Upstream of IMF Creek – Journal


It’s that time of year. When goals, revenue, large-scale manufacturing, taxes, and baselines can be heard all around. The air of studios, talk shows and living rooms echoes Arabs, billions and trillions, with earnest discussions of their significance. Each side has its own set of numbers, its own interpretation and complete belief in its politics and the lies of the other.

Between it all, though, there’s an added sense of urgency. There is an awareness of the crisis we are facing, and for once the crisis is not just an abstract idea. Neighboring Sri Lanka has given us images and stories aplenty of what this “crisis” may look like. But politics, as usual, prevents our leaders from communicating this to the people – because the ruling party is keen to live up to its actor image and the other is so angry at his removal that its version of an apocalyptic scenario is seen as hyperbole.

Between the lines, however, there are enough signs, if one intends to find them. Consider that right now we have two consecutive prime ministers, both of whom were elected, sworn in, and then rushed off to visit “brotherly” countries. And each of them came back and expressed the feeling of humiliation they felt at having to ask for money.

While it may be hard for both of them to admit, Shehbaz Sharif and Imran Khan are on the same page on this issue – those who came before them have rarely expressed such opinions. Are these two just more sensitive or has the welcome given to Pakistanis, who come with the same old wish list, changed? Maybe the hosts don’t bother to hide their eyes anymore. Trips, deferred oil payments and rollovers (different from eye rolling) are nothing new, but the feeling of humiliation is. And what does it tell us about our way of life? Only if someone asked.

Sri Lanka has provided us with many images and stories of what this “crisis” may look like.

Negotiations with the IMF are also becoming more common; it’s not just wealthy businessmen and corny business journalists who endlessly debate the terms the lender of last resort imposes on us, but the rest of us, who in ‘normal’ times would rather buzz on conflicting political parties. The net result is endless (but still meaningless) discussions about conditionalities regarding taxes, the energy sector and Chinese loans.

Because instead of delving into why IMF conditions are such a big deal now when they weren’t before, we’ve personalized the answer. These are individuals. Asad Umar took too long, then he rubbed the IMF people the wrong way; Hafeez Sheikh didn’t care enough to push back; Shaukat Tarin has been back and forth with growth then stabilization, and now Miftah Ismail isn’t trading hard enough.

It’s easier to blame the technocrats than to accept that we’ve come up the stream after dropping the paddle a long time ago. Why admit to structural problems when we can throw everything out of “mismanagement”? The polarized debate about ‘krupt’ (corrupt) and ‘na-ehal’ (incompetent) does us a disservice, but it’s so easy to dwell on it, because it’s easier than accepting that the IMF is just sick of us, coming back again and again and again. And that the US is not interested in calling the IMF and telling them to leave us alone (no, it’s not just because of Imran Khan).

The net result? People are unaware of the difficulties ahead. Political parties have people who realize this but they don’t explain it to the embattled party leadership who want to pull a rabbit out of the hat rather than make hard calls and lose political capital.

Indeed, the behavior of the leadership of our political parties (and others) is quite similar to that of the Queen and her indecisiveness over her favorite son, Prince Andrew’s exile from public life. It looks like the banishment is a done deal, then it reappears in a major event. Likewise, the real moment continues to be delayed, as we only take superficial interest in difficult decisions, but not in actions.

Our focus on exports is a similar blind spot. Because the other issues, in particular, our spending habits are so harsh. We chatter about privatization, but never wonder why the last time we really got rid of big-ticket items was during the Musharraf era. What has happened since? The judicial system, the political system or the juggernaut of accountability? Do we need a military dictator to close the deal? Nobody wants to ask.

The government is bloated and more but no government can afford to stand up to civil servants who forced a pay rise during Covid, and again this year.

And if we just talk frankly about the issue of privatization or wages, we may be able to admit to ourselves that the restructuring will be long and painful. And that will have a political cost and a human cost. It won’t be as easy as changing clothes, but changing homes – with an in-between period when there may be no roof between us and the scorching summer sun. But with elections looming and unstable governments (who are constantly looking over their shoulders), who is going to start the process of displacement? So we continue to live in a house close to collapse.

And can I end by pointing out that even though we can’t stop talking about the absolute necessity of a charter for the economy, it is ironic that all the parties (and other stakeholders) already agree on all the destructive tendencies within. Pay for Pakistan Steel Mills or PIA; give civil servants big raises year after year; let farmland turn into ugly urban sprawl and toothless local governments. No amount of polarization or fighting will ever change the unspoken consensus on this.

The writer is a journalist.

Posted in Dawn, June 14, 2022


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