No easy solution

Published September 18, 2023
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

MAGIC wand. Silver bullet. Miracle cure. Pick your idiom, and then forget about it. If there’s one thing Pakistanis should learn from the turmoil of recent months it is that there is no quick fix for Pakistan’s myriad, complex and increasingly insurmountable problems.

The dysfunctional dance of our institutions has highlighted that while we may cling to the idea of saviours — whether populist politicians or no-nonsense generals — it is not that easy. Checks and challenge are inherent in our system, and when our institutions do not work cooperatively they thwart each other. In the absence of a long-term strategic vision, recent developments, however dramatic, amount to sound and fury, signifying little.

The president and the ECP, the courts and the establishment, the people and their political representatives — even fathers and sons, if we tune into the mixed messaging from Sindh: they would all like to deliver the antidote to Pakistan’s problems. Instead, they stumble over each other, criticise and contradict each other, emphasise each other’s failings.

One topic seems to generate more consensus than others, and that is the need for economic stability. All the powers that be recognise that the size of the pie must increase so that all can feed off it. But as the era of ‘get a bailout, chug along’ ends, views on how the economy should be resuscitated also diverge. Some are banking on the top-down foreign-investor-saviour, others are backing the bottom-up boost exports approach.

It will take time and a vision for the way forward.

And that, frankly, is how it should be.

There is no silver bullet, no cure-all; not internally to clean our political mess, not externally to buy us out of our economic woes. Pakistanis must accept that our preoccupation with power games and saviour seeking has endured at the expense of policymaking, and we have argued amongst ourselves while problems have mounted. Any meaningful solutions now require time, strategising and holistic handling.

Let’s consider an example from our critical textiles and IT sectors. A recent report from Cornell University’s Global Labour Institute argues that garment manufacturing in the key markets of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam can expect collective losses of $65 billion in exports by 2030. This represents a 22 per cent slowdown, and the loss of one million new jobs in these economies. The forecast for 2050 is worse: a collective loss of 68.8pc of exports, and 8.64 million fewer jobs across the four countries.

The report attributes these losses to climate change-linked events, including high heat and flooding, that will disrupt production and supply chains and endanger workers’ health, jeopardising productivity. The authors argue that while there is growing awareness in the garment sector around the need to cut emissions and reduce water wastage, countries and companies are not doing enough to implement climate adaptation strategies.

Turning to IT, while we are grounding PIA planes, India has landed a rover on the south pole of the moon. This is a reflection of India’s science and technology ecosystem — the country accounts for 32pc of the world’s STEM graduates (43pc of them women). It is currently adding over 2.5m software developers to its workforce each year, and will next year overtake the US in terms of its developer population. Not surprisingly, technology exports make up more than half of India’s total services exports.

By contrast, a State Bank report published in May estimated that Pakistan adds 20,000 to 25,000 engineering and IT graduates to the workforce annually, but only 10pc are employable due to their lack of technical and soft skills such as critical thinking and English-language proficiency. These are hardly the indicators of a competitive IT-driven economy.

These examples are meant to illustrate the intractability of Pakistan’s problems. Our desire to attract investment and revamp our export economy can only be met with a multifaceted policy push: overhaul of the education system, launch of integrated climate adaptation strategies, updating labour protection provisions, launching progressive data protection legislation, currency stabilisation, making the workforce more inclusive, etc. This is the work of government departments at both federal and provincial levels along with experts, academia, private sector and civil society. It will take time, determination, and a clear vision for the way forward. As I said, no magic wand, no silver bullet.

For all their failings, democratic governments (when they are not plagued by paralysing polarisation) are well set up to handle complexity, build consensus and mobilise holistic approaches, which are needed urgently. Let’s have timely elections, and then enable elected representatives to get on with addressing our real problems.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
X (Formerly Twitter): @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2023

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