All day long the elephant sat in the middle of the room, stared at us and blinked. The room was filled with some of the biggest businessmen in the country, CEOs of companies with widely ranging stakes, from oil and gas, to banking. Eminent educationists, famous economists and even a spattering or two from the world of NGOs; and the odd media personality mingled, argued, spoke, presented and shared experiences in a day-long exercise with one central purpose: To develop a plan of action to fix Pakistan’s economy.
There were presentations on upstream gas pricing and further integration of gas transmission networks of the northern and southern distribution companies. There was nearly, and I emphasise nearly, universal acceptance of the idea that the state cannot, must not and should never be allowed to abdicate its responsibility to make quality education available to every citizen. There were many useful ideas on what can be done to make progress towards this goal.
The elephant didn’t care about any of them. It just sat there, stared and blinked through it all.
A group spoke on what will be needed to bring about some semblance of macroeconomic stability, a group that included two former State Bank governors and a redoubtable wizard of tax and revenue matters. The proposals included concrete steps for the immediate term, and more abstract suggestions for the longer term. Another group spoke on social protection, betraying some debate within the group over the role of the state in providing safety nets to the most vulnerable groups.
The elephant didn’t follow any of these debates. It didn’t care. It just stared and blinked.
The elephant sitting impassively in our midst was the war. And it was impossible to miss how every proposal was, in fact, connected to the war and its fallout.
An agenda for economic renewal is no secret and has been well-known for decades. Some conversation can be had around how best to implement it under present circumstances, but 10 years ago, the agenda included broadening the tax base and curtailing wasteful expenditures; and today, these priorities remain. Likewise, with the agenda for education and regional trade. The priorities are the same today, as they’ve ever been.
The problem is getting the message through the din and chaos and fog of war. The war has created so much confusion and warped our priorities, so that an agenda for economic renewal reads like a laundry list of mundane items. Who sees the urgency in our worsening fuel mix for power generation, when we have drones and Raymond Davis types running around our country? Who wants to hear about remittances and exports and external accounts when we have the Kerry-Lugar Bill to bash in the name of ‘honour’?
The war has bred in us the idea that our economic problems are for others to solve, hence our gritty and determined wait for external help to arrive and resolve our budgetary issues. The war has cut us off from our neighbours, making us the most regionally isolated country in the world, next to a few pariahs such as North Korea. In a world where regional trade flows dominate, our trade with our neighbours is negligible, except for smuggling, leaving us bottled up behind a small and ever-diminishing production possibilities frontier. The war’s requirements of manpower and cannon fodder have given rise to a well-oiled madrassa system of education that continues to grow, while our public schools languish and their curriculum sees the influx of hate-filled propaganda, eerie silences and bizarre invocations of supernatural phenomena in science textbooks.
With the war in our midst, the biggest task for any economic manager is to try and find a way to speak above the din. The elephant in our midst, the war, doesn’t care about the grass it tramples on, doesn’t know anything about foregone possibilities, cannot comprehend the consequences of the brush fires of confusion, that keep breaking out in the country. It only wants to eat, and it’s our prosperity and hope that it feeds on. Any successful economic manager will need to find a way to convey this to the people.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 7th, 2011.