At the risk of oversimplification, it is possible to label the main political parties by looking at their favourite big ticket item in public spending. The PML-N loved mega projects in the transport sector, while agriculture and rural development was closest to the heart of the PPP. When the PPP government left, spending on its favourite sector was twice that of the transport sector. By the time the PML-N government exited, it was the other way round. Since assuming power, the PTI leadership has been hiding behind the poor state of the economy. The mantra is that all promises will be fulfilled once money is available. Now its platform is against corruption, for good governance and human development. While human development requires tons of money to make good the chronic deficit, the other two do not exactly require money beyond the existing means of the government. If anything, concerted action here saves money. However, even these crucial areas of reform have suffered from the noisy environ of “wait till we have money”.
As the IMF programme has now been pronounced successful in stabilising the economy, the talk of much-needed reform has begun. This is where the seeds of a never-ending relationship are sown and re-sown. Instead of any indigenous thinking informed by the experience of similarly placed countries, donors are allowed to come up with all kinds of reform projects to satisfy our need for money and their desire to reform us. The latest example is of a trade and investment reforms project being negotiated with the World Bank under the high sounding Pakistan Goes Global programme to secure a loan of $250 million. Pakistan is a graveyard of donor projects in the name of competitiveness. Surely, it added to the debt burden. For restoring competitiveness, the country had to wait for a massive devaluation. The FBR reform has been a similar donor-happy disaster.
In the simplest terms, corruption is abuse of public office by the incumbent for private gain. Governance is a set of institutions to deliver public services. If these institutions are functioning effectively, corruption is largely prevented. Credible anti-corruption bodies also act in ways that put the fear of Moses in the hearts of potential abusers. This is for grand corruption influencing policy. Petty corruption inherited from the colonial days and has since spread to almost all spheres of life requires a cultural change for diminishing returns to set in. A government cannot eliminate it in a tenure of five years. But there has to be a beginning somewhere.
The marriage of money and connection cannot happen without the nikah khwan i.e. the bureaucracy. That is why all reform focuses on it. Policy thinking as well as execution lies in its domain. Historically oriented towards law and order, the same bureaucracy without any structural change assumed the tasks of economic development in the postcolonial period. The outcome is the worst of both worlds — attempts to reform skirt the fringes by changes in the ACR system, superficial training, and posting and transfer rules. No attention is paid to whether or not a centralised civil service can deliver effectively in a three-tier system of government. Nor is there any serious move away from the jacks of all trades towards masters of needed trades.
More ominously, democracy and the federal dispensation, especially the 7th NFC Award and the 18th Amendment, are seen as harbingers of rising corruption and deteriorating governance. A look around the world shows that the least corrupt countries are mostly democracies, not autocracies or oligarchies. What is required is a strategy to overcome resistance that breeds instability.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 13th, 2019.