Pakistan’s political economy

Fatima Irshad: 

After all, we have a massively sized young population, which should provide a huge market for consumer goods as well as a large labour force that could be productively employed, representing what is generally referred to as the ‘demographic dividend’. A large irrigation system, the recent upgrading of telecommunication and internet facilities (mobile technology) and an expanded network of roads could become strategic drivers of growth and employment. They could improve mobility and productivity of this workforce, thereby pushing up the economy to a higher and sustainable development path.
With such foundations and key developments are there any reasons to worry about the possibility of this youth becoming our demographic nightmare, threatening national unity and social cohesion? Despite widely assumed ‘game changer ‘role of the CPEC, there are several structural and institutional factors constraining the fulfilment of the potential of the above-mentioned fundamentals and other strengths of economy. A self-serving ‘rentier’ elite that has spawned and accepted, if not actively supported, poor quality governance. This is reflected in an inept political leadership, nurturing dysfunctional systems and institutions debilitated by political and interest group interference, patronage and non-merit appointments.
All function under the overarching paradigm of a ‘security state’. The ranks of the traditional landed and business elites have over time been corrupted by entry of land and real estate interests as a result of a burgeoning urban population, aided largely by outdated government building and zoning regulations and partly by politicians and bureaucrats becoming direct or indirect stakeholders in real estate development.
Consequently, society has assimilated the political, social and cultural values of a structure rooted in personal relations, nepotism and patronage and violation of laws. The state has become a hostage to these interest groups and their perceptions on how Pakistan’s political, bureaucratic and economic formations should be organised. These structures and lobbies have become so entrenched that balancing competing interests and negotiating ‘compromises’ has become extremely complex and time- and energy-consuming, resulting in fundamental structural constraints remaining unaddressed while continuing to act as a drag on economic growth.
Successive governments have been rendered broke by inadequate tax revenue mobilisation owing to rampant evasion, continued protection and promotion of elite privileges and crony capitalism and a large and growing burden of debt and subsidies. Additionally, there is poor prioritisation of recurrent expenditures with bloated, but limited capability, a workforce that shirks its responsibilities but absorbs a significant proportion of the budget, weak selection and design of development projects and non-transparent, discretion-laden policy and regulatory frameworks.
The full realisation of the potential of the youth, by giving them a stake in the country’s pattern of growth and providing them with meaningful and productive job opportunities, has been obstructed by the poor quality of education and technical skills imparted by state institutions. Secondary education is generally regarded as the minimum requirement for many jobs. But 45pc of the children drop out before completing the fifth grade, partly for economic reasons but largely because of non-functioning schools and the generally poor quality of schooling in public-sector institutions.
Can a new political dispensation and a new set of political actors enter such a system and execute a formidable agenda of essential reforms? The likelihood of such an outcome rather looks bleak.
* The writer is freelance columnist based in Karachi.