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Accountability of Provincial Governments necessary

Accountability of Provincial Governments necessary

Dr. Omer Javed |

Are provinces another country, or do they have very little role to play after the 18th Amendment to the constitution? Well, obviously the answer to both these questions is in the negative. Then why there is much silence about the performance of provincial governments, in media or at least as per reported provincial parliamentary discussions. It is all about the federal level macroeconomics and ‘macro-politics’. When was the last time we heard parliamentary or media projection and discussion of what the ministers in provinces had to say about their plans and performance?

Unfortunately, the same pattern is being followed in the times of the Naya (or new) Pakistan. This has to change if democracy and its accountability have to take deeper roots, and if overall, country has to reach higher economic development. And yet the centre of economic growth is the provinces after the devolution of most subjects and financial powers to the provinces! Also, I have hardly heard discussion taking place, in media or parliament, about the failures of the provincial finance ministers, and chairmen of planning and development divisions of provinces, not to talk about the performance of provincial chief economists.

The above should be quite indicative of where the priorities lie for governments in leaving such important offices in such poor conditions; and also of media as to why highlighting such issues is given such little air time priority.

Although not to bailout the shortcomings of governments at the federal level, after all any analysis of provincial finances will indicate that the main reason for federal level fiscal deficit slippage has a lot to do with the lack of performance on that front from the provinces. Just the other day, the finance minister of Punjab presented provincial budget, but like in the past there is little analysis of it or discussion; the noise of the opposition on that day in the provincial assembly caught most attention in media.

Taking a step back, the performance of subsequent governments in Pakistan with regard to the qualification criteria of selection of provincial ministers, has been quite poor to say the least. Competence in terms of exhibited academic/ research interests and professional experience seem to be not the main ticket item when selecting a minister, especially at the provincial level, when even a cook kept in their own homes by the government ministers is judged purely on qualification.

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It would be a good exercise to see who is looking after trade, finance, industry, among other ministries that require relatively greater technical expertise, now and in the previous governments, and you will see that words in the manifestos of various political parties leave a lot to be wanted when it comes looking at the choices of people they select for ministerial appointments. Is political necessity above reaching development goals? Certainly not.

Just a couple of years ago, visited the Sindh provincial headquarter of Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (then called Federal Bureau of Statistics) as part of the IMF technical mission on statistics (to indicate the purpose of this mission in a broader sense). This was the main office for collection of price statistics (among other duties) and was still using mainframes to compile data; hardly had any desktops/laptops to make use of more efficient technological methods for collection and analysis of data. The building, in itself reminded of an old government hospital, badly in need of repair.

The same pattern is being followed in the times of the Naya (or new) Pakistan. This has to change if democracy and its accountability have to take deeper roots, and if overall, country has to reach higher economic development.

Also, the Punjab office of bureau of statistics was in quite a poor state of affairs in terms of physical capacity at least, as I visited it a couple of times while doing my doctoral research just a few years ago. Not sure how different are the affairs of other provincial departments with regard to data collection and analysis. The above should be quite indicative of where the priorities lie for governments in leaving such important offices in such poor conditions; and also of media as to why highlighting such issues is given such little air time priority.

Hence, there is little-reported discussion in parliament about the sorry affairs of this very important department of the government. Has anyone been held accountable, for example the planning and development department or the department of finance, at least been called to be answerable to media if not in front of a parliamentary committee. Not sure; at least not in my knowledge. The provincial governments hardly ever indicate as to what are their overall short- and medium-term plans to deliver on improving, for example, (a) provincial economic and political institutions, (b) various markets, (c) budget deficit numbers, (d) tax- and energy-related collections, and (d) performance of social sectors.

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Unlike the Prime Minister, there have been no voices by the provincial chief ministers, or the ministers of other main departments like finance, education, health, that they will be available for one-hour question time in respective provincial parliaments. Role of media leaves a lot of improvement in highlighting the issues of provinces, in terms of both the broad aspects and the specifics.

Rarely time is allocated to call upon provincial ministers and other important figures, including the chairmen of planning and development department, or for that matter the provincial chief economists; or from time to time about various economic issues like indicating, for example, the reason for the current rising lack of confidence in the stock markets.

This was the main office for collection of price statistics (among other duties) and was still using mainframes to compile data; hardly had any desktops/laptops to make use of more efficient technological methods for collection and analysis of data.

When was the last time, a chief economist of either the ministry of planning and development or the provincial chapters of such ministries ever gave a media briefing on the actual plans for economic development. Hours and hours are spent weekly on popular ‘macro-politics’, and that mostly too in a musical chair fashion: same political faces (mostly) taking turns on different TV channels. Are other voices, political, economic and other fields less relevant? Indeed not; ratings are not everything.

Moreover, the level of discussion is also very broad and quite non-technical, and the anchor is playing the role of master of all, in terms of holding programmes on topics of varied content and nature. At the same time, little comes to knowledge in parliament or media, or otherwise through a lack of well distributed/highlighted departmental reports about the working of other important actors in the economy; two being the provincial stock exchanges (apart from the Karachi Stock Exchange), and the chambers of commerce.

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A couple of years ago, in a big metropolitan city like Lahore, the chamber of commerce had very sparse data on the cottage industry of the city. I mean the city is bigger than some of the European countries in terms of population, and it is therefore important that such important matters as data on cottage industry should be known for better planning and implementation of policies in this regard.

Moreover, there are hardly any voices on the commodity markets and for that matter the extent of listings of companies related to these commodity sectors, when above all the mainstay of the economy is in terms of agriculture and its related markets. Similarly, there are a few investment opportunities for many vulnerable living in the provinces, and having little recourse in terms of financial advice and instruments to hedge against rising prices, through investing their pension funds for example.

Role of media leaves a lot of improvement in highlighting the issues of provinces, in terms of both the broad aspects and the specifics.

Similarly, what about the artificial hike of prices at the back of cartels operating in the provinces, may that be in the commodity or real estate sectors? In the same vein, has there been a discussion in the parliament or media about the extent of the informal economy and the loss of tax at the provincial level, and more so at the disaggregated level of districts.

I don’t think that without involving all these economic actors, from the ministers to those agents that operate in these institutions and markets, into active policy formulation and thrashing it out in provincial parliaments, and media, will the economic problems can truly be dealt with successfully. For example, will a rise in policy rate under an IMF programme or exchange rate adjustment, or for that matter some structural adjustments be enough to deal with the problem of inflation in the country.

For that, a competing effort will have to be made on improving the performance of provincial government in being more visible with what targets they are setting for development- including reforming the markets and regulating them better- and how they intend to approach reaching them. Moreover, it is the plurality of voices and the selection of ministers for example on merit (among other governmental positions), including fixing markets, and more importantly making it an agenda item for discussion in provincial parliaments, and media for inclusive policy and its dissemination for the electorate, that a meaningful progress towards a Naya (or new) Pakistan will truly begin.

Omer Javed holds Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Barcelona, Spain. A former economist at International Monetary Fund, he is the author of Springer published book (2016), ‘The economic impact of International Monetary Fund programmes: institutional quality, macroeconomic stabilization, and economic growth’. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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