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Raftaar's recently released report is an excellent analysis of Pakistan's taxation and expenditure problems. While the report offers little new to those already in the economics community, the good thing is that it has managed to compile the key issues at one place in a language which is relatively more accessible to a wider audience than something confined to a handful of policy wonks. Little surprise then, that the report has been covered by a wide range of local and international media, including a column by one of Pakistan's famous cultural critics and satirists.
This is indeed a good step forward, and this column would advise its readers to download the report and read it over the weekend (Come on! One Saturday night can be sacrificed for good social cause). Be that as it may, however, as a body that aims to work on Research and Advocacy for the Advancement of Allied Reforms (hence: Raftaar), a different kind of research needs to be done aside from these quasi-academic pieces.
What is needed is research that is more actionable and local, something to which people can relate to, instead of simply highlighting jargons such as tax-to-GDP or that only 0.3 percent of the population files tax returns. So what is meant by research that is local and inspires action? Well, here are some examples.
For instance, there is a need to estimate how much income tax is collected from different business sectors, what is the potential from each sector (i.e. which sector is the most notorious for tax evasion), and which sector gets the most subsidies on different public services/utilities.
Similarly, there is a need to research on how much tax is collected from each district (or at least major district and/or cities), what the potential is and how much is spent by the government in those districts/cities. Again, research is needed that informs the citizens about which district or city has the most tax evaders. It is this kind of information that ordinary citizens and businessmen can relate to in a much better fashion than tax-to-GDP trends.
While the campaign being run under Raftaars advocacy programme these days is poignant, imagine if you can also have advertisements that show viewers that X industry or Y district/city has the most (estimated number of) tax evaders as against the subsidies or public services they enjoy. That would be an even more powerful and debate-generating message. (See also BR Research column: Towards an effective tax reform project published on December 15, 2014).
Raftaars advertisement campaign should also consider focussing on raising the all important question of whether one should expect the politicians and public officials to clean their slate first before the citizens file taxes or whether the citizens should pay taxes first and then create a demand for reforms.
Knowing the pervasive of corruption and inefficiency in power corridors, it is naive to expect the politicians and the government bureaucracy to turn born-again public servants one sunny morning. Instead, it is the people who need to raise a demand for that change, and morally they can only do so if they are upright tax filers/payers themselves in the first place.
Another important tool for advocacy is to engage directly with the youth and nudge to become drivers for change. Therefore, Raftaar should consider holding BBC-Doha-debate styled events at leading universities all across Pakistan where students, parents and civil society engage in an interactive discourse on the matter and raise the right kind of awareness as well as public pressure (See BR Research column: Youth politics & demographic dividend published on July 10, 2015).
In short, the road to taxation and public service reforms is going to be long and arduous. Raftaar's recent report provides a good spring broad for that journey, but what is also needed is consumer-able research that people can relate to much more closely - research that can be tweeted, shared on Facebook in major local languages. And its advocacy campaign has to go beyond advertisements and engage directly with the youth. May Raftaar find speed!


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