Asad Umer, Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives
Asad Umer, Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives

Social transformation is an evolutionary process that takes a painstakingly long time, says the Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives.

Asad Umer, the Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives, a self-professed fan of celebrated French economist Thomas Piketty, who is often dubbed as the modern-day Marx, defends the PTI government when it comes to the latter’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), arguing that the country has been successfully nudged towards hitting the planned targets.

The professional-turned-politician thinks the government is all set to bring about change by focusing on social improvement by promoting the inclusion of vulnerable segments in the economic mainstream; the Ehsaas programme being the flagship platform.

Asad Umer quit his job as CEO of Engro Corporation to join politics in 2012, entered parliament in 2013 and got re-elected in 2018. He was finance minister for eight months, from August 2018 to April 2019, and assumed the current office in November 2019. Mr Piketty, who Mr Umer said in a TV interview he admires, worked on income and wealth inequality and made a case against the generational transfer of private wealth and assets.

Mr Umer, who has earned acknowledgement for coordinating Pakistan’s efforts against Covid-19 in his capacity as the chief of the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC), contests the poor portrayal of Pakistan on global indices, blaming the use of weak and outdated data for what he calls a misrepresentation of the reality. He believes that social transformation is an evolutionary process that takes a painstakingly long time.

He responded in writing to the following questions mailed by Dawn for this interview:

Q. Covid-19 multiplied the economic challenges. Will the benefits of recovery triggered by the multi-trillion-rupee stimulus package for the private sector be evenly distributed? What did the PTI government do to ensure the desired outcome of inclusive growth?

A. The main thrust of our policies in 2020 was balancing life and livelihood. The stimulus package was designed to provide quick fixes to meet the employment challenge. Construction — with the highest backward and forward linkages — and some other sectors were identified and offered breaks to restore livelihood. Income support relief for informal and formal-sector employees was the key to support workers retrenched in the lockdown. Similarly, several programmes were started, such as the Temporary Economic Refinance Facility (TERF) to provide transitory relief to exporters and financial support to small and medium enterprises (SMEs). This strategy has been successful and Pakistan is among the few countries which balanced this effectively.

Q. When the PTI assumed power in 2018, Pakistan was ranked 122 on the SDGs Index among 165 nations tracked. The ranking dropped to 130 in 2019 and 134 in 2020. Though it recovered to 129 in 2021, it is still six steps lower than in 2018. What did you do wrong?

A. In 2018, Pakistan’s score was 54.9 and we were at 126 out of 156 countries, while in 2021 we are at 129 out of 165 countries, and the score has increased to 57.7. One of the problems with all international indices, including the SDGs index of Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), is the use of old data. Our own SDGs index based on 2019 data shows a score of 61.78 in 2019. It would be interesting to see at the ‘year’ the indices are using for assessment; very few indicators in the current report apply data beyond 2018.

Q. Of the 17 SDGs, 11 are aligned with the Ehsaas Programme. If Ehsaas is delivering, why the country is faring worse than all our equals in the region and beyond on the SDG index?

A. This is not a fair comment as Pakistan’s poverty situation by World Bank’s standard of purchasing power parity (PPP) is among the best in the region. On some indicators, Pakistan may be lagging behind, but on many indicators, Pakistan is doing fairly well. Ehsaas is one element for goals like poverty, hunger, education, health, gender etc where it is impacting outcomes. Pakistan is committed to social-sector improvement and our government is focused on these issues. Pakistan ranks fourth globally in terms of the number of people under social security cover and third globally in terms of percentage of population covered amongst countries that have over 100 million people covered.

Social transformation has no quick fixes, and results will be visible in due course of time. For example, if a child is enrolled in a school today, it will appear in social statistics after the completion of five years of education. Ehsaas is one of the best-regarded social protection initiatives of the region.

Q. What percentage of parliamentarians is aware of the SDGs? What did the PTI government do to improve the level of public and parliamentarian awareness of the state’s global commitment?

A. Pakistani parliament adopted SDGs as National Development Goals in February 2016 and the parliamentary task force on SDGs holds regular sessions. The provincial governments have also established a parliamentary task force on SDGs. The National Assembly has a dedicated SDG Secretariat. More than 300 legislations pertaining to the 17 SDGs were approved in the last five years in all the provincial assemblies and the National Assembly.

Q. How closely is the federal government working with the provinces to achieve the goals?

A. The SDG Support Unit in the Planning Commission is linked with all the four provincial units and the two units in Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir. They are coordinating regularly on different policy issues. Technical committees of all the provinces have representation from the Planning Commission, and similarly, the steering committee at the federal level has representation from all the provinces. Besides, the National Framework on SDGs is aligned with provincial frameworks.

Q. How well is the private sector integrated with the strategy for sustainable development?

A. The SDG Support Unit in the Planning Commission is interacting with civil society organisations and the corporate sector on SDGs. Some corporate entities have explicit strategies to comply with the SDGs, but the real challenge is to reach the smaller firms. This is the issue which all developing countries are confronted with, and Covid has complicated their alignment with the SDGs around the world. After normalisation post-Covid, the developing world will be more focused on bringing the SMEs closer to the SDGs. We have developed a Responsible Business Framework for the SDGs that explicitly guides the private sector on how to align its policies according to the national agenda related to the SDGs. —AS

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 27th, 2021

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