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EDITORIAL: Funds are the scarcest thing these days, especially development funds, which is why Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal is understandably upset at members of a high-level inter-ministerial level task force on multilateral development finance for being quite literally asleep at the wheel.

It turns out that there’s at least $3 billion available in multilateral funding but none of it is being used because the task force hasn’t held any meeting or done much work in the one year since its inception. News reports say that the minister, co-chairing a meeting of the said force, gave its members a piece of his mind because the presentations made were not “impactful, bankable and strategically important” enough.

It’s also noteworthy that the co-chair, Minister for Economic Affairs Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, shared a monitoring report that highlighted 31 problematic areas for foreign-funded projects, which were wasting a lot of money on account of commitment charges and cost-overruns.

That makes it a dual problem of coming up with projects that will justify the exogenous injection and also making sure they don’t break down midway. So far the only projects that have been suggested — ones that were shot down in the meeting for not being workable — related to sustainable agriculture, human development and digitisation. That just goes to show how much time has already been wasted because even top-level committees are incapable of doing the work assigned to them.

Surely, such lapses merit more than just a rap on the knuckles. People holding senior positions in ministries and government service ought to understand better than the common man just how desperate the country’s situation has become.

Ensuring sustainable agriculture is one of the biggest dilemmas facing the government. And one of the biggest problems is that there just isn’t enough money to get much done. Yet here we stand, with $3 billion hung out to dry because nobody’s bothered when the whole country is bending over backwards to get just $1.7 billion out of the IMF. And aren’t our failures in addressing human development and falling behind the rest of the fast-digitising world responsible for a lot of our bigger problems?

Also, while the minister’s concern is appreciated, his solution is little more than a knee-jerk reaction. Because he now expects the whole task force to pull its socks up and come back with “impactful, bankable and strategically important” ideas in just a few days.

This isn’t his first ministry, nor is he any stranger to the slow-motion progress of government work, especially when you have to literally drag people to their jobs, so why does he expect things to improve so dramatically in such short time? It would be better to sort this team out, create a new one if need be, then give it strict targets and ensure real-time evaluation.

It’s not just about using the money that is out there. It’s also about making visible on-ground changes that will make way for more multilateral funding which Pakistan needs more desperately and urgently than anything else right now.

But if the government itself is not bothered enough to give such things the priority they deserve, then it will be guilty of the greatest crime in basic economics — suboptimal utilisation of limited resources. And even though all recent administrations have been equally guilty, the electorate has no choice but to drop the axe on the incumbent. If that won’t shake the government out of its slumber, then nothing will.

The planning minister was on top of his game this time. But there’s no telling how many more opportunities have gone begging, and how many more will in the future. Now the government must not only look for more funds, but also look for the ones in the bank that are not being tapped.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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