Your agenda, Mr Prime Minister

(Should you choose to accept it.)
Published August 17, 2018
Illustration by Leea Contractor
Illustration by Leea Contractor

Eos offers the incoming prime minister an agenda of some critical issues confronting Pakistan today — what should be the priorities for the new government and what to do about them.


By Khurram Husain

It is now well known that the incoming government has inherited an economy with sharply depleting foreign exchange reserves.

Its first priority, whether it likes it or not, will be to make arrangements for “near term” inflows of foreign exchange, in the language of the State Bank.

In this regard, it will be walking in the footsteps of all incoming governments for at least the past 30 years, all of which took oath in a time of depleting foreign exchange reserves.

All of them began their terms with accession to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme. And for all of them, their economic possibilities were constrained by the terms of that program. This government will be no different in that sense.

After its “near term” arrangements for foreign exchange inflows, meaning an IMF program or a large short term loan from a friendly foreign power (which is highly unlikely), the government will need to take stock of the fiscal situation.

The FY-2018 ended with a larger than expected fiscal deficit, and the new fiscal year began with sharply reduced tax rates announced by the last government in its last budget. The budget contains one lever that the new government can use to raise revenues rapidly, should it feel the need, and that is a tax on oil prices.

The last budget created the space to rapidly increase revenues from oil, but this will impart an inflationary jolt to the economy as well as fuel immediate perceptions of the government being “anti people”.

The government might find it has to take that risk, just like its predecessors had to, because the circular debt in the power sector could well force its hand.

The next step after taking stock of the foreign exchange and fiscal situation, will be the power sector where receivables are already back to the levels they were at when the PML-N government was sworn in back in 2013.

Keeping the power sector running will be the third big priority for the new government, and this time the sector is more complex due to the heavy involvement by the Chinese as well as the new LNG imports.

Gas pricing as well as power sector liquidity management are different now than they have been for government’s past, and getting a quick handle on both these matters will be a priority for the new finance as well as energy ministers, who will need the close attention of the prime minister and the cabinet for many of the decisions they will need to see through.

Foreign borrowing, domestic taxes and power and fuel pricing reforms will consume at least the first year of the new government.

Along with this, ensuring continuity in CPEC, should the government decide for this, will also be important and a challenge to execute during a time when expenditures will be under extreme pressure.

This government is therefore unlikely to chart out an economic policy that is very different from the ones that came before it.

The writer is Dawn’s Business Editor. He tweets @KhurramHusain

Security and foreign policy

By Ejaz Haider

Pakistan faces two challenges in the twin domains of foreign and security policies: deteriorating regional situation and emergence of new global/regional alliances; terrorism and violent extremism.

The first is a function of inter-state relations, the second a problem of non-state actors and, in some cases, state actors using and exploiting non-state actors to wage sub-conventional, proxy wars.

The emergence of new alliances is a direct result of China’s rising power, its projection in the East and South China seas and the United States’ ‘Pivot to Asia’ to balance and counter China. This is where the foreign policy options will take the lead.

The terrorism and violent extremism, as also the use of non-state actors by hostile states, calls for a security policy and response that requires harnessing all elements of the state’s coercive apparatus and integrating it with the foreign policy.

A word about the relationship between foreign and security policies: they are interlinked and each complements the other.

However, during periods of peace, the security policy takes a backseat and acts as a subset of foreign policy. During crises, conflicts and wars, the security policy takes the lead to create more favourable space for diplomacy.

Equally, diplomacy continues to work towards offsetting the causes of conflict to ease the pressure on the security policy.

Corollary 1: policies in these two areas must be integrated. Any disconnect between the two can lead to undesirable situations.

Corollary 2: the two policy areas in the case of Pakistan have often been out of sync with civilian principals moving on a different track from how the military perceives and responds to the threats. The worst example of this was the Kargil operation in 1998/99.

Corollary 3: this situation is owed to the imbalance of civil-military relations in this country.

By the time these lines are read, the July 25 election result will be out and one of the contesting parties will be putting together a coalition.

From the instability, polarisation and engineering we have seen in the run-up to the polls and what we will likely see in its aftermath, these two crucial areas will witness neglect.

While the sherpas will continue their work, the civilian principals will find it hard to get their act together, do a policy review and give a policy direction.

Not good but that’s the reality.

Exhibit: while the army is operating under Ops Raddul Fasad (eliminating disruption), political engineering, as also passive neglect, has seen extremist Barelvi and other denominational groups morph into political parties contesting elections.

The argument that it is better to pull them in the mainstream tends to ignore the fact that they bring their exclusionary discourse to the hustings.

