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Downgraded Pakistan

March 25, 2012

IT’S been five years since Pakistan first began to look like it may unravel, a sequence of crises that started with Musharraf’s attempt to sack CJ Iftikhar and that tore through the political, economic, security and social landscape of the country.

There was no real pattern to events — Musharraf trying to sack his handpicked CJ to extend his term in power; the Lal Masjid episode; and the spike in global commodity prices just as easy credit dried up internationally weren’t connected events, for example — but they did seem to combine to suggest that Pakistan may not survive.

Five years on, as the dust begins to settle on the tumult, the very worst fears have receded. Pakistan is not on the verge of state collapse. The agrarian base and the informal economy help many eke out a living. The Taliban don’t know how to take over and are far from acquiring the ability to do so.

Luckily or unluckily, there is no Arab Spring imminent here. People want change but they haven’t turned to the military this time; the civilian options, decrepit as they are, remain the first choice of many. Two very different — and ultimately unsuccessful — attempts at transformation by the army in recent history, the Zia and Musharraf eras, appear to have dampened the army’s appetite for political power.

A fragmentation of power has seen the predominance of Punjab curbed somewhat and the rise of new power centres like the judiciary and the media. An increasingly conservative society with a radicalised fringe is intense about its Muslim-ness but not in thrall to truly poisonous ideologies.

Five years on from what threatened to become the unravelling, Pakistan looks like it will hang on for some time yet. But the fear of collapse did mask something else, something less spectacular though no less profound than collapse: Pakistan has given up on the dream of becoming a middle-income state with a progressive and dynamic society at its heart.

Never before have the challenges to progress looked more daunting and the possibility of solutions less likely. Pakistan may not erupt or suddenly fall apart but it is slowly imploding as a state and society.

The problems started much before 2007, of course, but that year marked the beginning of the mass realisation of what is happening to the country and its people.

Rewind to 2007. On the back of several years of solid growth, optimism was high that Pakistan could live up to the economic potential that it last seriously threatened to realise in the 1960s. The threat from militancy had yet to hit with full force and the swaggering Musharraf was one of the three most famous men in the world, alongside Bush and Osama.

Illusion or reality — arguably both — Pakistan could feel that it was once again being taken seriously on the international stage and that internally the problems of state and society were manageable.

Then the economy slowed suddenly. At first, it looked like the country could bounce back in two or three years. By 2010, recovery had been pushed back to 2014-15. Today, no one is even talking about recovery.

Anaemic growth rates that can’t cater for population growth, let alone the need to pluck swathes of the population from miserable economic conditions, aren’t the stuff on which dreams are built.

Blaming Zardari and his ribald bunch of misfits doesn’t change the reality that the alternatives have no ideas either. Zardari lets the tax-to-GDP slide because his stock-market buddies and property-tycoon friends don’t like to pay taxes but then the PML-N is happy enough in Punjab to pocket the extra cash from the NFC without paying attention to the need to expand the provincial tax base.

Khan thinks economic policy is built on bringing back stolen billions and talking about fighting corruption, while the army is the one that let the tax-to-GDP ratio slide during the Musharraf years.

Without any serious thought about where jobs and growth will come from and how revenues will be upped, the state will be reduced to doling out patronage from money that is borrowed or printed.

You don’t build a brighter future on borrowed money spent on internship programmes and free laptops.

The Great Flood of 2010 exposed the underbelly of human suffering and deprivation stuffed away in rural Pakistan. But there are no schools or clinics that those people will have systematic access to for at least another generation.

In urban Pakistan, a rickety state education system operates alongside a growing private sector whose educational output is patchy at best. Worse, even a generous amount of income spent on education doesn’t guarantee a job for the next generation.

And even if you do have a job, you’re likely to lose a portion of it fending off a predatory state and to criminals who’ll mug you for your wallet and cellphone on the street or turn up at your home for your car or motorcycle and other belongings. Social security exists in name only.

Run down any list of economic, social and security indicators and Pakistan is falling behind on virtually all of them. The people don’t need sophisticated metrics or fancy charts to understand that, they’re living it.

Accentuating the feeling of being left behind is the news from the neighbourhood. China has more money than most Pakistanis know how to count. A couple of trillion dollars in reserves alone is an impossible-to-imagine sum.

In India, that benchmark Pakistan loves to compare itself to, even the corruption scandals are monstrous. Just the alleged sums lost in the 2G spectrum scam amount to a fifth of Pakistan’s GDP.

Bangladesh seems to use Pakistani managerial skills to export more cotton-based products than we do despite a longer manufacturing pedigree.

And for those who bother to read, Pakistan’s social indicators are falling behind parts of Africa that were once thought to be beyond redemption.

Think about what a visitor to any of the provincial capitals or Islamabad has to worry about: dengue (Lahore); kidnapping (Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta); insurgency (Quetta, Peshawar); criminal gangs and street crime (all of them).

Pakistan looks like a country that Pakistanis would have avoided a couple of decades ago.

That collapse may have been avoided is only the smallest of consolations.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com