Lost in transition

Updated September 23, 2019


When a Dawn special report tracked the SDGs a couple of years ago, the country was grappling with the behemoth of terrorism. Yet there was some sense of optimism: GDP growth was accelerating, CPEC was in full swing and the naysayer was rediscovering the country as a plausible investment destination. Timely elections and power transfer did help in combating violence, but economic growth was sacrificed in the hope of long-term stability. As things stand today, factors like the fear of a military conflict with India, rising inflation, higher taxes and shrinking investment and employment opportunities have spiked the collective anxiety. All this makes one wonder if the gains and the momentum to achieve social targets have been lost in transition.

The government, led by the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), seems all set to spring into action to hit the development targets, but in the absence of any tangible public pressure to walk the talk, the fate of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Pakistan appears no different from the outcome of earlier pledges made by earlier governments regarding the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that aimed at reducing poverty by half in the first 15 years of the current millennium.

The ruling party has launched ‘Ehsaas’ (empathy and compassion) programme with the stated objective of defeating the elitist stranglehold and replacing it with a welfare state, using technology for precision social safety nets, promoting financial inclusion and easy access to digital services, supporting economic empowerment of women, focusing on human capital, growth and sustainable development and overcoming financial barriers to accessing health and post-secondary education. The blue print of the Ehsaas strategy contains 115 policy actions and can be expanded during the consultative process.

It is, indeed, a comprehensive strategy … on paper, at least. Any claim regarding people and their wellbeing rings hollow anytime anywhere as long the economic policies are suppressing the growth potential in a country where the economic base is already too narrow to absorb the employable population or afford resources to match the development needs. The rising cost of living and falling household income has increased economic stress to unbearable levels. There has to be some stability before anyone can talk about sustainability. As things stand today, reviving the trust of business and the public looks essential for the very survival of the system.

The hierarchy in Islamabad seems content, and submitted its first Voluntary National Review of the SDGs to the UN preliminary meeting last July, making a case of preparedness to tread confidently towards peaceful, inclusive, sustainable future for the country and its people.

If plans on the drawing board could guarantee diligent implementation, Pakistan, rich in human and natural resources, wouldn’t have been sliding on the various human indices and, surely, our current struggle to survive would have been a struggle to sustain which, in fact, is what the SDGs are all about. We were among the first few countries back in 2000 to develop a stellar framework for MDGs with proper indicators duly benchmarked to track progress and deliver on the global pledge. And yet we missed all targets by a wide margin when the term ended in 2015.

Pakistanis aspired and struggled for a democratic dispensation. They enjoy and value the sense of political freedom, but have realized the hard way that the movement towards economic emancipation is not automatic. The path is both long and arduous to force the democratic order to deliver in real terms. The weakness of the current elected government and its predecessor in this regard is highlighted in Pakistan’s performance on the UN SDGs Index chart which is an annual exercise tracking and ranking all the signatory nations based on their aggregate scores drawn from the marks they secure on each of the 17 goals.

In the past three years, Pakistan has been slipping at an accelerated rate; 15 ranks in the last four years. It was ranked 115th in 2016, slid to 117th in 2017, slipped to 122nd in 2018, and rolled down to 130th in 2019.

Overall, Pakistan scored 55.6 on the aggregate 100-point scale, the highest being a near perfect 98.7 in Goal 13 related to Climate Change, and the worst being in Goal 9 that assesses Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; precious 15. Together with Gender Equality Goal 5 — a depressing 28.9 — the two factors dragged Pakistan down and placed it behind its equals. The details of methodology and country profiles are available on the dashboard online.

As is the norm, the government’s top-tier team is in denial. A senior member blamed “anti-Pakistan bias in the West” for its low placement on the score card. Ditching comment on the said index, most key members of the dream team were found to be perfectly content with the paperwork and the formation of cells and committees at multiple tiers. “The federal SDG Unit is actively involved in preparing the ground for collaborative efforts to deal with development challenges,” said one.

In this special report, the Dawn Business and Finance team tries to deconstruct the slide and find out reasons for moving the SDG goalpost farther as Pakistan submits Voluntary National Review and participates in the UN General Assembly in session in New York

“… (T)he country has made considerable progress by mainstreaming these goals in national policies and strategies, including the Five Year Plan, provincial growth strategies and Pakistan’s long-term development perspective. In 2018, the newly elected government designed and approved a National SDGs framework that envisages a national vision to prioritise and localise SDGs,” says Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Reform Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar in the opening statement of the Voluntary National Review (VNR).

Discussing the direction of the government efforts, he stated: “… (S)everal challenges remain — the task of planning and implementing the 2030 Agenda for Pakistan’s rapidly growing population must necessarily incorporates diverse local contexts, build local capacities and strengthen institutions”.

Talking about the challenges, the VNR commented, “Financing the SDGs in a slow growth environment will be a trying task, compounded by knowledge and technology gaps in developing local solutions and improving efficiency through governance”.

The representatives of development partners talked highly of the women-dominated current social sector team. A Westerner heading the Pakistan office of a development agency said that under the current government the focus is shifted from physical to social infrastructure. “I find it much easier to communicate with the new team as its understanding of challenges is clearer and view on possible solutions is almost similar to ours,” he shared his assessment in a conversation. The ADB officials confirmed better inflows from the Asian lender for numerous social sector projects during the current year.

Many economists and political leaders approached did not want to offer comments on the subject. Either they were not aware or did not wish to offend anyone in the current tense environment.

“The parasitic vested interests in the country are too deeply entrenched and it would be delusional to expect these powerful elements to voluntarily step aside, vacate the space and free resources for independent decision-making and diverting funds towards inclusive development. The fight for rights will have to be fought innovatively, leveraging technology to secure better future on our own strengths,” commented a left-leaning political scientist.

“Please stop fanning discontent and negativity. In PTI charge, I trust, the situation will certainly improve as it has already completed the groundwork covered by the legal framework and specialised institutional network in place. The team will work wonders collaborating with the private sector and local governments. You just need to be little patient,” advised a pro-PTI analyst in Lahore.

The possibility of greater voluntary participation of the private sector has opened up avenues that were not available earlier. Taking cue from multinationals committing to join forces with the public sector to share the responsibility for a better world, several companies in Pakistan have incorporated development goals in their CSR strategy. The efforts of private companies toward public welfare should be recognised but their preference for exclusivity and inclination to reveal nothing more than what is mandated under the law create doubts about their intentions. There are examples where companies spend more on the projection of their initiatives in mass media than the cost of their welfare project.

It has never been easy or fair for the majority in Pakistan, but the rising economic stress and the growing sense of betrayal amongst the working masses is disturbing. The promised change for which people voted the PTI to power is not turning out to be what they hoped for … not in the short term at least.

The democratic transformation to give a new orientation to the framework of governance to serve the interest of the masses is still in the works. Democracy did give people some sense of self-governance, but weak institutions and fudged priorities have retarded the capacity of the system to serve the majority efficiently.

The citizenry in a country as resourceful in men and material as Pakistan deserves a better deal. The uneven progress achieved in the current millennium is despite the government rather than because of apt public policies and interventions. What the future has in store is something that only the future would tell.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 23rd, 2019