In reality, there was no expectation that the government of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) was going to do more than make some broad-brush strokes in its first hundred days. It inherited a mess of such complexity that there was no single solution to the many problems, and the chances of seeing real improvement that is structural and sustained across all sectors may be as much as two years away. The proverbial slack therefore has to be cut, but that is a time-limited option and time is running out.
Pakistan needs money, a lot of money, and it has few internal resources to draw on. China and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have both been tapped in the early days and the response in both cases has been to a degree equivocal. The Chinese have made it very clear that they want to see changes and that there is going to be no handover in the near term of bags of cash. The KSA is a long-term friend but has its own geopolitical preoccupations beyond Pakistan. And then there is the IMF. There is always the IMF. But the IMF this time around are not unlike the Chinese – they want to see changes in the way that business is done that are going to be politically painful.
Thus Pakistan has been massaging its contacts with other erstwhile supporters, principally among the European countries. Why so? To seek European support for the upcoming application to the IMF is why. There is also the matter of ‘stolen assets’ – money that the PTI has long alleged has been ‘looted’ over many years from the national exchequer. The evidence for this is sketchy, and if it exists at all the most likely place for it to be found is in the European states including Switzerland. The message for Europe is that Pakistan is no longer being run by a suave and urbane group of licensed bandits and is in safe(er) hands. Maybe so said the EU ambassadors – note that the EU has four members on the IMF board – but there were criticisms of how Pakistan handled devaluation and concerns which had been expressed internally by businesses about the free trade agreement with China.
Amidst the to and fro there is a deep and rarely discussed issue – that of maturity and competence in the PTI government and the apparent tendency to make policy on the back of an envelope with insufficient understanding of the relationship between actions and consequences. An example of this is the latest bailout of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) which has been handed a Rs17 billion package to keep it flying for another two months. This is no more than a repetition of past mistakes by successive governments and will have done nothing to allay the uncertainties of those that observe national money management from the outside – including the IMF and the EU. The optics are all wrong when viewed from their end of the telescope.
Pakistan is not so broke that it cannot be fixed, but there needs to be more integration of detail work and big-picture management. Bodies of competence need to be identified that have the delegated powers to find the fixes and implement them. Those competencies do exist nationally, but they are not being deployed to best effect. And the clock is ticking.