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January 6, 2018

Let us ‘do more’


January 6, 2018

US President Trump’s humiliating tweet, which criticised Pakistan for not doing more to fight terrorism, highlights the flawed security and socioeconomic policies that have been followed for decades by our governing elite. We may be able to find a band-aid to overcome the threat from the US, but Trump’s tweet should be a wake-up call for our political system and security establishment.

Lost opportunities, a series of monumental blunders by the political, judicial and security institutions, and a string of unsound policies have compromised Pakistan’s sovereignty. They have multiplied our vulnerabilities and hindered our path to prosperity. We need to credibly address the concerns of the global community, including the US, on their perceptions about our support for militant groups. More importantly, we need to ‘do more’ on the existential challenges that Pakistan is facing. For decades, we have either ignored or soft-peddled on these challenges. But now, we are running out of time. Pakistan’s governing elite need to urgently develop a national consensus on a ‘do more’ agenda to reclaim the promise of Pakistan.

The world tends to perceive Pakistan as a safe haven for terrorists despite our sacrifices in the war on terror. We have been unable to bury our past. The state’s ambivalence towards some militant groups has deeply affected us. In addition, Pakistan now ranks among the most intolerant states across the globe. Bigotry and obscurantism is creating havoc in our country and poisoning the minds of the youth.

Most foreigners associate Pakistan with terrorism and consider it to be an intolerant place rather than a country they would like to invest in or visit. At airports around the world, Pakistanis are viewed with suspicion. The inability to reduce intolerance or rein in militancy is undermining our narrative on fighting terror and stoking fury. While it will not be easy – and will, undoubtedly, take time – Pakistan needs to do more on this front.

Our rapidly growing population is bursting Pakistan at the seams. The country’s natural resources simply cannot support the burgeoning population. We need to defuse the time bomb before it detonates. Without wasting more time, we need to do more to lower the population growth rate.

For too long, our policymakers have ignored the catastrophic water crisis that will be staring us in the face in two decades or so. A bold ‘do more’ strategy is needed to conserve water and use it more efficiently. Unless we wake up to this challenge, we will face an acute drinking and agricultural water crisis. There is a strong possibility of water wars erupting among various provinces.

We are also getting deeper into debt by pursuing flawed tax and expenditure policies for decades. We are over-taxing and extorting from those in the tax net while soft-peddling on non-filers. Our expenditure priorities are misguided and waste/corruption is embedded in our spending. We need to do more to put Pakistan on a sustainable fiscal path.

Despite its emerging middle-income status, Pakistan has appalling human development indicators. Millions of children are out of school while those who are at school have access to poor-quality education. Our health indicators and access to healthcare are abysmal. Pakistan has one of the worst rates of stunting among children. An aggressive strategy is necessary to provide citizens with access to a better quality of life.

We need a plan that can help us do more to strengthen our democratic, judicial and civil institutions. These reforms are critical to overcome our soft-state ailment, strengthen rule of law, improve the quality of governance and reduce corruption.

Several decades of imprudent policies has made begging a central element of our national DNA. Since our leadership is weak, we have allowed external powers to leave a huge footprint on our affairs. The decision to accept funding from the US has severely compromised our sovereignty. Instead of raising taxes to fight the terror networks that are operating within our borders, we took the easy and shameful route and sought US grants.

We need to ‘do more’ to eliminate our propensity for the begging bowl, and become a sovereign self-respecting nation. To that end, we should aggressively reduce bilateral aid. It is particularly disgraceful for an emerging middle-income country to beg for aid so as to fulfil the fundamental responsibilities of the state, such as providing healthcare and education.

The more immediate issue involves devising a response to Trump’s tweet. Our measured reaction is arguably the correct course of action. Our stance should be based on principled pragmatism that comprises the following elements: our desire to have friendly relations with the US; thanking the US government and taxpayers for their generous support over the past 70 years; demanding full accountability of the $33 billion that, according to Trump’s tweet, has been given in aid to us; offering to pay this amount back over the next 15 years after netting out the aid that was used for US equipment/consultants and logistical support to the US forces. With a bit of belt-tightening, we can easily afford to pay back the netted-out amount. Moreover, we must cede Usaid programmes in 2018.

We need to ‘do more’ for the sake of Pakistan’s future, not because President Trump is asking us to do so. If we continue to soft-pedal on the country’s existential challenges, the day will not be far when our closest friend, China, may publicly ask us to do more to protect their investment worth $60 billion and reduce the risk of a nuclear neighbour becoming dangerously unstable.

The writer is a former adviser to the World Bank.

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