social constraints. Solutions should not be short-term and should not be populist measures but these should be planned to stabilise the economy and provide breathing space for all citizens.
These solutions should be all-inclusive leading to a quantum leap in economic transformation and not just cater to the vested interests of the elite. Policymakers must thwart the pressure and power of those who have been influencing policies that generally benefit them. In 1992, James Carville, the strategist in President Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign once quipped on TV that "It's the economy, stupid" which became the rallying cry to highlight the prevailing recession during the regime of President Bush senior. Same is the situation in Pakistan too.
The most evident example of economic despondency is the agriculture sector. It is ironic that the feudal segment of society, who since independence has been in power, has not brought about fundamental changes in the agriculture sector. The feudal lords and progeny sit in Parliament, are in other pillars of the state, and ensure best prices for their produce with no qualms about paying taxes. What have they done to technologically modernise, or increase productivity, or even make efforts to develop better seeds and inputs all these years? The net result is that Pakistan has become a major importer of wheat, cotton, sugar, soybean, palm oil and pulses. If a dozen large agriculturists decide to change the way of farming, the others, big and small farmers will follow suit and then there could be the paradigm shift towards economic prosperity all across farmland Pakistan.
Tough and real time accountability
There are organisations and mechanisms that are mandated to enforce accountability. Every now and then, these organisations go after the wrong-doers, highlighting their corruption, embezzlement, misuse of power or authority, and what not. Transgressors or contraveners are investigated, arrested, interrogated, hauled into courts, and then the process lags on for years and years.
Accountability should be equal for all and not like selectively picking a fruit from this or that branch of the crime tree. The prime reason for the endemic corruption is that the offenders are reasonably convinced that they can beat the law. Accountability should be seen and done and not just be a farcical opera.
Slogans such as "zero tolerance to corruption" should not be hollow but practical. Accountability should be transparent, effective and purposeful and that the citizens do not feel that they are being taken for a ride just to protect a few.
They expect that the governments, federal, provincial or local, should be honest and non-corrupt, should care for the welfare and needs of the people, should always offer themselves for accountability, should ensure that resources are allocated and spent judiciously, and should defend the integrity and sovereignty of the motherland. It is also important that the other pillars of state also play their constitutionally defined roles and are accountable to the nation.
National political partnership
It has always been a no-holds barred polemical environment in Pakistani politics. The ad nauseam diatribes harping on few topics have muddled the political environment for decades. The cost of living is a favourite issue to hit the party in power since any current government is hard-pressed to deal with external as well as domestic impacts and pressures on the economy.
Prices do rise, currency can become shaky, loans from international development financing institutions are negotiated and reluctantly taken with pledges to meet all laid down conditionalities, populist projects despite becoming white elephants are undertaken, and subservience to rent seekers has been a normal feature of every government.
Thus, open-ended criticism is the order of the day with those in Opposition conveniently forgetting their own near identical actions and policies while in the driving seat. The only ingredient missing from their criticisms is that they also never offer any remedies because they probably do not have any solutions worth implementing.
However, Pakistan comes first. There is a crucial demand from stakeholders, especially the business community that all political parties must sit down and decide on a Charter of Economy.
They may continue with their own political agendas and their opposition to the party in power but when the focus is on the economy, there must be unanimity, agreement and cooperation. When political parties sound a common voice on matters related to national security, national calamities, and national foreign policies, then what stops them from supporting a national economic agenda?
Now is the time for all to undertake joint measures and prioritise programmes in order to establish a foundation for sustainable economic development. It is proposed that the following should be the national priority initiatives, such as ending poverty and reducing inequality, climate change, empowerment of women, youth and marginalised groups, new accords based on mutual trust, accommodation and justice, and rigorous accountability mechanisms.
Pakistan's political leadership can together adopt and accept pragmatic economic solutions and also accountability, so that citizens can survive and get on with their lives. Oh yes! A message for governmental hierarchy! Please adopt the transformative agenda and please refrain from performative utterances. Motivational author Kelly A Morgan stated that "Changes are inevitable and not always controllable. What can be controlled is how you manage, react to and work through the change process".
The writer is Ex President Employers Federation of Pakistan