• July 19, 2024

Fool’s perdition

(First published on August 22nd, 2020)

One of my favourite pastimes these days is to see Pakistanis underestimate their country. In a nation given to strong mood swings, this is to be expected. But when the negative perceptions transform into automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) and then these ants waylay you of the will to fight, the battle is lost already.

How many times has it happened that we thought that the country would not recover only to be proven wrong? Only six years ago it felt that terrorism would irreversibly consume us. Businesses, defences, schools, hospitals, places of worship, nothing was safe. And then this country ended its denial and fought back. While the fight is still not over, one can see the qualitative improvement in the law and order situation.

Only a couple of months ago when the Covid infections started skyrocketing it felt like the game was over. A country with this staggering level of undocumented or under-documented poverty was finally struck by an incurable and wasting malaise. But today when the infection rate is steadily falling and the number of recoveries (the actual indicator of the situation in the country), we have started breathing again. Precautions are necessary and we are not out of the woods yet but if the current trend holds, we may soon find ourselves under the clear sky.

There are many ways to approach the matter. The trouble with all of them is that as soon you pick one you run the risk of being labelled. If you take pride in the resilience of the country, you are either a jingoist or deluded. If you point out that many things are still broken, you are either an insufferable pessimist or unpatriotic. Praise the government and you are a sycophant. Criticise the government and you are an incorrigible saboteur. So, what is a person to do?

It is imperative not to succumb to the despair spread by the naysayers. But to live in a fool’s paradise isn’t an option either. The closer we get to objectivity the better it is.

The naysayers come in many shades. There are those who wear their hearts on their sleeves, always quick to judge and dismiss. Then there are those who are genuine victims of change. Good, smart people who were caught off guard on the wrong side of the divide. And finally my personal favourite — those who are fully onboard until thrown overboard. One minute everything is perfect, the next everything is broken beyond repair. Utilitarianism has its utility but past its expiration date, it becomes the butt of a million jokes.

Back to business. When the fundamentals of the economy are badly broken due to decades-long misuse and abuse it is hard to see hope. The government may choose to be optimistic but given that the economy actually contracted during the past financial year, the journey ahead is still long and arduous. If there is a reason not to be overly pessimistic it is that in the IMF and China, the country has two guardian angels. One that is determined to guide you. The other that always has your back. Add to it the commitment of the current finance and economics team to implement its agreements in letter and spirit. Together these three factors can bring the economy back from the brink of the precipice. But the biggest challenge is to keep them working in tandem.

A particularly frustrating aspect of the economy is the investor class’ refusal to diversify or to investigate. For decades our business class has only invested in a few sectors. From textile to property development the list is very short and depressing. What particularly gets to me is the total lack of research and development (R&D). I would have attributed this absence of R&D to the dearth of exposure or funds but clearly, that is not the case. Pakistan has its fair share of the rich and the well connected. This then is either due to the lack of interest or because of the deeply ingrained habit of risk aversion. In either case, this cannot continue for long. The government is rapidly moving towards establishing Special Economic Zones (SEZs). In order to exploit the opportunity, the private sector will have to invest in the unexplored sectors.

Another method to expand the economic scope is to encourage venture capitalism. Governments after governments introduce youth loan schemes but often sheer dumb luck and not pure merit decides who gets the funds. Take the example of the PM’s youth loan scheme during the previous government’s tenure. Young entrepreneurs from across the country were encouraged to submit their proposals and then balloting decided who would get the cash. Imagine if you had come up with a really very unique idea and my start-up was about good old dairy farming there was a good chance I would beat you to it. That is not how new sectors flourish. You need a host of venture capitalist companies operating under a safe regulatory framework to track down and invest in bright new ideas. The government also needs to incentivise business journalism because our oversaturated media covers crime and politics a lot while there is precious little coverage of business and economics.

In international politics too it is the economy which has proven to be our Achilles’ heel. Our neighbour and chief rival in the region, India, is in very bad shape these days. But since it has been developed as a market for decades it is constantly thrown lifelines by the global business community. Just look at the way Google and Facebook have decided to be a part of Reliance’s Jio project and it has forced other competitors like Amazon to double down with investment. The money India makes is used to buy allies (example: Rafale and other defence procurements) and invests heavily in propaganda abroad to create a divided world (example: the US, Australia and the creation of the Quad). Meanwhile, our telecom industry is characterised by an enthusiasm gap. When we find people like Tania Aidrus who understands how to develop the economy in this direction, we do everything within our power to push them out of the system. Our media and intelligentsia are still consumed by the desire to explore a thousand and one reasons not to establish relations with Israel when we could easily redirect this energy towards better pursuits. Those who underestimate this nation’s potential may want you to believe there is no hope but the truth is in a region coloured by Modi’s fanaticism and ignorance you are dealt a very good hand. There are countless opportunities waiting to be explored and survival has its own moral compass. I agree that we should not live in a fool’s paradise. But opting for a fool’s perdition is not a compulsion either.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 22nd, 2020.

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