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Three challenges

November 12, 2018


The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.
The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.

THE ill-advised euphoria following Saudi Arabia’s promise to lend at least $6 billion to Pakistan will hardly end the many challenges faced by the country — mostly of our own making. And it will cut no ice with the visiting IMF team that is here to negotiate the terms of a possible loan package. The stock market had welcomed the Saudi promise with a robust rise. But a fast reality check is now needed. Three months after Prime Minister Imran Khan formed the new government, several challenges have continued to emerge.

After years of recurring and widespread abuse of authority under successive regimes, many of Pakistan’s institutions remain weak. While the ‘naya Pakistan’ government has promised to practically reinvent the country, the regime faces the danger of losing direction. The push to fix everything under the sun, beginning with a comprehensive plan to be unveiled after the fast-approaching first 100 days, is clearly a non-starter. Rather than placing too many entrées simultaneously on the table, Pakistan needs clarity and radically improved coordination of action to tackle just a narrow set of key central challenges.

Some of the world’s best-performing governments have succeeded with setting a broad direction and addressing some of the main obstacles upfront, while letting the rest fall in place.

In Pakistan’s case, the biggest pitfalls that have caused today’s disarray have emerged fundamentally from failing performance in three broad sectors: the economy, internal security and religious harmony. On all of these fronts, the performance of successive governments has been dismal.

Pakistan must address three problems before turning to the rest.

The economic crisis of today caused by the reckless spending of the past half a decade will not subside anytime soon. In sharp contrast to the celebratory mood in the corridors of power following the latest bailout and expectations of Chinese aid, there should be a period of mourning instead. More debt will further weaken whatever is left of the country’s sovereignty, unless a fast-paced push gets under way to aggressively fix a dilapidated system of revenue and tax collection.

Other notable aspects of a push to kick-start the economy include an aggressive campaign to fix the widening international trade deficit, along with the internal management of the economy whose growth is held back by a weak policy environment. Challenges such as widespread inefficiency and corruption are the natural consequences of Pakistan’s failure over time to bring its economic management at par with the changing global environment.

The PTI’s message of cleaning up Pakistan will remain hollow unless backed by a clear line of action. History has proven time and again that pauperised states inevitably lose their freedom of action, and there are hardly any exceptions to this proven norm.

A second element to addressing Pakistan’s challenges lies in reforming the country’s internal security conditions to remove the prevailing sense of widespread discomfort in daily lives. Notwithstanding the army’s success of recent years in pushing back the advance of the Pakistani Taliban, much more still needs to be done on the militancy and extremism front. Besides, across Pakistan, the pervasive thana culture rules, with little evidence that this will change soon. The policing network for the subcontinent was initially built in colonial times to serve the ends of a distant power. That construct still exists.

Meanwhile, across the lower judiciary, the daily lament of the public ranges from unusual delays and incompetence surrounding court proceedings to accounts of massive corruption. Taken together, the Pakistani public finds little relief in an area which should be the central responsibility of the state.

Last, Pakistan is in urgent need of a strong push to promote religious harmony in society. As the country advanced its interests in the name of ‘jihad’ across its neighbourhood in the 1980s and after, intolerance in the name of religion grew by leaps and bounds within. Over time, one government after another has simply abdicated its responsibility to ending violence in the name of religion. They have failed to lead Pakistan towards greater unity among members of different sects and religions.

For the prime minister, a journey to a successful and enduring turnaround for Pakistan will be a nonstarter unless the government’s priorities and vision incorporate an inclusive, national mainstream that has Pakistanis from all faiths and beliefs living in peace and security.

These three objectives are both narrow and wide. But a clearer focus on them could eventually resurrect what was once a promising future for Pakistan. In contrast, filling the plate with too many choices runs the risk of shifting the focus away from where it must matter the most.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist.

Published in Dawn, November 12th, 2018