The much-needed space for growth reforms


I am writing only to clarify economic reforms and their role in our society. I have no issue with any other agenda in the country. A reporter from an English daily called me and told me that I was scheduled to talk against the nuclear programme at the National Defence University (NDU) on 26 December. I told him the factual position that I had scheduled a conference at NDU on the said date on the Planning Commission’s (PC) New Growth Framework (NGF). The conference had been cancelled because NDU felt attendance might be weak given the end of year holidays.

The NGF which was adopted by the National Economic Council last June needed a national discussion to develop understanding and ownership. For that the PC had arranged about 20 conferences around the country with a simple message that growth and development requires strong national effort and a large measure of economic reforms in coming years. Conferences in various universities and chambers, in our view, were necessary for us to debate reform and development issues for a better mutual shaping of a national agenda.

I also told him that society at large and the media seem to be uninterested in reforms, economic development and growth. The media needs to give more attention to these issues alongside security and other issues. Unless a society takes interest in reforms, they will not happen. Pakistani intellectual space, which is fuelled daily by the media, is too preoccupied with issues other than economic development. Because of this, economic reforms remain little understood. Unless this changes, there will be no economic development in the coming years. I also clarified that the PC never discussed defence or nuclear issues. Our focus is on economic development. Our NGF is focussed on economic reforms which are constraining growth and development. It clearly identifies areas of reforms that can allow productivity and economic growth. Such economic reforms can happen without large doses of public investment. As someone who has written extensively on Pakistan, I have never written on issues of defence or nuclear for the simple reason that my analysis suggests that countries can choose their own levels of defence provided they allow serious forces of economic growth and development to be unleashed.

NGF argues that our lack of development is not because of a lack of resources but because of a lack of reforms. Pakistan is not growing and developing because we as a people do not accept change. To make this change we need a national discussion. My efforts have been to make that national discussion happen. That is why we at the PC went to universities at Lasbella, Karachi, Gujranwalla, Jamshoro, Abbtabad, Peshawar, Lahore and Isamabad among others.

People need to understand what the continued low rankings of Pakistan in global indicators such as “competitiveness” and “cost of doing business” means. Our analysis clearly shows that while we are focussing on developing hard infrastructure, our efforts at developing “economic software” (governance, management) are coming up severely short. All indicators suggest that our assets such as Railways, PIA, educational institutions, power generation and irrigation can all be managed better for increased productivity, increased growth and more employment. The NGF places strong emphasis on this “software” development. These are complex reforms involving all tiers of government and society and they need much research and discussion.

The international growth experience illustrates the power of vibrant and creative cities that foster entrepreneurship and are ever changing. Such cities are densely populated, allow for high-rise and mixed use construction, and discourage excessive reliance on cars. Cities so configured have been shown to increase individual and national productivity, and foster creativity and entrepreneurship. Our cities are highly over-regulated to be the opposite of what this international evidence is suggesting. We would like all of us to debate this difference. Making such modern, dense, mixed use and walk-able cities will unleash construction activity that could buoy employment and growth for years. The economy surely needs this flip; the youth needs employment. Our cities also need more community and public space where creativity and commerce abound. Why does this new thinking must now permeate our city management? Once again, a software issue.

Why should such reforms not get media space? Whose fault is this? I keep telling the media that our mindset is not the result of the policy or views of any one government. I know they want a headline against the current establishment. Consequently, I tell them that all governments regardless of creed and origin have avoided serious governance/civil service reforms. All have failed to change the paradigm on market competition. No government has attempted to use public service delivery to underpin our governance approach. No government has reviewed our current approach of urban development that fairs a sprawl. This government has adopted the NGF which is taking up these issues. Let the media review the NGF. But then why blame governments? Society also unveils its preferences through discussion and debate. Our intellectuals’ efforts, evident in the media, display little interest in these crucial issues. Countries seeking development spend a far larger proportion of their public debate on crucial development issues than we do.

We must learn from the rest of the world and change. For development we look only at stray whimsical infrastructure projects while others have understood that development happens with quality policies and programmes for lowering transaction costs and improving public service delivery. The NGF argues for results based governance as opposed to our current input/project based governance. These are deep reforms requiring much thought and research. Will the media be interested? Will society at large take an interest in this? I hope you appreciate why I am deeply absorbed in growth reforms and development and have no time to worry about other agendas. I argue only for space for growth reforms and development without trying to pull down other agendas.

The writer is Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission.