Since the PML-N took charge of the federal government, two very important development exercises are taking place in the country.
The World Bank is consulting a range of stakeholders to evolve a country strategy for 2014-19, and the Planning Commission of Pakistan is working on the development strategy 2013-18.
The planning commission claims to work in partnership with stakeholders, with a focus on the revival of the economy for achieving the goal of ‘Strong Economy — Strong Pakistan’. Its core themes include macroeconomic stability, energy security, infrastructure development, and peace and security concerns.
However, to achieve inclusive growth, it also talks about institutional and governance reforms, with a focus on transparency, accountability, involvement of citizens at all stages of planning, implementation and monitoring; and developing social capital through human development, poverty alleviation and youth empowerment.
Historically, development planning had been closed-door and centralised exercise.
The centralised planning has been handicapped by very thin links between perspective, five-year and annual development plans. And development priorities have kept changing on the basis of changed governments, instead of following a consistent plan. This centralised and sometimes chaotic planning process resulted in huge household, sectoral and geographical development disparities. Usually, all the plans were implemented half-heartedly or abandoned.
Very little effort was made to engage with the public and the civil society in evolving development strategies based on ground reality. Bureaucrats and politicians considered the planning process a highly technical function, while using it as a political tool.
Consequently, Pakistan is a development-deficient country today. The current state of human resources and physical infrastructure is not capable to steer the country towards a path of development. These have been low priority areas for decades, despite their crucial role in economic and social development.
However, both the external environment and the internal development scene have now changed. After recent constitutional amendments, provinces have gained more autonomy to plan and implement development programmes. And the vibrant civil society organisations (CSOs) have also emerged as a force to influence and engage in these planning processes.
While priorities for the future are identified, financed and implemented, it is also important to get the peoples’ perspective, and hear independent, grassroots voices.
Systematic CSO engagement through a collective platform can bring to light diverse experiences and priorities of the poor and the marginalised segment of the society.
But there is cynicism about the current government’s attitude towards CSOs. Also, there are talks of tightening control of NGOs, which may lead to a squeezing of the available space for them for their operations.
The planning commission’s strategy papers and development plans, as envisaged in the documents, could be of interest to civil society organisations, and they can contribute meaningfully in their formulation. Some areas of interest for CSOs include devolution of powers of development-related decisions in the post-18th amendment scenario, tax reforms, good governance through institutional and governance reforms etc.
In order to engage in the planning process and agree upon the modalities, a meeting of the country’s leading civil society organisations was held in Islamabad. It was decided that a CSO alliance would engage with the planning commission about the collective process, as well as brainstorm priority issues, and discuss respective roles and responsibilities.
All the participants at the meeting agreed that CSOs should facilitate the planning commission in the formulation of development plans in the post-18th amendment scenario.
These organisations have emerged as a strong voice and possess both the capability and experience to engage in this important process and bring in a different perspective — voices from the grassroots and marginalised groups, which might have been completely missing in the past.
The civil society organisations need to collectively ensure that development planning for 2013-18 is linked with the post-2015 development framework. They should also organise a national consultative process and agree upon thematic working groups to come up with brief papers; and they should engage with politicians, parliamentarians, media, and the diplomatic enclave widely.
The CSOs also talked about approaching the planning commission/government for devising an institutional mechanism for formal engagement; as well as about bringing donors on board; tracking the government’s progress on this process, and about how can they offer technical support and also act as a pressure group.