One of the biggest security (also foreign policy) challenges is to change the discourse. Tactical political considerations have put paid to that.

Afghanistan, India and Iran, three neighbours, offer their own security and foreign policy challenges.

The new government will need to review current approaches and set direction. If Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf comes to power, its team will be new to the task and will need at least six to eight months to get a grip on things. And this presupposes that stability will return after the elections.

The military has its operational strategy chalked out, but in the absence of an integrated policy direction from the new government, it will continue to ‘satisfice’ instead of optimising. Killing terrorists is a necessary but not sufficient condition for succeeding in this nonlinear war.

The new alliances, with the rise of China and countermoves by the US, are a classic example of structural realism — i.e., the ordering principle of international relations is anarchy. In other words, there cannot be a unipole.

The US emerged as one in 1991. That episode is ending. The middle and small powers will have to adjust to that. That adjustment requires innovation. Innovation requires making smart policy choices. Smart policy choices require institutional harmony, stability and synergy.

None of that has been on display and it won’t be, post-elections.

The writer is executive editor at Indus News and writes on defence and security. He tweets @ejazhaider


By Omar S. Cheema

The first step in finding solutions to Pakistan’s energy woes is some honesty in admitting the extent of the problem.

Energy poverty particularly in rural areas, frequent power outages in towns and cities, the infamous scourge of load-shedding, comparatively high electricity generation costs, a large financial drain from fuel imports, all remain Pakistan’s unsolved thorny issues.

Electricity demand is a dynamic beast, always on the move, fluctuating throughout the day and changing across the seasons.

Therefore, you require a portfolio of electricity supply resources, that can also be dynamically orchestrated to deliver electricity where and when it’s needed at an affordable price.

Instead of the top-down electricity architecture (transmission and distribution grids) that has been plagued by a variety of problems in Pakistan, there is an opportunity to develop forward-looking, sustainable electricity infrastructure from the bottom up through mini/micro-grids.

Mini-grids smoothly fit into the top-down grid network (if it exists at the location) but can autonomously work on their own, disconnected from the rest of the network, to deliver reliable, uninterrupted electricity to its consumer base.

This alternative bottom-up set-up typically comprises renewable energy sources, hybrid configurations with back-up fuel generators that may run on biogas, energy storage, demand response technology, and power sharing controls.

The advantages are numerous: can be more accurately sized for the local urban or rural population it will serve, there are less physical energy losses, energy theft becomes more difficult, greater resilience to power outages, better demand management, more eco-friendly electricity generation, and far more swiftly commissioned.

The capital financing of the mini-grid can also be more carefully tailored to the buying power of the community it serves. There is less risk of a mismatch between supply and demand, both technically and financially.

But while new technology options make a clean energy transition increasingly favourable in terms of the economics, national energy security and independence, the main hurdle is sociological, organisational inertia in the public and private sector. This hurdle is not just peculiar to Pakistan.

The big banks tend to prefer mega projects, though there are noteworthy, commendable exceptions. It’s a decision about the amount of work involved versus the payoff, how the transactional fees scale with the project size.

The same logic applies to most foreign donors. Politicians prefer the sound of larger numbers as it makes for better publicity.

The bureaucratic layers in Pakistan are seldom specialists in the field, au fait in the latest technology through painstaking research, and have little incentive to take the risk of going against the flow.

Grandiose claims and a spending binge on nominal MW power capacity is not what counts but delivering electrical energy output to consumers is.

The ability of the electric power plants to sustainably deliver the kWh, both technically and financially, is always contingent on several factors. For a renewable energy plant, it will depend on the natural climate resource, and for a thermal power plant on the fuel and freshwater supply among other operational factors.

The new government cannot assume that just because it has splurged scarce financial capital on MW capacity, the kWh demand will be affordably and reliably delivered to consumers — there is a lot more to it.

The solutions for closing Pakistan’s electricity gap are available, it’s up to the next government to turn the leaf and deliver a new, beneficial and sustainable energy future for the country.

The writer is a renewable energy and technology commercialisation expert based in London. He tweets @Vivantive


By Mosharraf Zaidi

The education crisis in Pakistan has changed a lot over the last five years. There are still millions of out of school children, but a very tiny percentage of them are primary school kids. The enrolment problem is now squarely a middle and high school level problem.

Financing is still far from being nearly adequate, but the sheer size of education allocations today dwarfs what was allocated five years ago. In addition to continuing to increase allocations, government must find ways to make each rupee last longer, and achieve more.

Unlike at any previous time in history, teachers are recruited through merit based standardized tests in all four provinces and at the federal level. Yet pre-service and on-the-job training remain largely inadequate, when juxtaposed with the skills that Pakistani children require.

