ISLAMABAD: The most important challenge that Islamabad’s new government will need to tackle is not the twin deficits, which refers to a combination of fiscal and current account deficits, but the human deficit that reflects a sheer lack of competent and capable economic managers in Islamabad.
An International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout package or bailout from friendly countries may help overcome the financial deficit, but no external force can help in overcoming the human deficit.
In his latest article, Ishrat Husain, the former governor of State Bank of Pakistan, rightly recommends the need for opening up the recruitment process for economists and officers of planning and development boards to attract the best possible talent. This recommendation holds the key to a good start, not just in Islamabad, but in all provincial capitals.
However, as the economic policymaking is largely concentrated in Islamabad, it is vital to start on the right chord.
People first, policies later
Even before the new government announces any new policies, it must exhibit seriousness by making key appointments in all economic ministries. These ministries include finance, energy, telecommunication, planning and development, commerce and industries while other important divisions include the Privatisation Commission, Pakistan Bureau of Statistics and Board of Investment.
The government must also pay equal attention to all regulators such as the Competition Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. These institutions define the linchpin of economic governance. In each of the important economic ministries, the government should ensure appointment of secretaries and additional secretaries on a contractual basis, offering them security of contracts as well as performance-based evaluation.
As a matter of fact, the PTI manifesto also promises to introduce lateral entry of competent professionals into civil service. This has been practiced already in a number of ministries, but normally these officers are assigned peripheral jobs while the CSP cadre tightly controls decision-making. It is time to change this practice.
In a recent interview, Asad Umar has spoken about a wealth fund under which all state-owned enterprises (SOEs) will be parked.
Consistent with this intent, the government should move to form, on the pattern of Malaysia, a Khazanah, while taking all state-owned companies away from the clutches of ministries.
These ministries have offered greatest resistance to privatisation efforts in the past as these companies provided platforms for rent-seeking. Consistent with its manifesto, the PTI should announce a new ownership policy, defining criteria of performance for all SOEs and publish their accounts on a regular basis. Under this policy, the government should appoint ownership managers as CEOs for all such state-owned companies. These managers will report to the department of SOEs, instead of line ministries. The department itself can be given the mandate of overhaul, reforms and improving efficiency.
The government must identify at least 100 overseas Pakistanis in major economies of the world and appoint them as trade diplomats on a contractual basis.
These diplomats, appointed on the basis of their knowledge and network in respective countries, will play a key role in opening up markets and identifying opportunities for Pakistani industrialists and exporters.
Some of the existing trade attaches may also be selected for this job, however, in most cases the government will have to do a fresh hiring. How can an officer of the Foreign Service, or any other service for that matter, gain knowledge of economic opportunities in other countries while he has initially served in Pakistan or in other countries.
For example, a trade diplomat in the US should be a US-based Pakistani or Pakistani origin who can mobilise his or her network for these opportunities.
An officer sent from Pakistan, no matter how much competent he or she is, cannot acquire necessary knowledge of business and market conditions just on theoretical knowledge.
Pakistan has introduced innovative, well-designed and well-meaning policies in the past. However, the mandate of implementation of these policies was mostly given to the same officials, who, for lack of competency or integrity, or both, proved to be major stumbling blocks.
I am very sure that the PTI leadership will also have a set of similar policies in its ammunition, but the lack of human deficit has created an institutional deficit.
Unless this deficit is addressed on a priority basis, Pakistan cannot come out of its quagmire.
The writer is the founder of PRIME Institute, an independent think tank based in Islamabad
(This news/article originally appeared in The Express Tribune on August 6th, 2018)