Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Pakistan's Untold Story?

Graduation is approaching once again in Ann Arbor, a scary sight for recent alumni. It means that I have been out of college for a full year now, while my co-drivers at the rickshaw have been out of college for 2 years. 2 years is also about the age of our doomed blog, as it was Emad and Umair’s departure from Ann Arbor that prompted us to start this blog, a way to keep in touch and share our views to the world. The idea was to be different, fresh and relevant.

Fast forward 2 years and we are about as relevant as relevant and fresh as Margaret Thatcher. I can’t speak for the other two dimwits who write this blog with me, but personally the biggest challenge has been avoiding the general rhetoric that one sees in oped pages in our newspapers. Everyone has an opinion and thinks that they are right, without quantifying it with research. In an ideal world, I would like to write on things with a solid base of research, but having a job tends to get in the way of that (not to mention I don't write for a newspaper!)

What eventually inspired me to stop procrastinating and start up the rickshaw again was attending a panel discussion in DC about Pakistan, led by none other than our dynamic Finance Minister Dr. Hafeez Sheikh and the new ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman. The title of the discussion was ‘Pakistan: The Untold Story’. Umair happened to accompany me to this particular event, and we both were bemused and frustrated by the level of discussion. The purpose of the event, a small gathering held at the World Bank, was to tell people that it is not all doom and gloom in Pakistan. I thought it was a brilliant idea, get the academic community in DC jazzed about Pakistan, and to get them to look beyond the negativity that surrounds the country. However, what ended up happening was that the Pakistanis on the panel began to paint a picture of sunshine and roses blooming back home - i.e. they took 'positive' to a whole different level.

Let me give you a few examples. When asked “What inspires you about Pakistan”, Dr. Sheikh started with  the most generic and boring answer under the sun (not very inspiring at all). It seemed he was doing his best to put the audience to sleep, and he succeeded as I shit you not, the woman sitting next to me was snoozing 10 minutes into Hafeez sahab opening his mouth. I, however, was well aware of this tactic of the Finance Minister, and used all my training of college to stay alert and attentive to what he was saying. It was rambling about how the poetry of Faaiz inspires him, or some story of a trip of his to Sindh and how that inspired him. One thing that did stick out to me was how he mentioned the “Physics of Prof. Abdus Salaam”. Prof. Salaam of course was the first and only Pakistani to win a Nobel Prize, but has been shunned in history because of being an Ahmadi. It is quite sad how our greatest ever achievement as a nation has been hidden from most of the population because of Prof. Salam’s religious orientation. So to say Prof. Salaam inspires him while he continues to be a part of a government that ignores crimes against Ahmadis is strange.               
Another Pakistani on the panel, Mohsin Khan, was far more entertaining. Somehow he had a British accent even though he grew up in Pakistan and lives in DC, but who am I to judge. Anyway, on to more trivial things like the content of what he was saying; Mohsin sahab is off the opinion that the economy is “booming”. To be a little more fair to Mr. Khan’s comment, he further elaborated by saying the “informal economy” is booming. So basically, the only part of the economy that is booming is the part which we by definition cannot quantify. Even if the informal economy is growing, it is doing little to affect the single most important economic issue in Pakistan: inflation. It’s hard to imagine an economy “booming” with the inflation levels we have. I did agree with Mr. Khan’s point though that we should attempt to formalize the informal sector as part of a broader program of regulation, privatization and increased taxation
However, my favorite performance of the Pakistani trio was Ambassador Rehman. She started off her segment by trying to explain how because she was the least qualified person on the panel, she should get the most time to explain her point of view and tried to make a joke of it. No one really laughed, I think everyone was about as confused as I was. The Ambassador then proceeded to ramble on about so many things that I’m still scratching my head to figure out what she exactly said. At some point she mentioned passing the Sexual Harassment Law, which is a good achievement and worth noting. But other than that, it is extremely hard to track what exactly she was trying to say. The question originally was again, “What inspires you”, and she made.. well.. a mess of it. She also way ran over her time, kept joking about how she was ticking off the moderator, and kept going. The moderator had the last laugh though, Ambassador Rehman was not given the opportunity to speak again (Thank God).
The goras on the panel were a refreshing change I must say. Much better at answering the questions at hand, and Anatol Lievin in particular was very practical about his responses. He talked about the potential in Pakistan, but also about the challenges that lay ahead - something the others missed completely. The one thing all goras brought up that was echoed by our beloved Pakistani panelists was the level of philanthropy in in the country, and how it was unrivaled anywhere in the world. I strongly agree with this point, as Pakistanis as a people have very open hearts, and are always willing to give to a good cause, even the middle income folks struggling to cope with rampant inflation in the country. The problem is a lot of this money is misdirected. If we can better utilize this trait of Pakistani, perhaps get the nation to believe in a system where tax goes to development rather than lining the pockets of the corrupt, we could have something. It was nice to hear though people with experience from all over the world, singling out the philanthropy of Pakistanis as something that inspires them.
At the end of the day, things are bad in Pakistan. Talking about the poetry of Faaiz or the informal economy is not fooling anyone. The level of discussion was poor from the representatives of Pakistan. They were speaking as if the audience was a bunch of rednecks who can’t separate Pakistan from Yemen. That was not the case. The World Bank crowd is trained at identifying bullshit from corrupt nations so that they don’t waste their funding. Hafeez Sheikh in particular gave no reason for anyone to believe things are brighter in Pakistan. The approach, in my view, should have been to recognize the trials facing the country and chart out a plan to tackle them. Instead the focus was on trying to ignore that and point out a few rosy facts about Pakistan. That is the problem with the PPP government. Ask anybody, literally anybody, what they think about their performance in office and without hesitation they will tell you it is utterly awful. However, everyone in the PPP seems to think they have done a damn good job. Sure, they did a few good things, but just about every leadership system in Pakistan minus Zia has done something positive in 4 years of power. If the takeaway is that they are better than Zia, then we are doomed.
This article is a little uncharacteristic for me, as I like optimism, especially about Pakistan. However, the views expressed by Sherry Rehman and Hafeez Sheikh in particular border on denial of the current state of affairs. Problems aren’t fixed by ignoring them. Anyway, that is enough grim stuff for now, it was still fun to get to see policy makers in action while being so far from home, and there were a few good takeaways too. I hope this article gets us on our way, Emad is off from class this summer and will return home so will have more time to write, and my harassing will certainly help him get out of his rut. Umair I see every week, so he better write soon. Those two are far better writers and too intelligent to not have their voices heard.


  1. Informal economies do not provide education, healthcare, vaccination, clean drinking water, law and order and just about everything else that defines a nation. By definition it is "informal" so one opinion about it booming is as good as another observation that it is not. The fact is that the real economy of Pakistan is a mess. Newspapers today report of a 10% "error" in calculation of the GDP for the past 7 years that will change every economic indicator of the country!! Inflation has destroyed the purchasing power of the salaried class, more than a trillion rupees has been borrowed in the current financial year and we are heading into elections requiring a parliamentarian friendly budget. This Government prides itself in being in power for 4 years; time now for it to own up to the mess it has created.

    This is a good article that captured the realities of the inhabitants of this blessed country.

    Sohail Naqvi

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