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Monday, April 15, 2024

Pakistan’s economic environment on the edge

The author analyzes Pakistan’s political situation and is not impressed. The government is protecting its own interests rather than working for the common good of the population. Increasing inflation, costly living standards and government's continuous hails of stabilization are adding insult to injury.

As the year draws to a close, 2019 for Pakistan has been a turbulent year by any stretch of the imagination. Polarization in the society has increased, institutions that matter in keeping the national governance structure intact appears to be at odds with each other, intolerance, temper and frustration in the society is at a boil, and last but not least, a mockery is being made of an average person’s day to day difficulties by claiming that economy is on the mend while he struggles to even balance his monthly household budget.

Surely something is amiss and the government needs to have a serious rethink on its approach to governance over the last 15 months in order to enter 2020 with a new resolve and a fresh mindset to rearrange priorities and improve its performance per se.

It is rather ironic that while we so closely partner China in virtually every sphere of a long-standing bilateral relationship, economic, security & defense, infrastructure development, foreign policy, trade, etc., still the very underlying philosophy of China’s success continues to somehow elude us!

That is the modern day Chinese culture of Confucius thinking cum way of doing things: To establish a system of meritocracy without too much fanfare (election plus selection as the Director of Fudon University puts it); prime focus on job creation, poverty eradication, social development, and ‘local’ economic growth; only appointing people with related experience to run operational state or economic affairs, and focus on leadership rather than showmanship – regrettably, the story of PTI thus far has been merely a saga of old rhetoric and new showmanship with little scant regard to tangible substance in delivery of pre-election promises or to an appropriate selection of quality human resource in managing the country’s affairs.

Compare this to our woes and it will be hard to miss that we here also have a government that is not only unnecessarily large in its size, but also continues to fund its inefficiencies through an increase in public debt

Now one can disregard it as a cliché oft-repeated over the last decade or so, but believe it or not the sheer anger on the streets tells a story of fast brewing resentment and possible protest. Come to think of it a deep dive into our situation on the ground and the picture comes across as not being much different to that in Lebanon where people despite a wide religious divide, jointly took on to the street to bring a system down.

That is to bring down the Lebanese political order based on the idea that power-sharing between different pillars of the state is the only way to ensure peace and that this formula should extend to everything: Economy included. Even the decisions of how public funds are allocated and entry-level jobs are awarded were victims of this system of Kleptocracy.

The Lebanese order ensured that responding to citizens’ needs took a back seat – and every chieftain and his cronies get their pockets lined while unemployment in the country attained rampant proportions. And it meant the Lebanese top 1 percent earning about 25 percent of the gross domestic product, thereby making it one of the most unequal economies in the world. Now shift the pointer instead to home and there appear to be stark similarities.

Pakistan’s political order is also failing to deliver to the average citizen on the streets and the different power centers – amidst its governing hierarchy – tend to be more concerned about guarding their own self-interest over the collective national interest. Also, not only accountability with allocating and optimally using public funds has been sketchy, but also a long history of weak institutional override by key organizations like the CCP, SECP, and the MOC has contributed to an on-going rise of inequality in the society.

Read more: Captain’s premature celebrations on economy?

When people took to the streets, already Lebanon was at the precipice of disaster. Market shelves were getting sparser and prices were rising by the day. Many people’s salaries were being slashed while others were being fired outright. Hospitals were warning that they are running out of medication, including key areas like anesthetics, doctors were nearly always on strike for one reason or another, credit in the market was drying up fast and the country stood plunged in a debt of as high as $86 billion.

Over the years, Lebanon has primarily been a service-based economy, heavily reliant on imports with little or no capital invested on shoring up domestic manufacturing or for improving economic productivity. Naturally, such a set up where spending and institutional sustainability was based on increasing public debt was bound to fail. Compare this to our woes and it will be hard to miss that we here also have a government that is not only unnecessarily large in its size, but also continues to fund its inefficiencies through an increase in public debt. Surely, this cannot last for very long.

Interestingly, in the Lebanese “thawra” movement the thing that drove it the most was a sort of public revolt against the country’s financial system. Nearly eighty percent of the protestors who were interviewed by different journalists moaned about the injustice of the Lebanese banking system and the increasing intrusiveness by the government in people’s private financial matters without really giving anything in return, contributed significantly in them revolting against the system.

In Lebanon also we saw city squares turn into giant, open-air classrooms or theatres with lectures, debates and open-dialogue sessions that soon turned ugly

As curbs and oversight emerged on private deposits and withdrawals coupled with mounting arrogance of both the revenue collectors and the banking officials towards the customers and as interest rates alongside climbed up to an intolerable level – amidst an environment of inflation and dwindling jobs – the people reacted and an uprising erupted in taking them to the streets. Set off by a rather small proposal of tax on a WhatsApp phone call announced on October 17, 2019, the protests in-effect reflected a ‘No’ to a ever increasing governmental meddling into an individual’s private domain by taking away his rights to basic privacy and confidentiality that are otherwise guaranteed in every civilized country.

Now, by the way, not so long ago even our FBR upon approval from the parliament (through an ordinance) gave directions to all banks in making it mandatory for them to share every data of all account holders, thereby eroding the traditional sanctity of a client-bank relationship. Needless to say, that the fallouts from such brazen oversight laws invariably carry long-term repercussions, which only become visible after a certain period of time!

To conclude, while the movements like thawra look very romantic from the outside, there real-time economic impact on the country can be devastating. Everything comes to a standstill, the structure of authority gets abruptly dismantled and the resulting environment runs the risk of invariably slipping into anarchy or chaos. In Lebanon also we saw city squares turn into giant, open-air classrooms or theatres with lectures, debates and open-dialogue sessions that soon turned ugly. Discussions that started with brainstorming on the constitution, the economy, the legal system and the electoral system eventually drifting to serious threats against each other and animated fist fights.

Read more: Imran Khan’s Economic Team: What went wrong?

The romantic notion of assuming collective responsibility, to expose and change the inequalities in the system, to prudently restructure the public debt in public interest and to assuming the right regulate one’s own life, when left headless only for a few days, instead falling prey to divisiveness. Surely we don’t want all this to take place in Pakistan. Even the ultimate revolutionist, Lenin, when asked about the preferred route of the change he dreamed of, he opined, “One that is structured and not unruly”.

Dr. Kamal Monnoo is a political analyst. He is an honorary consul general of the Czech Republic in Punjab and a member Board of Governors of Islamabad Policy Research Institute. He is an author of two books ‘A Study of WTO’, and ‘Economic Management in Pakistan.’ He can be reached at: kamal. monnoo@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.