Poverty, politics and peace – Amir Hussain

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The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

As a social development professional with 15 years of experience in international development, I feel alarmed for the first time in my career to see the rapid deterioration of socioeconomic conditions of Pakistan.

With a Rs10 trillion accumulated budget deficit, Rs1.4 trillion increase in circular debt, Rs2000 billion losses in state run enterprises, and 100 percent increase in commodity price during the last 32 months, there is much to be worried about the future of this country. As a result of this unprecedented economic downturn, the country’s social and political fabric is fraying and could give rise to civil strife.

Such civil strife may spiral out of manageability in that the forces of obscurantism may dominate the political space when mainstream political parties are playing Lilliputian politics at the cost of losing popular support. While the PTI, PML-N and PPP are busy contesting for the coveted space up in the echelons of power, extremists are mobilizing the masses on the streets by employing all means of violence, fear and hope to reconstruct Pakistan in the form of a medieval caliphate.

The most disappointing aspect of this crisis is that the government and the power wielders do not seem to have any strategy to save Pakistan from sliding into the quagmire of Islamic extremism. With this state of affairs, where the country is put on an autoregressive mode, the remaining two years of the current government will be even harder than today for the common citizens of Pakistan.

The recent reports of the IMF on Pakistan’s economy suggest that economic growth for the coming two years will remain somewhere from 1.3 percent to 1.9 percent, provided that the government takes measures to implement the stabilization programme. Given past performance, it looks unlikely that the government will be able to do any wonders on the economic front at least. Pakistani political landscape is changing – rapidly punctuated by mass lynches, intolerance of difference, political victimization of secular forces and reincarnation of political medievalism.

In this situation of doom and gloom, the government and opposition parties must rise above parochial party interests to work for building a broad-based national consensus to strengthen constitutional democracy. While engaging the opposition political parties, the government must simultaneously undertake concrete policy steps with clear and pragmatic action plans in order to avoid the existential crisis and to make the most of its remaining two years in the office. In addition to working for a long-term strategy of strengthening the democratic institutions, the government must undertake the following short- and medium-term steps as policy course correction to demonstrate that it has political will to deliver.

There needs to be a national initiative of providing technical and financial support to improve the quality of delivery mechanisms in the existing public-sector institutions. This will require co-creation of value for human development by facilitating strategic partnerships between parliamentarians, academia, institutions of service delivery and civil society organizations. This will promote evidence-based policy formulation and will improve efficiency and transparency in service delivery. This will also help service delivery organizations in cementing strategic relationships with government departments, ministries, donors, civil society and the media to dislodge cartels or mafias. The government must extend financial and technical assistance to civil society organizations to meet international commitments like SDGs through investment in economically productive poverty alleviation programmes.

The prime minister must form high-caliber multiple teams with the mandate to provide thought leadership to public institutions and civil society organizations of Pakistan in building a peaceful and pluralistic Pakistan. The most viable mode of building a meaningful partnership is to create value for the organizations to work for the long-term strategic objectives of building a democratic polity.

Social cohesion and geographical integrations in Pakistan have always been the key concern of inclusive development amidst widening religious and ethnic divisions as well as economic disparities. These can be addressed through strategic engagements with key drivers of the social and political order and by contextualizing the development strategy with the broad-based objective of building a resilient and inclusive local society. This dynamic way of operating at a policy level and working through local community institutions will help develop strategies and analytical frameworks to bridge the gap between policy and local development.

Part of this strategy must contribute towards building inclusive, peaceful and pluralistic society with centrality of dialogue as a means of attaining social cohesion. The well-functioning and organically linked teams must represent the government whenever necessary on national and international fora effectively in promoting peace, pluralism and harmony. This will help the government break free from a never ending and unyielding anti-corruption obsession to focus on performance to improve public optics.

In addition to strategic engagement, the teams must also be empowered to attract investments, integration of public services, engagement of potential donors and resource mobilization rather than relying on loans. One of the performance yardsticks for these high caliber teams can entail technical support of departments in designing, developing, integrating and implementing development programs in collaboration with the provinces.

Strategic engagements can fully be utilized to cement concrete cross-sectoral relationships with programmatic integration, resource sharing, reducing duplications and finding common goals and translating them into working partnerships. While annual development plans and SDGs provide the framework in the identification of areas of programmatic engagement, it is important to link them with various local initiatives to find a real alignment of goals for a durable and win-win context-specific working relationship.

Establishing and strengthening strategic partnership for peace and social cohesion can be made possible only by constant dialogue and multi-layered clear communication between stakeholders. It would also be important to work around the crowd sourcing of peace funds with the idea of shared responsibility of various stakeholders in the arena of conflict resolution and peace building. Having said that, this will not be possible without strengthening the local governance system and empowering the district government to plan and execute development projects with technical support from high caliber teams.

Local planning support and capacity building of teams go side by side; this will further be strengthened by identifying experts to help the mainstreaming of local programmes. This must be an ongoing effort whereby periodic assessments and evaluation of programmes by high-caliber teams will help build strategic and technical support at a district level in meaningful ways. However, this process should be made less cumbersome and more outcome oriented by engaging a team of experts with well-defined tasks and timelines.

There is a strong correlation between local planning, inclusive development peace, pluralism and – ultimately – poverty alleviation. The pro-people development priorities of the government must be demonstrated through political conviction to establish relevance between development and real life. For instance, a programmatic portfolio pertaining to governance, peace building and conflict prevention can be internalized only by deliberately introducing an organizational discourse that is sensitive to such issues.

It would be easier to mainstream social cohesion, conflict resolution and peace building as principles of integrated development if people started talking about them meaningfully during their daily work. All stakeholders would then consciously work for achieving the goal of peace, justice and strong democratic institutions.