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December 1, 2018

Beyond the 100 days


December 1, 2018

From the opposition benches, a party may underestimate the severity of the challenges faced by the treasury benches, and may propose simplistic or ambitious solutions.

This may not be the case for the PTI when it was in opposition. However, without undermining the initiatives that the PTI government has taken during its first 100 days in power, I would be reluctant to judge the government on those initiatives.

The government is here for 1825 days. My assumption is that the first 100 days were important for it to understand the magnitude and severity of challenges that its predecessors were facing. That is why I believe that the focus of the discussion should not be the self-imposed targets for the first 100 days, but the targets that the government will set for itself now after having insider information about the issues facing Pakistan.

The crux of the maiden speech of Prime Minister Khan was his government’s resolve to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Without naming the SDGs, he talked of poverty, malnutrition, hunger, education, health, drinking water, climate change, youth and peaceful coexistence with regional neighbours etc.

The government has already started taking some steps to improve social services delivery. To address the issue of malnutrition, a nutrition programme (the zero-hunger programme) is being piloted. Rs5 billion has been allocated for low-cost housing. A pilot programme of ‘shelter centres’ for homeless people has been initiated. The Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund has been given a green signal to work on a poverty graduation programme, whereas a special social protection programme is being launched. A comprehensive health policy framework is also in the final stages.

All the above are right steps in the right direction. However, social sector development issues are huge. Despite its good intentions, the federal government in Pakistan cannot do much on social services delivery without involving the federating units. This is because the federal government neither has the financial resources nor the administrative powers to deliver social sector services at the district and tehsil levels.

Incidentally, the PTI is in power in three federating units too. One needs to see whether the PTI will take the initiative to announce ‘Provincial Financial Awards’ so that provincial governments are compelled to allocate funds for peripheries and marginalised districts. Moreover, without cooperation by provinces, the federal government will not be able to implement its vision to have uniform curriculum and uniform health facilities for all Pakistanis.

The PTI owes a lot to the youth of Pakistan as it is widely believed that they played an important role in bringing the party to power. A task force is working to develop a youth policy framework. We have seen such policies in the past, which were focused on loan provision and vocational trainings. This government can add value to previous programmes by adding a component on the deradicalisation of the youth so that the youth bulge is effectively mobilised for nation building.

The PTI government promised to work for an inclusive society and country. It did disappoint when it excluded Atif Mian from the Economic Advisory Council due to his faith, and then bowed down to the TLP after the post-Aasia Bibi acquittal sit-ins. However, the good news is that the government has finally showed its resolve to maintain the writ of the state by arresting the TLP leadership. Going forward, it will have to show no leniency to such elements.

On regional coexistence, the government decided to open the Kartarpur corridor with India, and won the hearts of millions of peace lovers in the region. The PM’s successful visit to Saudi Arabia and China is a signal that power transition does not affect good diplomatic relations with our friends.

On the environmental front, the government announced the replication of the Billion Tsunami Tree Campaign (afforestation) in all of Pakistan. The campaign was comparatively successful in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. One hopes it is successful in the rest of the country too. The government has announced a ‘Clean and Green Pakistan’ and has also joined hands with the chief justice of Pakistan to mobilise funds for dams. One hopes that, in pursuit of economic growth, the government will not compromise on environmental conservation.

The twin menace of fiscal and current account deficits has become a characteristic of our economy for the last three decades. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the focus of the government during the first 100 days remained on tackling the twin menace and it did manage to avert an immediate balance of payments threat through the Saudi bailout package.

However, on its own the Saudi package cannot bring macroeconomic stability in Pakistan. The government is working on two parallel tracks to achieve macroeconomic stability. The first is with the help of friendly countries and through an IMF programme, while the second is without an IMF programme and through out-of-the-box initiatives.

While the pros for going to the IMF are many, including a letter of comfort to work with other multilateral development partners, the disadvantage is that an IMF programme would have inflationary effects at the micro level. Achieving macroeconomic stability without the IMF may entail out-of-the-box solutions, especially curtailing imports, plugging leakage of public sector funds, and fundraising through bonds and sukuk from overseas Pakistanis.

With or without the IMF, the key to macroeconomic stability is structural reforms in Pakistan’s economy ie tax reforms, reforms in loss-making public-sector enterprises, curtailing the circular debt, increasing regulatory duties, and improving ease of doing business etc. A prerequisite to these reforms is political consensus which cannot be achieved until the government controls the political temperature. Going forward, the PTI government has a tall order to address but it should not ignore the most important point – keeping the political temperature low. This would help it achieve its vision.

The writer heads the SustainableDevelopment Policy Institute.

Twitter: @abidsuleri