Feb 23, 2009

A question of sincerity

The resounding chant of roti, kapra aur makaan that propelled the PPP towards electoral victory a year ago clearly rings hollow as the socio-economic crises that it banked its campaign on have hardly been addressed, let alone resolved.
True, the scale of inflation, public debt, trust deficit and security breakdown facing Pakistan then was not a joke. And nobody was expecting an overnight miracle from politicians some of whom had criminal records.
What is painful, however, is that one year down the road, the government has exhibited little or no interest in prioritising education reform, an agenda whose absence has successively cost the country in terms of decision-making, investment and tolerance.
Why is education so fundamental to democracy? Economic theories, such as ‘Endogenous Growth’ and ‘O-Ring’, stress heavily on the strong correlation between solid educational investment and sustained growth and development. Real-world analyses by the World Bank and the UNDP verify such postulates. Countries like Japan, Germany and the US bear witness to the progressive power that an educated polity yields.
Having inherited a situation in which Pakistan came under sharp criticism from global players for squandering millions of dollars in aid, it was up to this government to present to both the nation and the world a strong commitment towards education, one that would deliver the goods.
Here is evidence of its ‘sincerity’: soon after assuming power, the then federal minister for education, Ahsan Iqbal, expressed the government’s intention to scrap the autonomy granted to the Higher Education Commission by the previous regime. When that was met with considerable resistance, the statement was cleverly replaced with a shady deal — freeze the HEC’s recurrent grant of Rs8bn.
Agreed there were instances in which the HEC ought to have done more and done better, but was the government’s role to guide it in a better direction or to suppress it altogether? This was akin to a doctor recommending euthanasia while better medicine was available. Three thousand scholars were suddenly left in the lurch.
To justify such crude policymaking, the PPP-led coalition (the Sharifs hadn’t fallen out yet) quoted the alarming seven per cent of GDP Pakistan’s fiscal deficit was consuming, which could only be catered to by drastically cutting down on development expenditure.
To lend credibility to this philosophy, the IMF’s praises were sung and, for once, both the government and the IMF were vying for the same economic reforms, including cuts such as those involving the HEC.
What’s strange, though, is how structural adjustment under the IMF failed in Argentina, Mexico and much of Africa (except Ghana). What’s also strange is how the government felt education could take a hit, but not real estate, agricultural income or the stock market sectors that, if taxed, could amount to significant figures in revenue for the national exchequer.
What’s worrisome now is a recent agreement between the UN and Pakistan to conduct an investigation into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The contention here is not that a political leader of her stature doesn’t deserve a probe into the causes surrounding his/her death, but that her husband did not sanction an autopsy on her body prior to burial, that much of the forensic evidence was washed away, that Scotland Yard was called in and that conflicting reports were issued regarding the nature of her shocking death.
Even now, it will be, at most, a fact-finding exercise. Perhaps the most contentious detail in this investigation will soon become the monumental bill the country is expected to foot, ranging between $40m to $100m according to The New York Times, the UN and other sources.
If it really is ‘the desire of the Pakistani people’ to have this investigation conducted, why not put the question to vote? What else are referendums for, if not to allow citizens of this ‘democratic’ state to consider their priorities? If this is the kind of money this government has, why is education the easiest to compromise on?
In fact, why doesn’t the education ministry even display its budgetary allocation for this year? This government’s idea of good education reforms includes the freeing up of student unions, a weak legal system and undue political influence on campus. If this is the best education can get under a democratic set-up, perhaps even the Cubans and the Chinese are better off.
So what can be done to put things right? Ideally, the government should not wait until the end of the IMF programme to boost education expenditure as a portion of GDP up to at least five per cent. Under the current circumstances, though, it can start by reassuring the HEC that extant programmes will not be threatened.
This may require substantial funding, but the exercise would be a worthy investment in research scholars who will soon
come back home with sound rates of return. In addition, this will be a comparatively cheaper decision compared to the millions of rupees that will be wasted otherwise when many of these students can’t continue to fund their studies abroad. In the meantime, the government should invest in primary education, which research has proven consistently has the highest rates of return.
Above all, the government needs to acknowledge that democracy is truly sustained by the will of the people. If it is honestly in pursuit of the people’s progress, it will have to swallow the bitter pill of introducing a much wider and more controversial tax net to compensate for these necessary expenditures. This policy alone might get it enough bourgeois votes when it’s time for the next elections.

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