Sunday May 26, 2024

The road forward

By Atta-ur-Rahman
September 27, 2023

Pakistan today faces a myriad of problems that range from poor governance systems, lack of proper long-term planning, uncontrolled increase in population, and water shortages to a poor educational system, lack of proper industrialization and job opportunities, corrupt leadership, and a controversial judicial system. The net result is a bankrupt country where new loans must be taken at increasingly unaffordable interest rates to pay off old debts.

One of Pakistan’s major policy errors in socio-economic development has been the consistent lack of long-term planning. Short-term political considerations have often taken precedence over sustainable economic strategies. This short-sighted approach has resulted in a series of ad-hoc policies and missed opportunities.

Without a clear long-term vision of migrating to a knowledge-based economy, we have struggled to set and achieve specific socio-economic development goals. To address this error, we need to prioritize long-term planning in its socio-economic development policies with the primary target of achieving a strong technology-driven knowledge-based economy.

This includes setting clear, measurable goals, and objectives, developing comprehensive strategies and ensuring policy continuity across political transitions. By doing so, Pakistan can create a more stable and sustainable path for economic development.

Poor governance has been a persistent challenge in our socio-economic development policies. Corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, and weak institutions have hindered effective policy implementation and resource allocation, undermining the country’s economic growth.

High-profile corruption scandals have damaged our reputation on the global stage, making it less attractive to investors and aid donors.

To address the issue of poor governance, we need comprehensive reforms that focus on transparency, accountability, and strengthening institutions. This includes efforts to combat corruption through independent anti-corruption agencies, streamline bureaucratic processes, and invest in capacity-building for public servants.

Additionally, judicial and law-enforcement reforms are essential to ensure that rule of law is upheld, and citizens and businesses have access to justice. Uncontrolled population growth has multiplied our problems manifold. We must implement effective population control measures and invest in family planning programs.

Pakistan’s inadequate education system has been a major policy error that has hindered socio-economic development. The education system has struggled with low literacy rates, outdated curricula, and insufficient investment, limiting human capital development and economic growth. We therefore urgently need to prioritize education as a fundamental driver of socio-economic development.

This includes increasing investments in education infrastructure, improving teacher training and quality, and updating curricula to align with the needs of the job market. Addressing these challenges is essential for building a skilled and knowledgeable workforce that can drive economic growth and development.

One excellent example of what must be done is the Pak-Austria University of Applied Science and Engineering (‘Fachhochschule’) established under my supervision in Haripur, Hazara with funding being provided by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government. This is the first of a brilliant new breed of ‘entrepreneurial universities’ whose performance will be measured not by just the PhD output, research publications or other academic yardsticks but by the impact that its faculty and students have on the socio-economic development of Pakistan.

The university has been set up in close partnership with three Austrian, one German and five Chinese universities, which have taken full charge of developing one section of the university. Exams based on theoretical knowledge are not sufficient – all students must additionally spend at least 500 working hours in industry with high performance before becoming eligible for a degree.

Although the university is only three years old, there are already 10 products in various stages of commercial development in its technology park. Another similar university is being built under my supervision in Samrial outside Sialkot with funding from the Punjab and federal governments. A similar university can be quickly established in Sindh with foreign collaboration if the Sindh government shows interest in such an entrepreneurial university linked to the local industry.

We need to prioritize human development as a fundamental component of its socio-economic development policies. This includes increasing investments in education and healthcare infrastructure, improving access to quality services, and implementing poverty reduction programmes that target the most vulnerable populations.

Our healthcare services have been inadequate, with limited access to quality healthcare facilities and high out-of-pocket expenses for medical treatment. This has led to health disparities and hindered the overall wellbeing of people.

Economic growth however cannot be achieved without our ability to manufacture and export high-technology goods such as pharmaceuticals, vaccines, biotechnology products, electronic goods, software, engineering goods, automobiles, and defence materials. The lack of diversification in the industrial sector means that we have missed opportunities to develop new industries and create higher-value-added products.

This limits the country’s ability to compete in the global market and achieve sustained economic growth. We therefore need to prioritize industrial diversification as a key component of its economic strategy. This includes promoting the development of new industries, such as technology, manufacturing, and services, to reduce reliance on a few key sectors.

Investing in research and development, innovation, and technology adoption can help create a more dynamic and diversified economy. Additionally, supporting small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurship can encourage the growth of new industries and create jobs.

Loss-making state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have been a drain on our government’s resources and hindered economic growth in Pakistan. To address the issue of inefficient SOEs, we need to undertake comprehensive reforms in the management and governance of these enterprises.

Corruption has long been a key issue in this country, undermining the country’s socio-economic development, eroding public trust in institutions, and hindering progress. It is a deeply rooted problem that permeates various sectors of society, from politics and bureaucracy to law-enforcement and business.

With a population of 230 million people and with 67 per cent of this population below the age of 30, Pakistan can have a bright future if we invest in this wealth. We therefore must appoint the best economists, scientists, and engineers in the country as our federal and provincial ministers and secretaries who understand the critical importance and path of transitioning to a knowledge-based economy.

The way forward lies only in massive and well-thought-out investments in education, science, technology, innovation, and industrialization focused on high value-added goods. That, however, is only possible with an honest, visionary, and technologically competent government at the helm of affairs.

The writer is the former federal minister for science

and technology and former founding chairman of the HEC. He can be reached at: