Some questions about public policymaking in Pakistan

Serious public policy work was put on track by president Ayub Khan soon after he took over the country in October 1958

Shahid Javed Burki June 24, 2019
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president of the World Bank

In the article today I intend to ask a dozen questions and attempt to answer some of them about the making of public policy in Pakistan. But before I do that I would like to explain why I have invested a lot of my time and resources into building the institution based in Lahore that now carries my name — the Burki Institute of Public Policy, the BIPP. The institution started with a different name in 2007 when, at a lunch with my friend Sartaj Aziz who was then the vice chancellor of the Beaconhouse National University, we talked about the demise of policy work in the public sector.

Serious public policy work was put on track by president Ayub Khan soon after he took over the country in October 1958. He developed the Planning Commission into a well-endowed policymaking institution. Told that Pakistan did not have the skills that were needed to staff such an institution, he turned to the United States for help. That came in the form of advisers mostly from the Harvard Development Service who were appointed in the Planning Commission in Karachi and in the Planning and Development Departments in East and West Pakistan.

When Ayub Khan surrendered his office in 1969, the Planning Commission began to wither. A series of blows were delivered to the planning process by the government headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who ably led Pakistan to recover from the loss of East Pakistan in December 1971 but destroyed much of what Ayub Khan had done for the country. Bhutto, an arrogant man, had much greater confidence in his ability to develop the country on his own and bring about social change than base his moves on institutional advice. He had no use for the Planning Commission.

The administrations that succeeded the one he had headed were also not seriously committed to institutional policy analysis and policymaking. The Planning Commission had lost most of its original purpose when Sartaj Aziz and I had that conversation over lunch in Lahore. This led to the establishment in Lahore of the BIPP. We decided that the BIPP would produce an annual document that would have two parts: a part on the state of the economy at that time and a part on policy advice on one subject which we believed should be of concern to the makers of policy in Islamabad and the provincial capitals.

I will now get to the questions I said I would ask in this piece. Before I list the questions I should indicate that most of them lead to even more questions.

First, what are likely to be the most important political, economic and social consequences for the country resulting from the elections of July 2018?

Second, while some of the political systems in the world are moving towards authoritarianism, is Pakistan likely to buck the global trend and develop a representative form of government?

Third, if Pakistan needs a new development paradigm to achieve a high and sustainable rate of economic growth and social change, what should be its main features?

Fourth, how should Pakistan move away from dependence on external financial flows and base development on domestic resource generation?

Fifth, in what way should Pakistan work to use the opportunities made available by CPEC to move towards a new development paradigm?

Sixth, how should Pakistan deal with the threat posed by climate change?

Seventh, how should Pakistan bring the government closer to the people and deepen the process that began with the adoption of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution?

Eighth, how should Pakistan deal with its five neighbours — Afghanistan, China, Kashmir, India and Iran? Related to this is why I count Kashmir as a full-fledged neighbour?

Ninth, how should Pakistan address the problem posed by the rise of Hindu extremism in India?

Tenth, how should Pakistan deal with rapid urbanisation and what should be the main components of urban-focused policy?

Eleventh, how should people’s confidence be built in their own future and in their country?

Twelfth, how should the narrative about Pakistan be changed?

What follows is a brief discussions relating to some of the questions asked above. Taking all of them in detail would take up a more than one newspaper article.

One, our leaders must recognise that a negative narrative prevails about Pakistan in the foreign press. Whenever a story appears about Pakistan in the western media, its content and tone are negative. This situation can only be remedied if the current leadership comes forward and presents to the world a believable plan of action that would restore people’s confidence in their future as well the future of their country. As economists emphasise all the time, confidence is an important driver of growth, confidence leads to increase in domestic and as well as foreign investment.

Two, there is an urgent need to strength the Federal Board of Revenue. Those who don’t pay taxes or pay only nominal amounts must be made to fear the revenue collector. It is that fear that has made the Internal Revenue Service the most feared part of the United States government. In America, April 15, the day taxes are due, is by far the most important day on the calendar.

Third, we need to focus on three sectors as the future determinants of economic growth and social change: they are high value-added agriculture, small- and medium-scale industries and modern services. Development of the human resource would be an important part of this strategy. CPEC could play an important part in this endeavour.

Fourth, our policymakers need to recognise that Pakistan is no longer a rural place but an urban country. No single urban policy would serve the purpose. We will need separate policies for the metropolitan areas, peripheral areas of large cites, medium-sized cities and small towns.

Fifth, the government must get closer to the people and this requires the formation of a multi-tiered system of local government on the lines of Ayub Khan’s system of ‘basic democracies’.

And sixth, working with Afghanistan, we should use the local system of government to bring economic and social development to these areas. It is only then that we will be able to prevent the tribal youth from being attracted to extremist causes.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 24th, 2019.

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