The rush to advise

01 Aug 2018

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THANKFULLY, the free-for-all season of advice — usually poor — to incoming governments comes every five years now. There was a time when elected governments were toppled every two years or so and the ‘development experts’, from bilateral donors to multilateral institutions, would come out of the woodwork with cut-and-paste advisories in hand.

The rush to reach the newly elected (read unsuspecting) public representatives and the competition between donor agencies to sell their advice along with the loans reaches epic proportions in the lead-up to the formation of governments at the centre and in the provinces.

Rest assured that as you read these lines, jobs and promotions of innumerable minions of aid agencies, donor countries and myriad do-gooder organisations depend upon their ability to reach Banigala to get an audience with the prime minister-in-waiting. The seasoned ‘advisory hitmen’ know too well that Mr Khan would be guarded jealously by not just the old guard handlers but legions of aspiring aides, and would hence settle for the almost anointed finance minister, Asad Umar.

Policymakers’ time, especially in the early days, is too precious to be wasted.

The would-be finance ministers should ask their aides to hunt for similar policy papers and advisory notes from the recent past and collate their recurring themes into a one-page note and then firmly say ‘NO’ to all such meeting requests. Truth be told, not all advice contained in these presentations is off the mark as most of our development challenges are of long standing and do cry out for redress. However, the policymakers’ time, especially during these early days of the new administration, is too precious to be wasted cloistered with these loan vendors. We all know what needs to be done, more importantly the urgency with which reform implementation needs to begin.

Lest the incoming administration worries itself silly about where the money would come from, it should rest assured that it will find you. Yes. The resources, foreign exchange and all will find you instead of it being the other way around. It is not just Pakistan that is at the receiving end of the Trump administration’s bullying ways. The established international financial institutions (IFIs) are fighting for their survival and relevance in a world where the new kids on the block like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank aka BRICS are spreading their wings. Private investors are giving the international lenders a run for their money.

Rest assured that the senior management of IFIs spends sleepless nights about the lending targets it must achieve. What do you think will happen if they are unable to lend what is earmarked for Pakistan in any given year? Heads will roll. Careers and marriages will be destroyed. No need to become smug though. Just be confident that the ‘needs’ are mutual and negotiate like the part-owners that we are of these world cooperatives.

We are not where we are because of lack of funding. We just need to prioritise and improve the quality of expenditure. Instead of adding hundreds of projects and schemes every year to the graveyard of ill-conceived and incomplete projects, the Planning Commission at the Centre and Planning Departments in the provinces need to be staffed and empowered to do their job of strategising and ensuring everything fits the big jigsaw. They cannot continue to rubber-stamp vainglorious schemes.

While on the subject of learning from the past to avoid mistakes, let us also make sure that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. One can differ with Ahsan Iqbal, but remember he was the only one doing his day job when everybody else in the PML-N had taken upon themselves the unenviable task of defending Nawaz Sharif throughout the Panama scandal and the subsequent farce.

In fact, all re­­form initiatives of past governments must be reviewed by the new administration and those worth pursuing should be completed. Mainly because national resources are invested in these initiatives and if it makes sense to complete them then so be it. This will also send a strong signal that Pakistan has matured as a responsive polity where continuity will be ensured when it is in the wider public interest.

Coming back to forewarning the newly elected public office holders of hordes of paper pushers and advice-givers, they must be alerted that ‘cutting edge knowledge’ and ‘global experience’ are additional sweeteners thrown into the deal by the loan-peddling IFIs. No need to be taken in by this pitch either. Google will lead you to the origins of these plagiarised pieces of advice. It is no rocket science to figure out what happens if Pakistan continues to be trapped in its low-growth rut as opposed to what can be achieved in the next 30 years by pursuing higher and inclusive growth.

The writer is a poet and analyst.
Shahzadsharjeel1@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2018