Some Positive Thinking
By Shahid Javed Burki
I am back in Pakistan for a four-week stay. I have returned after two months to find the country in a very different mood. I am struck this time by the widespread sense of despair and despondency that has engulfed the nation.
It is noticeable everywhere: in newspaper columns, in TV talk shows, in drawing room discussions all over the country. That this is so is not surprising. Even from the standard of Pakistan’s turbulent history, 2007 was an enormously difficult year.
The events that made it so are well known and are the backdrop against which the citizenry has formed its opinions about the country’s current situation and its political and economic prospects. There is a widespread belief that the country is adrift. Some people are speculating that Pakistan as we know it today may not exist for very long; it may break up into smaller autonomous states. Some people believe — wrongly I think — that the major Western powers may favor such a development.
The mood in the country is influencing foreign thinking about Pakistan. In 2007, Newsweek magazine wrote two cover stories on the country. The first appeared early in the year and described Pakistan’s economy in glowing terms. It said that Pakistan was a sleeping economic giant in Asia that was waking up to a very bright future.
The second appeared after the October attack on the convoy in Karachi that was bringing Benazir Bhutto from the airport to the place where she was supposed to address tens of thousands of people who had gathered to welcome her to Karachi. The magazine then called Pakistan the world’s most dangerous place, even worse than Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Jan 5, 2008, The Economist followed the same line of thinking with a cover that had a picture of a ticking bomb. The title called the country ‘the world’s most dangerous place’. The magazine had four stories on Pakistan. It carried Benazir Bhutto’s obituary, had a leading article on the situation in the country, provided a three-page analysis of the problems Pakistan currently faces, and published a review of a book that provided the detailed story of the scientist A.Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation activities.
The magazine’s overall analysis was less sensational than that of Newsweek. Its main conclusion was that the country was not beyond repair. It could be rescued by a move towards democracy. The magazine offered two solutions that would enable democracy to take hold: a fair election and a reliable inquiry into the murder of Benazir Bhutto.
The reason for going over some of the material that is appearing in both the Pakistani and foreign media is to underscore an important point. An excessively negative view of the affairs in Pakistan is hurting the country’s standing in the international capital markets. As I pointed out in my article that appeared in this space on January 22, what is called ‘the country risk’ has increased for Pakistan.
This has not only raised the cost of borrowing in foreign markets — if such borrowing was to be undertaken — it has also made institutions and individuals reluctant to work in the country.
It is hard to measure how that will affect Pakistan’s medium-term economic growth but it will certainly pull it down unless the country’s image begins to improve. To remedy the situation will require a change in the citizen’s perception about where Pakistan is today and where it seems to be going.
In this context, I would like to quote from an interesting letter sent to The Economist by Shreekant Gupta, an Indian who is currently at the Institute of South Asian Studies at Singapore. He writes: “Yes, Pakistan is going through trying times, but is far from being the world’s most dangerous country. Having just returned from Pakistan which I traversed without let or hindrance with my Indian passport and Hindu name, I can say emphatically that its people are warm and friendly and passionate about democracy and the forthcoming elections.”
I am not suggesting that Pakistan is not faced with difficult times and that in some areas the country has gone terribly wrong. I am not saying that criticism about various features of Pakistani society and the failure of the government to provide good governance should be stilled. My point is that what is happening needs to be placed in a proper perspective.
Again, to quote from Gupta: “Parts of my own country (and Nepal and Sri Lanka) are racked by Maoist guerilla warfare and violent separatist movements. I do not recall you designating India as the world’s most dangerous place when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated during electioneering or Indira Gandhi for that matter. The latter’s killing was followed by a brutal and murderous pogrom against Sikhs, and Delhi burned for days. The truth always contains shades of gray.”
It would be helpful for Pakistan’s future if the country’s people began to see things not just in black and white. They need to introduce shades of gray in the way they look at their country. Some months ago, I wrote a series of articles spelling out the positives and negatives about the Pakistani economy. Much of that analysis remains pertinent even though a great deal of a negative has happened. In the past eight years, the country has seen a respectable rate of economic growth, even though the poor have not benefited a great deal.
One of the provinces — Punjab, the largest in the country — has done particularly well. This has been recognized by such aid-giving and development agencies as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. A far- reaching program of decentralization and devolving governance to the local level has been put in place. There are many teething problems with this structure but it will have positive consequences if it is allowed to evolve. Relations with India have measurably improved although the Indians have been less eager to normalize than the Pakistanis.
Pakistan is now on the radar screens of many Arab financial institutions and they are providing much-needed capital to the Pakistani economy. However, some of these investments will pose problems in the future since they will produce returns in rupees that will have to be converted and remitted in foreign currencies. This will put pressure on the already strained external account. In other words, there were many positive developments in the last eight years but each one of them came with some problems.
As Pakistan heads towards a period of political transition, it would be useful to do an accounting of what has happened in the last one decade. The new policymakers who will take office in a few weeks must see the situation not just in black and white but in shades of gray. They should be prepared to continue with the good policies that have been adopted since 1999 while changing those that did not produce satisfactory results. At this time, there is a great deal at stake.
The next few months will be critical for Pakistan’s future. Those who will be placed in positions of power must recognize that they have to work for national good, and not for personal gain. (Courtesy Dawn)