Up the IMF creek

Published June 14, 2022

IT is that time of the year. When targets, revenues, large-scale manufacturing, taxes and baselines can be heard all around. The air in the studios, talk shows and in drawing rooms echoes with Arabs, billions and trillions, with earnest discussions about their significance. Each party has their own set of numbers, their own interpretation and complete belief in their policies and the lies of the other.

In between all this, however, there is an added sense of urgency. There is a realisation of the crisis facing us, and for once the crisis is not just an abstract idea. Sri Lanka next door has given us images and stories aplenty of what this ‘crisis’ can look like. But politics, as usual keeps our leaders from communicating this to the people — for the side in power is keen to live up to its image as a doer and the other is so angry at its removal that its version of a doomsday scenario is being seen as hyperbole.

Read: We are not Sri Lanka, says SBP chief

In between the lines, though, there are signs enough, if one is intent upon finding them. Consider that by now, we have two prime ministers in a row, who have both been elected, taken oath, and then rushed off to tour ‘brother’ countries. And each one of them came back and expressed the sense of humiliation they felt at having to ask for money.

Hard though it may be for both to admit, Shehbaz Sharif and Imran Khan are on the same page on this issue — those who came before rarely ever expressed such views. Are these two just more sensitive or has the welcome being given to Pakistanis, who come with the same old wish list, changed? Perhaps the hosts now don’t bother to hide their eye-roll any longer. The trips, the deferred oil payments and the rollovers (not the same as the eye-roll) are not new but the sense of humiliation is. And what does it tell us about our way of living? Only if someone would ask.

Sri Lanka has given us images and stories aplenty of what this ‘crisis’ can look like.

The negotiations with the IMF are also becoming more mainstream; it is not just the rich businessmen and the nerdy business reporters who debate endlessly the conditions the lender of last resort is pushing on us but the rest of us, who would in ‘normal’ times rather drone on about feuding political parties. The net result is endless (but still meaningless) discussions about conditionalities regarding taxes, the energy sector and Chinese loans.

Because instead of delving into why the IMF conditions are now such a big issue while they weren’t before, we have personalised the answer. It is about individuals. Asad Umar took too long and then he rubbed the IMF people the wrong way; Hafeez Sheikh just didn’t care enough to push back; Shaukat Tarin went back and forth with growth and then stabilisation, and now Miftah Ismail is not negotiating hard enough.

Read: With some 'additions and tweaking' to the budget, Miftah Ismail hopes to seal IMF deal by late June

It is easier to blame the technocrats rather than accept that we have been travelling up the creek after having dropped the paddle some way back. Why admit to structural problems when we can dump it all at the door of ‘poor management’? The polarised debate about the ‘krupt’ (corrupt) and the ‘na-ehal’ (incompetent) is doing us no favours but it is so easy to dabble in it, for it is easier than accepting that the IMF is just tired of us, coming back again and again and then again. And that the United States is not interested in making a call to the IMF and telling it to give us an easy ride (no it is not just because of Imran Khan).

The net result? People aren’t aware of the difficulties ahead. The political parties have people who realise it but they don’t explain it to the beleaguered party leadership which wants to pull a bunny out of the hat rather than make tough calls and lose political capital.

Indeed, the behaviour of our political parties’ leadership (and others) is rather similar to the queen’s and her indecision over her favourite son, Prince Andrew’s exile from public life. It seems the banishment is a done deal and then he reappears at a major event. Similarly, the actual moment keeps getting delayed, as we pay lip service to the tough decisions but not the actions.

Our focus on exports is a similar blind spot. Because the other matters, especially, our spending habits are just so gut-wrenchingly hard. We yap on about privatisation but without asking why the last time we actually got any big-ticket items out of the way was during the Musharraf period. What happened since then? The judicial system, the political system or the accountability juggernaut? Do we need a military dictator to get the deal done? No one wants to ask.

The government is bloated and more but no government can afford to stand up to the public servants who forced a salary hike during Covid, and again this year.

And if we merely spoke frankly about the privatisation issue or salaries, we may be able to admit to each other that restructuring will be painful and long. And it will come with a political cost and a human cost. It will not be as easy as changing clothes but changing houses — with a period in between where there may not be a roof between us and the blazing summer sun. But with elections due and unstable governments (who never stop looking over their shoulders) who is going to start the moving process? So we continue living in a house near collapse.

And may I end by pointing out that while we can’t stop talking about the absolute necessity of a charter of economy, it is ironic that all parties (and other stakeholders) are already agreed on all the destructive trends within. Paying for Pakistan Steel Mills or PIA; giving government servants hefty raises year after year; letting agricultural land be converted into ugly urban sprawl and toothless local governments. No amount of polarisation and fighting will ever change the unspoken consensus on this.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2022

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