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Double burden

April 19, 2013

ONE after the other, all major political parties in Pakistan are unveiling their election manifestos in a predictably over-the-top fashion. Each claims to offer novel solutions to the country’s myriad problems.

Instead one finds in these (unnecessarily) glossy and unwieldy documents little more than agglomerations of fanciful words.

This says a great deal about the parties in question, and their purported commitments to real change. But it says even more about the structures of economic, political and cultural power with which parties must contend.

Arguably the least penetrable of all such structures is the global economic architecture, at the helm of which are the international financial institutions (IFIs).

By the IFIs I refer to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other such entities, and not commercial and investment banks, insurance companies and credit agencies that actually account for a much more significant chunk of global financial flows.

Of course, the latter enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the IFIs; the IMF in particular spends a great deal of time facilitating the profiteering of the private financial bodies. The reason why commentators in countries such as ours spend so much time naming the IFIs is simply because they exercise that much clout over economic and social policies. In a nutshell, our repeated forays to Washington and Tokyo to court the IMF, the World Bank and ADB have all but resulted in our handing over the policymaking reins to globalised technocrats sitting in their glass towers. As the saying goes, beggars cannot be choosers.

In stating the obvious, I want to call attention to the sham lingo of ‘good governance’ and ‘democracy’ that the IFIs inevitably invoke, time and again.

That is to say that rather than acknowledging their monopoly over what are nominally sovereign states, the IMF, World Bank and ADB always assert that they are abiding by best democratic practices, even helping to strengthen democratic institutions and move us magically along the path towards ‘good governance’.

In fact, the IFIs have repeatedly made a mockery of an already severely compromised bourgeois democratic process, in Pakistan and many other Third World countries. In weeks to come, it is quite possible that we will be witness to another episode of ‘democracy enhancement’ which confirms the discursive absurdity of the global political economy.

The caretaker regime has sent a team to meet IMF representatives with a view to discussing long-term policy options.

A cursory look at IFIs’ engagements within Pakistan confirms that pushing through loan agreements with caretaker regimes is in fact the preferred modus operandi. Before Benazir Bhutto took power in August 1988, a ‘structural adjustment’ loan had been agreed between the IFIs and a caretaker government in June of that year.

Before the 1993 elections, the Moeen Qureshi caretaker regime did a long-term deal with the IMF.

And then there are a plethora of examples of the IFIs doing business with the illegitimate dictatorial regime of Pervez Musharraf, all in the name of ‘good governance’ and ‘democracy’.

In every such case, grandiose claims were made both in advance of and in the aftermath of the policy initiatives. Whereas the reality is that we have progressively become more indebted, and all successive agreements with the IFIs will only exacerbate the situation. Greater indebtedness will further erode the democratic process, and an already vicious cycle will become decidedly rancorous.

Remarkably, the academic and political establishment, both in this country and globally, continues to maintain that the broad policy principles championed by the IFIs represent the right way forward.

This dogmatism in the face of the facts says less about the establishment and more about the lack of challenges to neoliberal orthodoxy, even though larger and larger numbers of people around the world are becoming clearer about its spectacular failures.

The fact of the matter is that the ‘experts’ think not about real people, a very real and growing ecological footprint, and the various forms of alienation spawned by unbridled profiteering. Indeed a convincing argument can be made that while Pakistan’s economy is admittedly not in great shape, the orthodox macroeconomic view — along with solutions — proffered by the IFIs and our own technocrats actually hides much more than it illuminates. A diagnosis of the ‘real’ economy is conspicuous by its absence in mainstream accounts, let alone policy prescriptions on how to improve the lives of those who live in this real world.

In the final analysis, an agreement with the IMF would simply make worse the lives of ordinary Pakistanis, and aggravate a host of social and environmental crises. And we are faced with the absurd prospect of such an agreement being presented to us as the epitome of democratic decision-making amidst promises of improved functioning in public and private institutions.

Perhaps even sadder is the fact that mainstream political parties seem happy and willing to be part of this façade.

It is thus that progressives outside the mainstream have to face up to the double burden of fighting for democracy, and trying to convince working people that it can yet come to mean something more than the sham that it has become.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.