On lasting legacies

November 22, 2019

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The writer is a former civil servant.
The writer is a former civil servant.

THE greatest nightmare for some, and a ray of hope for others, is that the PTI government completes five years, fending off the likes of Fazlur Rehman, struggling to keep the economy afloat, announcing quick-fix initiatives and planting trees.

In the meantime, the one-point agenda of jailing the mega corrupt loses steam because of our ineffective legal system (we have only one conviction in the Al Azizia case of a high-profile politician, that too by a judge with controversial credentials) and the sympathy factor for both the star accused, Nawaz Sharif and Zardari, due to their health.

So the possibility of the opposition parties winning the 2023 elections cannot be ruled out, and in that case we are back to square one; actually behind square one, as the powerful and corrupt would have had ample match practice in handling Pakistan’s weak legal system.

The hope attached to a clean, charismatic leader turning the country around would have been tried and lost, and the future would be misery for the poor and fun for the rich. This, unfortunately, is what we are staring at – unless the government decides to do something other than fight corruption.

The PM should settle on one game-changing initiative.

While each government in the last 30 years has been selling us stories of economic victory, the real quantifiable measure of their abject failure has been that Bangladesh, which started off as a backyard of Pakistan, has now overtaken us by a significant margin in all fields.

Their population was greater than ours when we separated — theirs is now at about 165 million versus ours over 208m, which in effect means we have 43m more mouths to feed; almost the size of a big country. According to the World Bank, their literacy level is at 74 per cent while ours is at 59pc. In raw numbers, we have approximately twice as many illiterate people in Pakistan than in Bangladesh. Imagine the load on the system of such massive illiteracy.

Bangladesh is now among the fastest-growing economies in the world, their growth rate at well over 5pc in the past 15 years and growing at over 7pc this year. Our growth rate hovers around 3pc. In 2018, Bangladesh’s per capita income was at $1,750, while ours was at $1,580.

ITC’s Trade Map reported their exports at $45 billion in 2018, while we struggled at $24bn. Having overtaken India, Bangladesh is now the second largest exporter of garments, while we are nowhere on the screen, although we grow our own cotton and have a surplus of grey cloth; they import cotton. Bangladesh is not wresting on its laurels, and has set itself an ambitious target to build 100 special economic zones, out of which 11 have been completed and 79 are under construction. By all accounts, this economic success has not been achieved because they don’t spend too much on their army, as some intellectuals would have us believe, but because they concentrated on empowering their women through microcredit initiatives and focused on education.

Bangladesh’s 5,000 or so readymade garment factories generate a major portion of its GDP, and the sector provides employment to millions of workers, of which about 80pc are women. And while there may be an exploitative angle to this as women are made to accept lower wages, the unintended consequence of more women in the workforce is their resistance to early marriage, thereby allowing them to have more of a say in family planning.

So how does this relate to what Imran Khan could and should do? In our 72-year history, each of our rulers has left some form of legacy, intended or unintended, although none has so far proved to be a game changer. Ayub Khan gave us our industrial and agriculture revolutions; Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gave awareness to the poor about their rights; Ziaul Haq gave us madressah culture; Benazir Bhutto’s posthumous legacy gave us BISP (can’t think of anything else); Nawaz Sharif gave us motorways and infrastructure projects.

In a similar vein, Imran should identify and prioritise an area in which he can leave a lasting legacy, considering the worst-case scenario that he gets only one five-year term. While PTI’s multifarious initiatives in different sectors (forestation, Ehsaas, single school curricula, etc) can continue, if the prime minister really wants to be associated with an initiative that can change the direction of this country, it will be by bringing a revolution in rural Pakistan by focusing on education (especially for girls) and women’s empowerment (through microcredit and incentives for industries to employ women).

Pakistan should take a page out the book of Bangladesh’s success story to focus on women’s empowerment. For education, the prime minister will have to take the public school teacher unions head on; release them from their local political masters and get them to work. These half a million government teachers hold the key to the country’s future and, if he can get them to work, Imran will have put the country on an unassailable trajectory, leaving a legacy unmatched by his predecessors.

The writer is a former civil servant.

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2019