THE size of Pakistan’s informal economy is estimated to be as much as 56 per cent of the country’s GDP (as of 2019). This means that it’s worth around $180 billion a year, and that is a massive amount by any yardstick.
The country’s large black economy is inextricably linked to the levels and quality of governance exercised by the state. In the course of fieldwork for my doctoral research for the University of Southampton, I found that many Pakistani women who were setting out starting their own businesses did so in the informal sector. The reasons they gave usually related to their experience of dealing with the bureaucracy and government machinery in Pakistan which they found to be dominated by red tape and tedious and complicated procedures.
This is precisely what drives many people who want to engage in economic activity towards the undocumented economy. The headache of having to deal with a large bureaucracy, of complying with complicated and long registration procedures, of getting approvals and licences from various government agencies and departments make it difficult for most people to operate within a documented framework.
A large black economy is an indication of misgovernance and indicates a failure of the government to ensure that all businesses and entrepreneurial ventures are included in the formal sector. This failure in turn leads to reduced tax revenue collection since all entities outside of the formal economy do not pay any tax to the government.
Pakistan’s black economy is linked to governance.
Given that the size of the black and informal economy is estimated at over half of the country’s GDP, bringing it under the documented net would bring hundreds of billions in tax revenue. Those funds would then be spent on social sector development projects and help the FBR meet its annual revenue collection targets.
The solution is to increase the size of the formal economy and this can be done by making transparent and efficient those institutions tasked with registering and regulating businesses. Instead of harassing businesses and entrepreneurs, agencies like the FBR should act as facilitators and make it easier for new ventures to be registered and come under the documentation net. This would in turn be good for the FBR because achieving the tax collection target would be easier than if they were in the black economy.
Government requirements for new businesses are linked to the general level of governance. A state whose primary aim is to improve the lives of its citizens will prioritise good governance over all other things and will formulate and implement policies that enable this. In fact, such a state will also be able to realise that having such priorities ends up helping it as well, not least because a happy populace is a more economically productive populace.
Unfortunately, in a country like Pakistan, so far, this has not been the case. A multitude of licences and permissions are required from a wide variety of federal, provincial and local government departments to operate a business or a store. Having to comply with all of these requires not only a lot of time on the part of the entrepreneur but also funds for greasing the cogs of the bureaucratic machinery that regulates businesses and commercial enterprises in Pakistan.
The result of this is that a significantly growing number of entrepreneurs, and especially those that happen to be female, are increasingly veering towards the informal sector. This is both good and bad — good because it enables economic activity to take place, and jobs to be created, away from the unwanted glare of government inspectors and officialdom, and bad because the incomes generated from such activity don’t end up getting counted in the national GDP and nor are taxes paid on it.
The size of Pakistan’s informal sector is inversely linked to the quality of governance in the country. The higher the quality the smaller is likely to be the size of the informal sector because better governance means more citizen- and business-friendly measures and policies, ones that encourage entrepreneurs to register their businesses with the government and hence become part of the documented economy. That is welcome because having an accurate size of the documented and legal economy allows for more effective policy and decision-making with regard to the macroeconomy as a whole.
Resistance is likely to come from the entrenched bureaucracy because it stands to lose the most when this kind of change happens. It is very much in the interest of the state to institute policies that make it easier for businesses and entrepreneurs to become part of the documented economy and which facilitate their operation and growth because that fosters GDP growth.
It is time that the political parties in charge of running the centre and the provinces understand the benefits of this and help realise this much-needed change.
The writer is assistant professor of economics at IBA, Karachi.
Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2021