It's the education, economy and environment, stupid!
Should we spend billions on importing military hardware or spend a quarter of that amount on education and research?
The dominant national narrative encourages the diversion of resources to meet the needs of our nation’s military. The budget statement is incomplete without statements that go something like: the government is more than willing to offer whatever resources the military demands to meet the nation’s defence.
Whether we should sign a blank cheque and then allow the audacity to dare to question where the money is spent is an argument that creates much passion; however, as time passes by, it is becoming increasingly clear that the perpetuation of such policies is making our nation both internally and externally insecure.
The shrinking cake
A nation’s resources are finite, while the demands placed on her are infinite.
As expected, since the announcement of the 2010-11 budget, defence spending has already increased once by Rs110 billion, while in the first quarter, defence expenditure exceeded budgetary estimates by Rs28 billion. This may be explained by the cost of providing flood relief services and prolonged military operations in the tribal areas. However, where this money from the (delayed) Coalition Support Fund (CSF) that is supposed to partially subsidise Pakistani military operations in the war on terror goes is anyone’s guess.
To meet the demands of our principal creditor, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), we have little choice but to cut development expenditure. As of today, this year’s development outlay has shrunk to a paltry Rs150 Billion. While interest payment on loans is estimated at Rs717 Billion.
Defence expenditure is on the rise and unlikely to fall in the near future. As our stock of foreign and domestic loans increases, we can expect interest payments to increase further.
Our “cake” of resources is shrinking, while defence and interest payments continue to demand bigger slices each financial year.
The economy cannot do it alone
Will an improved economy help solve our problems? It would certainly help increase the size of our pie. However, this obvious and rather simplistic explanation is incomplete. That is true of our economy as well. Unequal growth which wows statisticians may suffice as populist rhetoric, but it does little to reduce inequality. Unchallenged, inequality marginalises large swaths of society. Resources are controlled, and allocated by our ruling elite, who perpetuate their rule by insuring that their children receive the best possible education, healthcare and (importantly) opportunities. The cycle continues, year after year, generation after generation.
With large segments of society marginalized, individuals are viewed as liabilities rather than assets that contribute productively to the nations well being.
Education is more than just a means to an end. The oversimplification of education as a grade or mark to be achieved or a degree to be attained misses the point completely. Education should be viewed in terms of enhancing skills, fostering creativity and developing opportunities. Deprived of all the advantages of their richer peers, the vast majority of Pakistanis are still enterprising, and find ways and means of surviving, or even in some cases despite their apparent disadvantage, turn a profit.
Think of it this way: for someone who has had little or no access to education, minor incremental improvements in the provision of education can lead to massive improvements in opportunities. A child from a deprived background gains much more from a few extra years of decent, basic education, than say a an undergraduate whose skills and opportunities are marginally improved by completing a postgraduate degree. I say marginally, because the benefits derived accrue to the individual and much less so to society.
Economic prosperity is unlikely to bring about both the quantitative and qualitative improvements in the life of Pakistani’s, both rich and poor as long as the poor bear the burden of economic recession, while the rich reap the rewards of economic booms.
We do not live on an island
Pakistan faces a clear and present danger. The source of this danger is climate change and environmental degradation. No one disputes that the destruction caused by the recent floods was magnified by unsustainable logging upstream and poor planning downstream.
And that unfortunately is not all. Desserts are encroaching into fertile agricultural land. Forests have been raped bare. Per capita availability of fresh water is nearing drought like levels while rapid consumerism and demands for energy clog up our roads and dirty our air.
Over the coming years increased economic activity will lead to more diseases and illnesses. Reduction in arable land and poorly managed water resources will drive up the price of food products. Who will bear these costs? Society, and by extension our economy!
In Pakistan we aspire, nay marvel at the Chinese model of growth and development. Often ignored are the many hundreds of billions of dollars the Chinese government is today paying to clean up its rivers reclaim its fertile lands from the deserts and make its air breathable in the urban centres that drive her economy.
North and South Korea share a hostile border, similar to Pakistan and India, except that the DMZ does not demand its border guards to damage their limbs during peacetime. The North, obsessed with defence and security, maintains one of the world’s largest militaries at the expense of the welfare of its citizens. The South on the other hand, has progressed economically and academically, while situating sustainable development as a core principal of state planning.
The result? While the South Korean defence forces may not match up man-to-man or woman-to-woman with their Northern neighbours, they more than compensate with their access to advance technologies, the power of positive global perception and a confidence in international support in the face of aggression.
Bake your cake and eat it too!
The argument is simple enough. We have run out of money, and we are dependent on bilateral and multilateral financing to meet our expenses. To meet our financial needs we have turned to the IMF for a “package”. Under the terms of our lending agreement, we have to meet macroeconomic targets, which simply mean…cuts! Given our current priorities, the three E’s are sacrificed at the altar of short-termism.
Would it be better to spend billions of rupees on importing military hardware today, or spend a quarter of that amount on education and research to nurture tomorrow’s scientists to develop indigenous technologies? Would it be better to ignore water scarcity today only to see a fall in agricultural productivity and violence tomorrow? Would it be better to ignore the plight of the vast majority of Pakistani’s, so that a small majority can maintain their economic and social status only to have a citizenry of Pakistani’s for whom citizenship of this great land means nothing more than a daily struggle to survive?
Our nation’s defence is being compromised as you read. We must channel resources towards improving the economy, access to education and preservation of the environment. By doing so we will help ourselves by getting out of this self-defeating, vicious cycle of foreign dependence which would help us grow in an equitable manner, thereby increasing the size of our nations “cake”. Then, those nice big slices of defence expenditure and debt interest payments would not be viewed as liabilities, but rightful expenses incurred by a responsible nation state in the international polity of nations.
It’s the economy, education and the environment, stupid!