Government schools and madrassahs have increasingly become the exclusive domain of the poor, whilst expensive private schools have forged ahead with new programmes like robotics and artificial intelligence.

All of the key challenges that Pakistan faces in terms of education suffer from a more fundamental, structural problem. They are viewed through a service delivery or a development lens. But the truth of the matter is that the learning and skills crisis in Pakistan is an issue of grave economic and security consequences.

What does the incoming government need to do to tackle the learning and skills crisis? In the short run, four key things.

First, it must consolidate the national platform that is used to measure and report on the state of education. The federal government’s Academy for Education Planning and Management, and the National Education Assessment System need to be streamlined and merged in order to establish a single, comprehensive clearinghouse for education statistics that measure not only the inputs to the education sector, but also the outcomes they generate in terms of learning and skills.

Second, it must establish vertical programmes that buttress existing provincial financing for education in areas of special need.

The newly merged districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the lowest ranking districts in Balochistan, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Southern Punjab all merit special spending programmes to uplift their ability to offer high quality government schools. Transportation programmes for girls to attend middle and high schools, and special facilities to enhance science laboratories are among quick wins that can be achieved through topping up provincial programmes with federal vertical grants.

Third, it must embark on a rapid programme of school upgradation that allows all four provinces to substantially expand their capacity to offer children the opportunity to continue their education in government schools beyond class five.

The steep drop off in enrolment at the end of primary school is a supply side problem that can only be overcome through an expansion of supply. This expansion must privilege quality as much as it does access.

Fourth, it must invest aggressively on reading, mathematics and science. Pakistan will participate in the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) in 2019.

An aggressive programme to develop maths and science skills will be required to ensure that the country performs well in TIMSS.

Such an outcome will reinforce a cycle of improved investments in maths and science, and eventually help sustain a virtuous cycle of heavy investments, and high quality outcomes in learning and skills in Pakistan.

The education crisis does not have quick fixes, but it does demand a constant readjustment of the tactics used to tackle it.

Though Pakistan has progressed since 2013, it still has a long way to go. The only way to continue the progress is to adopt new and innovative approaches at every stage. The 2018 election and a new government represent an ideal opportunity to do so.

The writer is the founder and campaign director of Alif Ailaan, an NGO that campaigns for universal education in Pakistan. He tweets @mosharrafzaidi


By Dr Umer Ayub

The one glaring absence from various party manifestos these elections is the absence of a national health policy.

Health is perhaps the most key concern of the people of Pakistan. And a health policy serves as the brain of a complex system of doctors, medical institutions, universities and colleges, and even, associated industries such as the pharmaceutical sector. Without a brain, a body cannot function.

And in Pakistan, this is why the health sector is in the doldrums because it has been deprived of its brain power.

Before the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, health was a federal subject. This meant that all policy decisions were made at a central level.

Provinces were, therefore, to follow the line set by the federal government and to institute policies that were drafted at the Centre.

The government of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) that had assumed power in 2008 was working towards the formulation of a national health policy under then health minister, Sherry Rehman.

But then came the 18th Amendment and health was devolved to the provinces. The federal government was now to transfer funds to provincial governments and let them make their own decisions.

Health programmes were then devolved, which meant that one province didn’t have to keep up with what another was doing.

This dynamic birthed many other problems, as a result of which, the ministry of health services coordination was created. The dichotomies became worse, however, and it became a difficult proposition for provincial and federal governments to keep pace with the demands of the health sector.

This is the history and the context.

Today, we need to have differentiated provincial health policies but no political actor has paid attention to this sector.

What we expected were health policies catered to the particular needs and demands of each provincial health sector. What we got was naught.

It follows, therefore, that the new government ought to first rationalise the dichotomies that have crept into the system following the 18th Amendment, and then, to help provinces devise a health policy that caters to its need.

This means that some provinces might need more heart centres or kidney centres; others might see a greater need for mental health facilities or trauma centres.

Some initiatives will be more pressing than others or need more funding than others; the federal government will have to ensure that it provides provincial governments with the necessary support.

The government will then also have to ensure that if it is handing money to provinces for certain projects, it is used properly and effectively.

Then comes the issue of medical education and public practice. The public sector has been reeling from underfunding for many years now, and as the population pressures grow, hospitals and universities have been struggling with funds and facilities.

This needs to be aggressively tackled, else the burden of treating swathes of people will only lie with some hospitals and not others. In turn, this means more pressure on doctors and limited facilities — a recipe for disaster in the public sector.

Last but not the least, there is a need to rein in pharmaceutical companies. The same life-saving drug, for example, is available for 400 rupees and for 2,000 rupees. The distinction made is in terms of quality control of drugs.

