Tag Archives: donors

Rescuing the Pakistani state

Raza Rumi

Three weeks after the floods have broken Pakistan’s back, the international community is yet to show its resolve in helping a drowning country. The reasons for such a slow response are erroneously being understood in the context of the Pakistani government or the current crop of civilians in power. However, this is a narrow twist to the reality. The real angst and distrust being displayed by the world is at the Pakistani ‘state’. The situation is also reflective of the duplicity of international opinion makers and power-centres in labelling Pakistan as a country with an ‘image problem’.

One is sick of reading nauseating reports on how the post-earthquake assistance was ‘diverted’ or squandered. The truth is that in 2005 a military dictator was ruling Pakistan and the entire world was doing business with him. At that moment, the issues of democracy, transparency and human rights all took a backseat and strategic imperatives prevailed.

Pakistani, and by extension the global media, are regurgitating tiresome cliches about corruption without talking about reforming state institutions. For instance, not a single commentator has said that we have a new accounting system in the form of the Project to Improve Financial Reporting and Auditing (Pifra) in place. But it has not been put into place effectively at the provincial and district levels. This is the way we will ensure transparency and good tracking of money received and spent. Continue reading

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Filed under Pakistan, public policy, state

Pakistan’s budget: Policy sans public

Raza Rumi
Last week, a former Minister while referring to the budgeting process remarked how the budget documents were accessible to only 3% of the parliamentarians. A lady MNA whom I met after the budget speech was ploughing through the shabbily printed pink documents, looking for the allocations for regulatory bodies and both of us could not find the relevant figures. This should be enough to describe the inaccessibility and obfuscated nature of the budgeting process in Pakistan and several other developing countries.

Executive board-room syndrome
: Lack of public consultation in the budgetary processes is another hallmark of how the executive formulates the national priorities and finances them. Our state considers the people as ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘recipients’ of the wise decisions made in air-conditioned secretariats and donor board-rooms. This is why the economic and social policies are seldom reflective of the will of the people. Pakistan’s deep rooted authoritarian tradition explains this dilemma. But the civilian governments have rarely attempted to change this trend. More often than not, they also rely on the same evergreen bureaucrats. Our present elected government has chosen economic managers who are former international bureaucrats representing the good-old Washington Consensus.

Lack of participation:
Across the globe, pre-budget consultations are exercises seeking public support and inputs for policy. Countries in democratic transition are adopting participatory decision-making processes. There is also a growing consensus that budget decisions need to be subjected to public scrutiny and debate. Earlier, our government organized seminars in big cities and consulted the business, middle classes and other stakeholders to frame the policies. This time last-minute public consultations focused on the VAT issue. Quite obviously, for purely political reasons, these consultations have failed and we have a higher GST rate thereby more exposure to inflation.Development charades: The development allocations at the time of the budget announcement are almost always notional. Invariably these are slashed in the last quarter when fiscal crunch hits the government (40% in the last fiscal year). The new PSDP is Rs 663 billion but it remains to be seen if this will hold. How has it been estimated and prepared; only a handful of people know. The overall ceiling is guided by the NFC award. But, does it address the key development challenges? Perhaps not. Overestimated figures from the Friends of Democratic Pakistan were also factored in the previous years and even this year the allocations reflect what is expected and not necessarily what we have or need.

Lobbies who always win: As before, the big business, the landlords and the security establishment benefits from the limited resource base. The business lobby has avoided VAT at least until October, no mention was made of agricultural income tax in the budget speech and of course the defence budget is higher by 17%. The local vehicle-manufacturing industry will continue to enjoy protection. Much of the defence budget is hidden under the “General Public Services” category as the salaries and pensions are not reflected in the defence category.

Inflation will rise:
Contrary to various claims, inflation is here to stay. Higher energy prices and increased GST will lead to further increase in prices of commodities with a direct impact on the poor and the fixed-income groups. Apparently a study has been carried out to disprove the link between GST and inflation but it is not in the public domain. If and when VAT is imposed, inflation will further increase whether we like it or not.

Saving graces: Three key policies are somewhat promising. First, the focus on energy conservation, by providing 30 million energy savers, is a step in the right direction. The allocation of Rs. 40 billion for Benazir Income Support Programme and lastly the increase in salaries of the government employees are commendable policy decisions. It is not clear, though, as to how far the pay and pension commission’s recommendation was taken into account while finalising these figures.

Sterile debate:
Given the lack of budget awareness, the new gurus of Pakistani conscience have been holding endless talk shows on the budget. The commentary by TV anchors and their ‘political’ hosts is emotional and largely uninformed. Debate is good but spiraling ignorance is something that we must avoid. Similarly, the polemical statements in the National Assembly are intriguing. For instance, the leader of the opposition criticized the increase in government salaries for the adverse fiscal impact on the Punjab government, and at the same time lambasted the government for not doing enough for the vulnerable. MQM’s refrain that electricity should be cheaper in Karachi is also beyond logic.

Pakistan’s democracy is nascent and fragile. However, it is also an opportunity for the budgeting process to be reformed. The government should involve the media and civil society in raising awareness and building consensus on reform. In several parts of the world, accessible materials to increase budget literacy are commonly used. Similarly, it is time that the legislators are made more familiar with the budget process to enhance public oversight. Techniques that track inter-governmental expenditures can help reduce corruption and waste. All of this requires deepening of democracy, civil service reform and the emergence of a responsible media. We need a light year to get there.

First published in The Friday Times, Lahore (June 11 issue)

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Filed under Economy, Pakistan, Politics, poverty

Pakistan’s economy: Hard times

by Raza Rumi

Two years after the civilian government took office, there are few signs of economic recovery and this does not augur well for the fate of democratic governance in Pakistan. We are somehow doomed to bear the brunt of authoritarian regimes in social and economic terms. By the time a civilian government puts its house in order, the long and short marchers are ready to take over. The story this time has been no exception. Following the trends of the 1960s and the 1980s during the Musharrafian decade, unsustainable growth rates were touted as the raison d’etre for the apparent efficiency of a military regime. It is true that the Musharraf era inducted Pakistan into the globalized economic system, boosted domestic demand for consumer products and attracted huge doses of foreign assistance shortly after the military decided to ditch their erstwhile strategic allies, i.e. the Afghan Taliban. But it left the country in dire straits – bankrupt, politically polarised and mired in the worst inflation of our times.

The signs of economic fatigue and food inflation had appeared during Musharraf’s last year in power. An unprecedented energy crisis also plunged the nation into literal and metaphorical darkness and the global recession caused an economic slowdown all around. Consequently, from the high growth-rate of 6 percent, we were in the lowest growth category, even in the poor South Asia region. A 2.2 percent growth rate implies that our current population increase per annum is untenable. Similarly, the highest ever recorded inflation of nearly 25 percent in 2007-2008 also hit the fixed-income citizenry and the millions of poor, depriving them of basic sustenance. Continue reading

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