Home About Momina Writings Achievements Comments Photos

"Shaping the Future of Pakistan"
by Momina Cheema


            The British philosopher Bertrand Russell once remarked, “If one man offers you democracy and another offers you a bag of grain, at what stage of starvation will you prefer the grain to the vote?”  Clearly, before Pakistan can tackle such complex issues as democracy and globalization, it must deal with the most basic concerns of human survival.

            Poverty is the first and foremost challenge Pakistan faces in the 21st century.  More than a third of the population falls below the poverty line.   The infant mortality rate is appalling with nearly 10% of children dying before age 5.  I could go on citing more depressing statistics about the state of human development in Pakistan, but I’ll spare you.  The truth is that Pakistan could easily remedy the abysmal situation if only it looked for answers in the right places.  Pakistan is a country with tremendous human resources.  Today in Pakistan, over 100 intermediary organizations provide vital social services through a network of grassroots groups, and tens of thousands of community based organizations and informal associations of dedicated volunteers are trying to address the basic social needs at the local level.  However, the only way efforts to alleviate poverty can be effective is if the Pakistani government were to direct funding and make widespread conscience efforts at poverty alleviation and infrastructure development.

            Unfortunately, this concept is lost on the Pakistani government which chooses to spend 50% of its GDP on defense and 35% on debt payback, leaving only 15% for human development.  Pakistan’s defense expenditure per capita is twice that of India.  Reducing such inflammatory defense spending would not only bring comfort at home but relieve tensions abroad.  The Pakistani army should be held accountable for every rupee spent.  Transparency, accountability and documentation are essential for the effective reform of GDP spending.  Pakistan has already wasted over $500 billion over the past 55 years in defense expenditure and lost capital investment.  It is now time for real reforms.  The only way Pakistan will overcome the challenge of poverty is to realize that human development is not an idealistic, vague goal but the ultimate key to Pakistan’s survival in the 21st century.

            The second major challenge Pakistan must deal with is illiteracy and pitfalls in the educational system.  As a Muslim country, education ought to be Pakistan’s most valuable societal emphasis.  Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) said, “The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr.” Pakistan should strive to achieve educational peaks.  Currently, 42% of Pakistani men are illiterate and 71% of women cannot read or write.  This seriously impedes the possibility of any progress taking place in the country.  Before democracy or globalization can occur, an educated populace must exist.  The first step to remedying the problem is providing adult literacy programs in both rural and urban areas.  Concentrated efforts must be made to ensure every child has access to basic education.  Government subsidies and educational grants should be provided to those who cannot afford schooling. Reforms must be made to make the educational system more pragmatic and efficient.  Nearly half of the unemployed in Pakistan are educated, proving again the dire need for reforms in the system.

            Part of the problem is the lack of emphasis on vocational and technical training and too much stress on abstract knowledge.  In Pakistan, about 323,000 students pass the matriculation exam yearly.  Out of these students is estimated that over half will choose post-secondary education and only 20% will seek vocational training or business education.  Of those who choose the path to higher education, the majority enter the general bachelor’s and master’s degree programs with little to no career counseling.  Even though higher academic education is easy to obtain in Pakistan, the education does not teach skills that will be marketable in the job market after graduation, thus creating a mismatch between the degrees students earn and the jobs available to them, especially in the private sector.

            Pakistan’s education in the sciences is also wanting.  Pakistani universities granting Bachelor of Science degrees completely ignore post-graduate training. To make matters worse, engineering degrees are emphasized in traditional area like civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, while areas like computer and software engineering, which offer more opportunities, are generally ignored.  To bridge the yawning gap between qualified Pakistanis and the country’s job market, serious steps must be taken to reform the educational system.  Career counseling and guidance, for example, should be provided to youth, so that trained experts can share their knowledge and help steer the next generation to fields that will benefit them and the country.  Vocational/technical training ought to be made available to students so that they can be directed towards training programs and apprenticeships.  Employment in the public sector should not be based on quotas, but rather on merit.  Also, the Pakistani government should conduct labor market surveys to provide students with information about job prospects, labor market requirements and job descriptions.  Armed with this information, students will be able to make better choices for their future.

            Beyond its poverty and educational shortcomings, Pakistan faces a third challenge- revitalizing its economy.  Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times once likened globalization to the sport of the 100 meter dash, because no matter how many times you win the race, you have to get up the next day and race again.  And in this cutthroat globalization race, Pakistan is lagging far behind.  To remedy this situation, Pakistan needs to play by the rules of the sport.  That means taking serious steps to privatize the economy and participate in the free market competition.  Radio and television should be privatized immediately followed by energy, telecommunications, transportation and banking sectors. Full or even partial privatization of WAPDA, PIA, PTCL and other corporations must take place as well.  Now granted this is easier said then done.  Previous government attempts at privatization did not make much headway.  There is always opposition from vested interests.  To overcome this, the government must take all steps to convince Pakistanis that privatization is good for the country.  The Privatization Commission will have to commit to transparency and establish a regulatory framework and track record.

            In order to help strengthen the economic infrastructure, Pakistan must focus attention on attracting potential foreign investors.  The trade balance can be improved by promoting and diversifying Pakistan’s exports.  One thing that Pakistan’s economy desperately lacks is an effective tax system.  The government must deliver services to the taxpayers to justify the collection of taxes; they must show taxpayers what their taxes can buy (education, infrastructure etc).  The struggle to reform and restructure the economy is not an overnight process and will take time, perseverance and political courage.  It will be imperative that this government and successive governments stay on track and maintain efforts in narrowing two key gaps: the external gap between exports and imports and the internal gap between revenue and expenditures.

            It is beyond doubt that strong political leadership and a legitimized political system will be necessary for the success of such reforms.  This brings us to Pakistan’s fourth biggest hurdle: political efficacy.  The first step in political reforms for Pakistan is the eradication of corruption in all areas of the country from the politicians to the judiciary, from the armed forces to the bureaucracy.  Corruption must be eliminated through increased transparency and accountability.  Political reforms in Pakistan also must bring with them judicial sweeps.  Laws must be clearly defined and vaguely worded regulations must be amended.  Swift and inexpensive justice should be made available to every citizen.  The common citizen must be empowered and allowed a voice in the politics of Pakistan.  It is only when the people of the country will be able to democratically take part in the decision-making of the country that a sense of civic duty and political efficacy will be born.  Fair and corruption-free elections must take place at the local and provincial levels before they can take place at the national level.  Efforts need to be taken to mobilize voters and inform them about the candidates’ platforms.  Voting should not be reduced solely to party affiliations but ought to emphasize issues and concerns of the common citizen.  The only way to create a stable government is to legitimize it.  And the only legitimate government is one chosen democratically by the citizens of Pakistan.

            The challenges before Pakistan in the 21st century may seem overbearing.  Poverty, illiteracy, corruption and economic demise are all battles that must be fought and won.  I am without a doubt that Pakistan can overcome these obstacles and become a great nation, for I am reminded of the words of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, who once remarked “Failure is a word unknown to me.”