The year 2018: was it good or bad for Pakistan?

Only with a positive outlook by the citizens will the world outside begin to view the country differently

Shahid Javed Burki January 14, 2019
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president of the World Bank

To many in Pakistan, the country did not look well as the year 2018 ended and 2019 began. The rate of economic growth had slowed down, the level of external and internal debt as proportions of the gross national product had increased. Investment as percentage of national income had declined. The production of cotton, the mainstay of the country’s industry and exports had, declined by a significant amount, threating to dampen exports.

The international community did not favour Pakistan. One indication of this was the way the country’s passport was treated at entry points across the globe. According to the Henley Passport Index, the Pakistani passport was fifth from the bottom in the respect it received. The country was not in good company: the bottom five included, in addition to Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

One way of describing the way the world looked in 2018 is to quote at some length from a column by Nicholas Kristof, a regular contributor to The New York Times. “The world is, as everyone knows, going to hell, but there is still the nervous thrill of waiting to see which dark force will take us down. Will the economy collapse first, the ice sheets melt first, or chaos and war envelop us first?” Kristof could have added more items to his list of negatives. For instance, would the United States and China go to war as the Asian nation was on its way to becoming the world’s largest economy. If that happened it would be in line with the thinking of Thucydides, the Greek sage, who centuries ago predicted that when a power that is rising challenges the power that has remained at the top, the result inevitably is military conflict. He had come to that conclusion after watching the rise of Athens that led to a war with Sparta.

This way of reading the world is not different from the way many in Pakistan look at their country. There were troubles brewing closer to home in Pakistan. The year 2018 saw Donald Trump, the American president, lose interest in Afghanistan and Syria. As the year was coming to close, he threatened to pull out his country’s troops from these two areas of conflict, arguing that their presence there did not reflect the “America first” approach he had adopted to the making of public policy.

But there are antidotes for the world as well as Pakistan that don’t enter the thinking of people. First, let us look at the world. According to Max Roser of Oxford University and his Our World in Data website, every day 295,000 people across the world gained access to electricity for the first time; another 350,000 were able to access clean drinking water; each day 620,000 people were able to get online for the first time. Only about four per cent of children worldwide died by the age of five. Every day in the year 2018, as many as 15,000 children died but the number in the 1990s was 30,000. Until about the 1950s, a majority of humans had always lived in absolute poverty defined as income of less than $2 a day. The proportion now is less than 10 per cent. Worldwide, 86 per cent of all one-year-olds have been vaccinated against major diseases.

To go back to the column by Kristof, “it is of course true that there are huge challenges ahead. The gains against global poverty and disease seem to be slowing and climate change is an enormous threat to poor nations in particular... So there is plenty to fret about. But a failure to acknowledge global progress can leave people feeling hopeless and ready to give up. In fact, the gains should show us what is possible and spur greater efforts to improve opportunity worldwide.”

What is true for the world is also true for Pakistan. With 210 million, we account for three per cent of the world’s total population. I visited Pakistan twice while working on a book that focuses on two developments: first, the elections of 2018 and how they are likely to strengthen Pakistan’s political system and second, Pakistan’s evolving relations with the world outside. During these visits, I found an increase in feeling of despair and despondency. I am about to publish an edited book on Pakistan’s first 70 years. In my own contribution to the volume, I took a long view; looking at the country from the time of its birth to the year 2017.

During this time the country’s population increased more than eightfold. At the time of country’s birth, about a million people lived in large cities; there are now 30 million people in cities with more than one million people. Of the 24 million who lived in what is Pakistan today — not counting the eight million who came in as refugees from India — 60 per cent, or 15 million, were absolutely poor. The number of poor is now about 35 million or less than 17 per cent of the population. Looking at these numbers in a different way, had the incidence of poverty remained at the level of 1947, 120 million people would have been in that state at the end of 2018. In other words, Pakistan has managed to keep 85 million people out of poverty.

It is on the political front that Pakistan made the most progress in 2018. The country’s youth — those below the age of 30 numbering 125 million — voted overwhelmingly to install in power a new kind of politician and a new kind of political party. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is not a dynastic political party drawing its strength from patron-client relationships as did the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Not a single member of Imran Khan’s large family has been placed in a senior position either in the party or in the government he heads. That cannot be said about the PPP or the PML-N.

A lot of good things happened in Pakistan in 2018. These should be taken note of in order to develop a more positive view of the country in which we live. Only with a positive outlook by the citizens will the world outside begin to view the country differently.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 14th, 2019.

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