By Rasul Bakhsh Rais
speaking, Pakistan is at a crossroads; any decisions made, policies formulated,
and reforms pursued will define its future when it celebrates its first century
of independence three decades from now.
This was the major takeaway from a World Bank report released recently. It is a wakeup call for the ruling classes of Pakistan, the centers of power and the people of the country in general. Policymakers will have to make a stark choice between changing the course or doing more of the same thing.
Old-fashioned economic and social policies, which the elite of Pakistan have pursued over the decades, have brought the country to the brink of failure. It could slide further into a hopeless situation if it continues on the same path.
However, if Pakistan is able to harness its human and natural resource potential, it can be a $2 trillion strong economy, one which could enter the ranks of middle-income countries within the next three decades.
That being said, more of the same policies will ensure it remains poor, underdeveloped and vulnerable to an unending cycle of economic and political crises.
Today, Pakistan’s overall picture doesn’t look very promising. At 2.4 percent, its population growth rate is one of the highest in the world, making it the fifth largest country in the world.
With the current
rate of growth, its population may cross 350 million by 2047, which can be
problematic for any government to deal with. The country has experienced a
massive population explosion from 37 million in 1947 to 208 million at present.
Whatever development had been registered over the past 70 years has been deemed
null and void by its population growth, adding a tremendous burden on the
delivery of social services.
The negative aspects of an ever-increasing population are for all to see. Pakistan has the highest rates in terms of fertility, infant mortality and the number of children — about 20 million — who are currently out of school within the region.
Unfortunately, due to a large size of a majority of poor families, their children are deprived of much-needed nutrition to stimulate mental and physical growth. It’s no surprise then that nearly 44 percent of the children are stunted.
This was one of the issues highlighted by Prime Minister Imran Khan in his inaugural speech to the nation after assuming office last year.
It means that there is a realization that the problem needs to be addressed. However, what really matters is whether any steps will be taken by the government to rectify the situation. To make matters worse, 22 million children continue to be out of school, which means they will remain unskilled, poor and unequipped to face the world.
Pakistan also has one of the largest youth population — with about 60 percent falling in the age group of 18 to 30. This could prove to be an asset, but only if the country can help develop its youth by providing the necessary education and skill sets.
One of Pakistan’s greatest failures is for it not to have invested in its human capital. Against sane advice dispensed by national and foreign experts for decades, it didn’t undertake necessary institutional reforms or generate resources to utilize its enormous human capital.
It’s not too late and Pakistan can still make amends. If successful, it will be able to pull itself out of the issues arising from underdevelopment. This would mean changing the institutional framework, broadening the national resource base and ensuring transparency and accountability of its political and administrative class.
Prior to making the changes, however, there is a need to take stock of the critical forces and policies that have failed Pakistan and its people. What has gone wrong in Pakistan and how can it do better. Such questions have been a matter of debate for the last several years.
Even as the issues persist, the powerful military establishment and the political class continue to indulge in the blame game, pointing fingers at each other for the country’s failure. According to the World Bank report, there are not two but four centers of power or elite groups that have profited from Pakistan’s current policies, and have a vested interest in maintaining the existing state of affairs.
These are: the military, land owners from the political class, the civil administration, and the industrialists. These four groups have a hold on the economic and political power of the state. They abide by self-centered policies which have been pursued for many decades, thereby further strengthening their position. With each catering to their own interests, none are willing to allow any space for reforms.
The military is not willing to change the paradigm of national security giving room to human security, regional connectivity and trade. The civil bureaucracy has stifled all efforts to hold it accountable and break the system of organized corruption from top to bottom. The business industrial class wants to keep the economy informal and retain loopholes for tax evasion and illegal transfer of capital to foreign destinations, while the political class is neck deep in corrupt practices. As a result, the state’s capacity to govern is being held hostage to these vested interests.
Will Pakistan change for the better and will it do so earnestly? That’s a big question and one that places the leadership qualities of PM Khan and his party under the scanner.
One hopes he can take immediate but calculated new and bold measures in order to bring about structural reforms in governance, law, justice, education, and social development. Pakistan has no room left for complacency if it is looking to join the ranks of successful nations with immediate effect.
(Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity (Oxford University Press, 2017). @RasulRais)