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Opinion

February 23, 2015

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Who protects the ‘thought’ industry?

Ghari Baqir returned with a PhD from Harvard three decades ago, keen to use his newfound skills to contribute to policy and thought. Teaching at a university allowed him the ability to do research, write books – and perhaps at some stage advise the government. He had ideas and wanted to work hard.
Soon he realised that professors were at the bottom of the barrel as far as employment went. In a society where power and wealth is everything, he had neither. His counterparts in the bureaucracy had power to be a nuisance and would also get healthy perks and plots, whereas all he had was a measly salary – no power, no perks. His tiny, filthy office did not even have a phone in that era before cell phones.
Luckily, donors offered paid consulting opportunities. Eventually he made enough money to buy his own house. Sadly, though, in the process dreams of independent research, those bright ideas, those books he wanted to write, were buried. Donor consulting meant working on someone else’s agenda. He wrote lengthy and often meaningless reports on poorly-thought-out projects. He reported to junior donor officials as well as their contractors who controlled money with little originality. The terms were very clear: Ghari could only dance to their tune.
Ironically he was discriminated against. He was always paid ‘domestic’ rates, which were usually were half of what international consultants who worked with him got. Yet international consultants often were not as well qualified as him. “Discriminated against in my own country”, he says, “but who do I turn to?”.
“So hungry are the Ministry of Finance and the EAD for donor money that they do not even question donor practices, quality or agendas.” His concerns would meet the deaf ears of the EAD. After all EAD foreign tours were in the hands of the donors.
But the game had to be played. He often thinks of writing a book to tell about this iniquitous situation.
Ten years later, his growing

business led him to set up a consulting firm in Islamabad where he would be close to his paymasters. The firm has grown. He is now very close to two of the biggest donors and also has strong relationships with two of the biggest beltway bandits being their steady subcontractor in Pakistan. Yes, money is surely coming in.
However, he knows that he has peaked and that the firm can grow no more. Donors will never allow him to compete with their own consulting firms – his senior partners. He knows them well and he knows he can do a better job. But the fine print in the rules prevents him from competing. So there he is: relegated to remaining a junior partner, often a mere logistics supplier.
So WXY Consulting of Washington DC got a $100 million contract out of which his firm got only $3 million. Ghari’s firm did most of the work. But WXY consultants came there at huge rates, lived in 5-star hotels and gave instructions.
He thought about expanding overseas but he could not compete with the WXYs who had huge support from home and in all markets were the favourites of their funding agencies. So when last we met he told me that there would never be a Pakistani consulting firm of an international level because the game is so loaded against him.
Well we have protected cars exorbitantly for 50 years, I told him. In order to make an engineering goods industry, we have the Engineering Development Board which, with SROs, mothers a stunted engineering industry.
In addition we have the National Tariff Commission to guard all industry in Pakistan from dumping practices. Their website shows ongoing investigations into polythene, soda ash and garments for allegations of dumping. They have successfully investigated many such allegations in the past.
We also have the Competition Commission in Pakistan to look into anticompetitive practices – and it has taken stands in the sugar and cement industries.
Ghari is a serious, well-meaning sort of fellow. He marched off to all these agencies to plead his case. He had a hard time explaining what an ‘intellectual industry’ was. However, they see and need cars – but not thought.
Ghari had come full circle – starting out as a professor in a society where education and research have no value to becoming a sort of ‘thought’ entrepreneur in an environment where intellectual work is routinely subject to dumping by donors.
Even his original ideas do not belong to him. Consultants and donor agencies get the citation. They sit at the policy table; Ghari is merely the ghost in the machine.
And Ghari concludes with a sigh: “Our history and experience has abundantly illustrated that development is the direct product of better ideas arising from thought and research. Yet in Pakistan, the EAD and the Ministry of Finance unintentionally facilitate dumping on our ‘thought’ industry. Do they really want us to develop? I guess they really are marching to the tune of defunct economists.”
The writer is former deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @nadeemhaque

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