SPECIAL REPORT: PM Khan must do his part

Published September 27, 2021
If Pakistan can brave a global crisis, it sure can deliver on the global goals if it carries out course correction and set its sight on the targets. — Dawn/File
If Pakistan can brave a global crisis, it sure can deliver on the global goals if it carries out course correction and set its sight on the targets. — Dawn/File

The year 2020 was a global disaster. Millions died of Covid and many more endured the pain of the consequent economic fallout. Social distancing and vaccine rollouts did provide some hope and uncertain relief, but the mutating virus has continued to cast a shadow. To its credit, Pakistan did relatively well in protecting lives and livelihoods, scaling up on the global SDG Index to 129 from its previous ranking of 134. The economic stimulus worth about Rs1.2 trillion, however, induced uneven recovery. Besides, some other factors, like regional instability after the Taliban takeover in Kabul, paralysed CPEC, suspended IMF programme, inflation, unemployment, wage-freeze, falling rupee and widening current account deficit, continue to make things tricky. To be on track on SDGs…

NO one expects Pakistan to transform into a just, peaceful, equitable and prosperous society overnight. But this doesn’t absolve the government of the responsibility to do instantly what it can for the people and their wellbeing.

Decades of criminal neglect of people and their problems has alienated the masses who wish to have better, but don’t see it happening. At stake is not just sustainable development and the state’s credibility, but the trust of the people; trust in democracy. In the remaining period of his tenure, Prime Minister Imran Khan can lead people to opportunities for realising the global goals before he faces the constituents and their verdict in the next general elections.

The ongoing pandemic has amplified the need for interventions to improve social wellbeing, curb discrimination, reduce inequality, crush militancy, lower carbon emission, and tackle poverty to allow the people to have a decent, dignified, peaceful life that they deserve. Regional instability has instilled fear in society that is haunted by the dark memories of terrorism.

In depressingly challenging times, Pakistan handled the pandemic and its economic fallout better than most other countries. The underperformance of others in 2020 lifted Pakistan’s ranking on the SDG index. In the absence of focus on citizen’s wellbeing, the build-back-better dream would be hard to realise. The recovery has so far been uneven, inequitable and inadequately geared towards achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs). If anything, the current crisis has deepened class and gender divides, and further exposed years of neglect in a lopsided economic framework.

In this Special Report, the Dawn B&F team digs deeper into data and stories for better insight, and to identify ways to make good on the global pledge

Pakistan did surprise itself by containing the pandemic toll and then making the economy bounce back swiftly. Each and every life lost to Covid was tragic, but the infection and death count (1,232,565 and 27,432, respectively at the time of writing) was limited compared to the peers and even many advanced countries.

As early Covid cases were reported in Sindh, it took the lead and set the path by enforcing containment measures. At the federal level, the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) was created to handle the pandemic strategy, and it did commendable work, delivering on its mandate of synergising pandemic-related policies, putting in place a framework of coordination and cooperation, tracking and tracing cases, digitising operations, managing the health infrastructure and handling the inoculation drive.

Three months of inevitable lockdown paralysed the economy, but the revival strategy worked, as after contracting by 0.47 per cent in 2019-20, the economy posted a GDP growth of 3.9pc in 2010-21. Very few, Dawn included, could sense the trend ahead of time. In January 2021, B&F predicted a GDP recovery by 4pc in 2020-21 that was said to have a K-shaped orientation, indicative of a recovery pattern in which various sectors and segments experience a revival at a different pace post-recession.

Initially, the sectors that swiftly adjusted to the changing market (face mask and medical kit makers, hygiene product manufacturers, ICT companies, commodity wholesale, banks etc) led the recovery. The generous fiscal and monetary stimulus package infused a new life in the stressed corporate sector that shot into action. It was the manufacturing sector (auto, cement, textiles, etc) that subsequently drove the recovery trend.

The reported stories of human sufferings and multidimensional discrimination, however, defy the government’s claims of revival tide lifting all the boats. The launch of the Ehsaas programme provided temporary relief to the poorest, but the paucity of jobs and inflation has been eroding families’ capacity to sustain in urban areas.

Experts attribute the growing discontent on this count to the devastating impact of the 2020 crisis on Pakistan’s informal sector that employs more than 70pc people in urban Pakistan. There was nothing in the government package for petty businesses, which borne the brunt of the lockdown, the expert noted. Little wonder that the GDP spike did little to change the fortunes of the majority and the public perception of an ineffective administration failing to provide dignified living conditions for the masses.

The level of awareness in society, marred by divides and discontent, is limited. A query on SDGs from doctors, engineers, teachers and students could only elicit a vacant look. “When the educated are not informed enough, can you really blame the man on the street for his ignorance,” asked an economist at Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.

The government claims that it has integrated the private sector, but 95pc of the businessmen approached knew nothing about the SDGs. Except for leading multinationals and local corporate entities with high ambitions, the private sector was oblivious to the SDGs or their relevance. Some of those approached headed Karachi and the federal chambers. They told Dawn that it was never part of any agenda they were party to.

“Insertion of SDGs in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) serves two purposes; it elevates the company’s profile and earns tax credits,” commented a senior member of the government’s economic team, critical of the conduct of the private sector which, according to him, remains narrowly focussed on the top and bottom lines in their balance sheets.

Read: SDGs in the pandemic fog

The officers in the relevant ministries reached for their input excused themselves as they told Dawn they had been directed not to interact with media without permission. The background research revealed homework being done at the national and sub-national levels, but the push required to put lofty plans into action seems to be missing.

There is an SDG secretariat in the parliament and cells operative under the planning ministry in the centre, in all the four provinces and even in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) regions.

The SDGs dragged the attention of the policy-makers to neglected areas for UN-mandated annual reporting by all signatories on each of the 17 goals. The weak and insufficient data posed a challenge though. The situation forced the government to initiate work on improving the quality of data and to extend its base. “In 2016, we had only 21 indicators available, but now we are reporting on 133 indicators in the upcoming Snapshot Report on the SDGs,” an insider shared.

“A key aspect of the SDGs is leaving no one behind which implies that while collecting data we must look at all types of disaggregation. In general, age, region and gender are the main components of disaggregation. Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement survey 2019-20 has started reporting on disability”.

“Specialised units were established to mainstream the SDGs into policymaking and to start reporting. Since 2017, we have been able to develop a smooth system of focal persons as well as a National Economic Council sub-committee on SDGs that looks at the related initiatives of each ministry’s progress and devise a way forward.

“Though we are lagging behind in some, on most of the indicators covered in the Snapshot Report (to be launched next month) our progress is satisfactory. Especially after the first 2019 Voluntary National Report, the ministries were sensitised on the SDGs and were directed to include them in their policies and projects,” said a senior member of the government’s economic team. He, however, did not agree to share the highlights of the snapshot.

“The government may paint as rosy a picture as it wants, but watching its working closely from the inside made it very clear to me that it only moves in the right direction under public pressure. As long as SDGs fail to capture the public imagination, I see little hope,” commented a bureaucrat.

If Pakistan can brave a global crisis, it sure can deliver on the global goals if it carries out course correction and set its sight on the targets. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

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

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