This issue, in fact, goes beyond pricing. It is also an issue of how drugs are sourced and sold. Prevalent practices today see medicines lose potency before they are administered. This is playing with ordinary citizens’ lives and needs immediate redress.

The writer is a former president of the Pakistan Medical Association

Water and environment

By Ali Tauqeer Sheikh

The first order of business for the new federal and provincial governments will be to expand the discourse on Pakistan’s water challenge and to bring the implementation of the National Water Policy (NWP) to the forefront.

While the federal government will have an important coordinating role, the action will need to be on the ground – in the provinces and by the provinces and, for the most part, from the provincial budgets.

As a start, the provinces will need to formally develop and operationalize their respective water, environment and climate change policies. Some provinces have already moved faster than others.

Since there are no formal coordination mechanisms in place, provincial irrigation, environment and climate departments have often worked in isolation from each other and from their counterpart federal ministries and concerned departments from other provinces.

Once sworn in, all provincial governments will need to initiate a three tier process of aligning their respective policies i) within the province, ii) between the provinces and iii) with the federal government.

The challenge of implementing NWP in the provinces is steep.

To begin with, provincial water portfolios need to be aligned with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other international commitments that Pakistan has made, such as the Paris Agreement and the Sundai Framework, for meeting national-level targets, reporting requirements, and to attract international financing.

More specifically, institutional capacities at the federal and provincial levels are dismally weak, roles are unclear, and coordination between domestic, commercial and agricultural uses is virtually non-existent.

System losses in all these three sectoral uses are almost 60 percent of water consumption by each sector.

Subsidies in each sector abound and are bleeding the national economy and tearing apart the social fabric in terms of equity, access and vulnerabilities to water prone hazards and disasters.

The biggest risk is that the need to introduce cost recovery and agricultural taxes will get buried in the tall reform agendas unless the provincial chief ministers stand up and champion legislations on water efficiency through water pricing.

Ironically, the discourse on water issues in the country has traditionally been dominated by generations of engineers who seek large investments at the federal level typically at the cost of provinces.

Pakistan’s water table needs to create space for social scientists, economists and hydrologists – in addition to the private sector, academia and think tanks in order to give sufficient attention to water-environment-climate nexus.

Inclusion of these stakeholders and women in the water discourse by the new governments will enable Pakistan to move towards equitable benefit-sharing of resources between upper and lower riparians: with China in Upper Indus Basin on managing the access to water from melting glaciers; with India on negotiating environmental flows in all five rivers of Indus Water Treaty to address climate change induced water variabilities; and, with Afghanistan on equitable benefit sharing of Kabul River basin, a source of 20 percent of our surface water.

The internal environmental challenges are even harder: stand up for rivers' right to life by protecting them from encroachments and pollutants; use lakes and wetlands for groundwater recharging and mitigating floods; ensure year-round supply of sufficient water to protect the Indus Delta from dying and the country's coastline from seawater intrusion.

In all, the new governments in Islamabad and in the provinces will have the responsibility to stop the demoralizing perception that Pakistan is a water scarce country and to take deliberated steps to make Pakistan a water secure country.

The writer is CEO of LEAD Pakistan, an Islamabad-based think-tank specialising on environment and water issues


By Anis Haroon

The new government that assumes power needs to contend with a new reality: the Pakistani woman of 2018.

This is the thirteenth time that the nation is going to national polls. But this time, women are in the job market in much greater numbers, they are earning salaries, and they are running households all by themselves.

The new government, therefore, has to realise that women or their progress can’t be halted or pushed back. Instead, it is high time to take stock of the real problems that Pakistani women are facing today.

The women’s agenda in Pakistan in 2018 is all about equal opportunities and equal rights. And irrespective of whether we talk about urban women or rural, about traditional women or modern ones, equal opportunities and rights are a pervading theme for women, and indeed, for the various minorities that exist in our country.

Family structures have changed over the past decade or so, which means that more often, women are expected to put in multiple work shifts to ensure that their households run smoothly.

This means that a working woman spends eight to 12 hours working outside the home, then puts in a work shift when she comes home and has to cook and clean, and another shift to ensure that the children are not neglected in any way.

In innumerable cases, women are so overburdened with family concerns that they are eventually domesticated and removed from the public sphere altogether. And while the ecosystem of the family chugs along this way, the life, hopes and ambitions of a woman become an afterthought.

And yet, Pakistan’s gender gap has been reduced from 11 million to eight million. This is despite the fact that the rules of the labour market are skewed against women and their systemic exploitation is entrenched. Clearly, an agenda for women needs to involve some substantive law-making for the betterment of society at large.

