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Opinion

April 13, 2018

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Our social policy choices

Pakistan is an emerging democracy that has tremendous potential to overcome its political and socioeconomic problems. The democratic process over the past decade has helped improve Pakistan’s image as a country that is on the path of political and economic stability.

However, it has always been a challenge for successive governments to translate the country’s development potential into actionable strategies. The policies adopted by previous governments failed to produce a socioeconomic transformation. Pakistan, therefore, continued to be included in the list of countries that had the worst records in terms of human development.

Despite being a resource-rich country, Pakistan lags behind in terms of its regional and global HDI averages. Around 22 million are children out of school; 44 percent of children suffer from malnutrition; 25 percent of the youth are infected with hepatitis; and 60 percent of our country’s population does not have access to safe drinking water. As a result, the challenges to provide quality healthcare and education services have multiplied over the years.

Although disparities in income distribution and gender discrimination are on the rise, internationally-recognised development ranking agencies have ranked Pakistan among countries like Afghanistan and the impoverished nations of Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of its performance in social development. This offers clear evidence of policy failures and the lack of coordinated efforts towards course correction.

Pakistan has pursued a variety of policies over the last 70 years, with the intermittent discontinuation of long-term development goals. Over the years, several development initiatives were initiated at the national and provincial levels by the government, civil society members and the international donor community to achieve the quantitative targets of social development and inclusive economic growth. The development history of Pakistan suggests that the objectives and targets set in policies and programmes could not be accomplished in most cases.

There have been some achievements, including the increase in the number of higher education institutions; private-sector investments; women literacy rates; infrastructural development; and the decrease in terrorism. However, key goals and indicators – such as the target of universal education – remain a distant dream. A huge disparity exists among the four provinces in terms of literacy and the education budget still hovers around 2.3 percent of the GDP.

Education, health, environment and financial inclusion remain abysmally low in the priorities of national and provincial governments in Pakistan. For instance, the focus of the current government at the federal level is the development of physical infrastructure – especially roads and transport networks, and power generation. The significance of integrated human development to meet future challenges has not been recognised.

Human development has been critical to societal welfare – even more so during periods of rapid economic and social change. Tackling these challenges will be critical to overcome Pakistan’s development problems and fulfil international commitments.

There are some key international challenges for Pakistan in the coming decades. First, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will drastically reduce employment opportunities across the world and machines will replace humans in future workplace (a service-sector challenge). Second, the revolution in genetic science and technology will dramatically change the quality and methods of food production and supply, and will have a major impact on the agrarian economy by the middle of the century (an agricultural-sector challenge). Third, major breakthroughs are taking place in energy production systems and technologies. The cost of renewable energy is decreasing, which will have an effect on the global economy and climate by 2030 (an industrial-sector challenge).

There are many national challenges that could affect our future as well. First, our rates of population growth and urbanisation are one of the highest in Asia and require high economic growth and the expansion of employment opportunities (a demographic challenge). Second, Chinese investment in Pakistan in CPEC-related projects puts pressure on Pakistan’s industry and service sectors to remain competitive in an era of the knowledge economy (an economic challenge).

Third, economic disparities and the state’s increasing inability to provide services, including quality healthcare and education, are creating many socioeconomic problems in the country. These include the radicalisation of society; violence; and low human productivity. These challenges pose an existential threat to the country (a social challenge).

Fourth, the devolution of powers to provinces has created policy ambiguities in terms of the roles and responsibilities of federal and provincial governments. In the absence of an inclusive political strategy and capacity assessment initiatives, and due to the unequal resource distribution among provinces, regional disparities and provincial differences may be sharpened (a political challenge).

The challenges to the economy and society of Pakistan can be addressed through a robust and responsive institutional system at the meso and macro levels. There must be sound social policies, which are future-oriented, integrated, progressive, data-driven and realistic in terms of their outputs and outcomes.

The civil society and policy think tanks can provide strategic and technical support to the government in developing and shaping policies to meet the national and international commitments. Like most well-functioning democracies of the world, Pakistan must help create think tanks to help the government devise an informed and inclusive policy narrative.

The policy think tanks can provide support in developing cogent and concise policy briefs to national and provincial governments. They can also help government ministries prepare media briefs on key policy matters and provide them with a timely analysis of ongoing policy debates in the media and policy circles.

Furthermore, these think tanks can be engaged in developing high-quality newspaper articles that bear policy recommendations for the government. They can also help build a realistic policy roadmap to engage key stakeholders. Policy think tanks can also come up with an analysis of key policy dimensions. These include assessing the existing state of the policy framework and determining how effective the current and previous political and economic policies have been in addressing development challenges.

Policy think tanks could also be effective in understanding how demographic and economic challenges can be transformed into opportunities by recommending structural and policy reforms in the country’s political structure.

Other concerns include determining the capacity and institutional gaps in the four provinces in tackling the development function of the state after the 18th Amendment. Think tanks must also gauge some the best and worst practices implemented by the government and civil society members in different parts of Pakistan over the last seven decades and determine how these lessons can be incorporated into future policymaking as a new democratic government assumes office in 2018.

This may achieve some tangible policy outputs, such as short-term and long-term actions as well as policy adjustments to the national and provincial development policies and programmes. Another policy outcome that could spring from this include alternative development financing mechanisms; windows for policy implementation; and increased stakeholder engagement to obtain a wider buy-in.

The global economic environment is changing rapidly with the polarisation of economic power centres and the erosion of US hegemony across the world. The global political dominance is also drifting away from the Western hemisphere and an imminent new non-Western economic bloc has come into existence that includes China, Russia, Brazil and India.

In this new context, Pakistan must think about reducing its reliance on America and engaging on a diplomatic and economic footing with the emerging regional bloc. The country needs to have a solid network of advisers and policy think tanks to devise a more coherent perspective of international relations. This paradigm shift in political and economic thought may usher in a new era of prosperity and self-sufficiency.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: ahnihal@yahoo.com

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