EDITORIAL: Pakistan Institute of Development Economics’ (PIDE’s) two-day conference ‘Research for Social Transformation and Advancement’ (Rasta) provided much food for thought for policymakers and also made at least one startling revelation. It turns out that sludge, which is defined as ‘unjustified frictions that make it difficult for people to achieve what they want, frictions that make processes unnecessarily difficult, and unwarranted interaction between citizens and public institutions’, at the national level costs the country about 39 percent of GDP. It’s about time somebody put in the necessary work to quantify such things, and it is indeed admirable that PIDE has taken this first step — by calculating things like time consumed, costs involved, including psychological costs — and it is no surprise that the result is shocking.
It’s not that nobody knew about this issue, of course. The problem is that nothing has been done to even begin solving it and all sorts of official procedure, especially where the bureaucracy is involved, continues to be the very definition of inefficiency. Toss anything to the esteemed civil service and count on it to get buried in its endless web of committees and sub-committees soon enough. It gets more difficult whenever the public has to interact with this bunch, especially businesses eager to get off the ground, because then not just the part about rent-seeking, but also downright naked corruption comes into play and doesn’t go away. To think that the state ensures lavish, privileged lifestyles for a giant fleet of bureaucrats who exist for little more than putting layers between procedural layers, and nobody’s been able to do anything about it, is enough to tell us why we’re still struggling to march forward.
One of the research papers also explained that Pakistan is among countries with the highest share of elected political dynasties in parliament — more than 50 percent — and that there’s plenty of data to confirm that districts where these dynasties are elected do not perform, in terms of local economic development, as well as districts where the lesser privileged come to power. This issue has also been discussed and debated for quite a while, yet here we are; and those same dynasties are on the verge of staging another spectacular return to power. There were also very smart recommendations about documenting the street economy (SE) and the vender (khoka) model, that employ millions of people across the country, but the system is just too paralysed to move forward.
At such times fresh research is all the more important. And since this is the age of data, PIDE’s efforts must be appreciated because it provides a platform where modern knowledge can analyse lingering problems. Dr Nadeem-ul-Haque, vice chancellor of PIDE, has been crying hoarse about replacing the sarkari file-cabinet model with modern digital technology since his days as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission in the Musharraf years. And also about transforming Pakistan’s urban centres into modern cities by taking prime real estate away from dead official use and using it to generate wealth. Such steps are necessary to check unnecessary leaks.
If the state’s own official procedure shaves a good 40 percent off GDP, and political dynasties continue to eat off the fat of the land, on top of the billions upon billions lost to SOEs and things like the circular debt, then the need to save every penny that can be saved is greater than ever. Sadly, no Pakistani government has done what needs to be done so far. Even the odd desperate research that does come out and discusses available options is, more often than not, the result of private initiative. Otherwise the positions that must prompt such research require nothing more than just holding meetings to continue drawing the salary and marching onto the next promotion.
The system is downright inefficient, and that breeds corruption. And far too much time has already been lost in talking about these things instead of addressing them like we mean it.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2022