Take, for example, the proposed Domestic Violence Act. Although domestic violence is a major concern for women across various sectors, the law was sent to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) for ratification and they rejected it.

This is the same CII which rejected DNA testing as evidence in cases of sexual violence. Put another way, discriminatory laws are advocated by those in the CII and they ensure that reform is not possible. This is despite the fact that the CII can only make recommendations but not enforce them.

It is for the same reason that women rights activists are perturbed about proscribed organisations contesting elections from across Pakistan.

These elements have challenged women's empowerment and agency ever since Fatima Jinnah stepped to the fore. If they are mainstreamed, and their ideology and psyche remains the same, are women-friendly laws under danger?

But this is the larger picture. Break it down further, and more substantive issues emerge. For rural women, for example, it is important to have land rights.

For urban women, concerns of strengthening procedures to deal with harassment or workplace discriminations are important. Similarly we can talk about humane and just maternity leaves and paternity leaves. When we come to minorities, the issue of forced conversion of women and girls in Sindh still lingers on.

Women don’t want piecemeal measures. We are only demanding the rights that are enshrined in the Constitution as well those outlined in the international pacts that Pakistan is signatory to. Wherever discriminatory laws exists against women, to repeal them.

And wherever opportunities are being reduced for women, to ensure their equal participation and voice.

The first step needs to be taken at the top and our hope is that the new government will be an active advocate for women’s betterment in this country.

The writer is a former chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women. She tweets @anisharoon4

Media and culture

By Hasan Zaidi

If one thing has become clear over the last couple of years, it is that the space for freedom of expression, particularly critical expression, is becoming progressively constrained in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. We have seen this in the restrictions put on the freedom of the news media to report, on the ability of people to voice an opinion in the press and on electronic media, as well as in the physical threats to people holding a point of view at odds with the state-sponsored narrative.

The curtailment of freedoms is coming not just at the hands of radicalised groups who use brute power and threats to intimidate voices opposed to them, but also at the hands of seemingly unaccountable state operatives and their proxy media outlets who often amplify distorted propaganda.

This is supremely ironic for a democratic dispensation in a country which has struggled through military dictatorships precisely for a more inclusive federation and for diverse voices to at least be heard.

Despite the wider dispersal of alternative platforms such as the internet and social media, there is also irony in that the technology that spurs greater democratic participation in civic life is also more prone to be surveilled and centrally controlled or simply shut off — as we have seen in the banning of a number of online sites and in the extended bans previously on Facebook and YouTube.

The government that comes in as a result of the July 25 elections will have to first of all recognise that diversity of opinion and particularly critical debate over national issues is the sine qua non of a healthy democracy. There is simply no getting away from this basic fundamental tenet.

But beyond that, if it is actually desirous of advancing democracy in the country and taking it out of the hands of a few arbiters of ‘national interest’, it will have to proactively ensure the existing freedoms enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution are protected and to institutionalise such freedoms.

Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution guarantees that “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press.” The new government will have recognise that if freedom means anything, it is to be critical of those in power.

As such it will have to make any unlawful restrictions or undue pressures placed on the media a cognizable offence — there is no doubt that by itself such legislation will not stem the rot, but it will send a strong message of support to an embattled media and put others who would indulge in such things on notice.

The Right to Information acts should be strengthened all over the country with automatic fallback towards transparency in the case of non-compliance from all official departments. Advertising from government departments should be placed under the audit of independent public bodies that can ascertain that such advertising is not being misused to favour particular media houses.

It should also reconstitute the electronic media regulatory body PEMRA to make it fully independent of the government. In addition, it should increase the burden of proof for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to restrict any website with clear time-bound exit clauses for any such restriction.

In an increasingly interconnected and technologically advancing world where the flow of information is the greatest currency and accessibility is often just a matter of technological workarounds, it is simply silly to pretend that people can be denied access to alternate sources of information and entertainment.

More importantly, the government needs to trust the wisdom of the people that elected them to power and provide creative outlets for dissent and discussion, particularly for women, the youth, and marginalized communities.

The government should remove restrictions such as bureaucratic NOCs required for public performances of theatre and music, increase funding for libraries, art and public spaces that bring people together, and reconstitute film censor boards as age certification boards.

A vibrant cultural policy is one that understands that the government’s job is to facilitate expression rather than restrict it. A dynamic Pakistani culture can only impact the world if it is first allowed to impact Pakistan itself and a culture of tolerance for other viewpoints is cultivated.

The writer is Dawn’s Magazines Editor. He tweets @hyzaidi

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 29th, 2018