We are usually too quick to point out other people’s faults, ignoring our own shortcomings and mistakes. And we may speak in judgmental ways. Sometimes, we do that purposely and at other times it is unwittingly, as we develop our own way of communicating. Recently, a friend of a friend reminded me of this as she had a habit of disagreeing with what others said. If somebody said that her dress had a beautiful pattern with circles and curves, she might say: “But it also has squares and stripes.” Or, if somebody said that a particular organisation did good work in a specific field, she might add: “But it is not the only organisation that does that.” I found the dinner conversation quite intriguing. First, I thought my Norwegian countrywoman was unwilling to listen positively to others, or maybe she was a bit arrogant, but it could just as well have been that she was uncertain of herself. And since I didn’t quite know what to make of it, I just concluded that she had developed her own way of conversing and trying to gain respect and get people to listen to her, effective or not.
Obviously, I too can easily find budget lines I don’t like, such as that some 40 percent goes to debt-servicing (and half of the debt was obtained on the current government’s watch). It is also sad that a quarter of the budget goes to the military (and then there are pension expenses hidden somewhere else). Miniscule amounts go to health and education, the two areas that in most developed countries take most of the government’s expenditures. Health and social services always become a headache for the governments in the West since the budgets keep growing, partly caused by aging populations. Yet, if I were the Finance Minister I would rather like to worry about those fields than about how to fund the army and service the debt!
But can any government change much of this, not to speak of any talk show host or newspaper columnist? No, not at all, at least not in the short run! It may be our duty to point out shortcomings, but without presenting ourselves as if we know everything better than those in the positions of responsibility. We should rather try to analyse and argue in a way that may help create an understanding and shed light on issues, and look for long-term change because that too is possible and necessary. So let me try!
First, I believe that this government, or any government, does not have much waggling room because of the two mentioned budget posts of defence and debt-servicing. They cannot do much with the debt in the short run, and on top of it they borrow a lot this year, too. They could begin to reduce the military expenditure, but then, it being a state within the state, it is going to take time. And what would America say? They can increase taxes so that the upper classes also pay, but they too are a state within the state, resisting and obstructing change. Thus, that too will take time, without which, however, social development budgets will not see the light of the day in Pakistan, such budgets that would be ‘people’s budgets’, helping the common man and woman to get a fairer share in society and a better life.
I believe it is a fact that it is only the government that can protect and work for the interest of ordinary people. But then they – the people - must first elect leaders and representatives that do indeed represent their interests. In Pakistan, it is important that ordinary people organise themselves much better than today, in grassroots organisations, labour unions, interest organisations, political groups and parties, and so on. I also hope that at least some of the educated middle class can join hands with the majority of the poor working class to work for the type of change that in the long run will benefit all. And I hope that social scientists and other researchers will set aside time and expertise to help understand issues and find solutions. Yes, because that is also a fact: nobody knows how to find the practical solutions. We would claim we know where we should go, but what strategy to use to reach there is another question altogether. And, how should the ‘new budget’ really have been to be a more social budget, under the current economic circumstances? That isn’t that easy to say. Or is it?
Any government in the world must conduce to make private sector development as good as possible. After all, even in countries with more socialist oriented economies, it is the private sector that is the backbone of the economy. The government must regulate the private sector and collect taxes, in turn, to be used for services, but it must first make development possible that requires good infrastructure and rules for business. It means fair systems for trade and industry and other productive sectors in the domestic and international markets.
Duties, taxes and other regulations must be such that it enhances activities at home. Sometimes subsidies must be used to promote development in specific areas. Communication, such as roads and railways, must be built and maintained. Other infrastructure, such as electricity, water supply, etc, must be made available for the private sector, the government and the people. Pakistan and most other countries are blessed with important natural resources, such as gas and other minerals, timber, and so on, and it is the government’s responsibility to engage in fair agreements with the private sector, i.e. local and foreign companies, for exploration and production. Agreements must always take into account benefits of the people in the local areas where natural resources are located, and the regional and national interests.
Good governments coordinate all this in dialogue with the people and institutions in the country. Many issues must be debated by parliamentarians and representatives of other organisations. But it is the civil service with experts, researchers, universities and so on, which implement most of the work through the private sector. Only rarely, will government companies be able to implement work, save for in defence and security, and in some other limited fields. But the government can own shares in companies, and also be the major shareholders, but it must let such companies be run as other private companies.
My own main field of professional competence is development education. I am always surprised that no Pakistani government finds education important enough for major investment. Higher education gets something in this year’s budget too, but the lower levels certainly also require major investments. Maybe, the pressure groups for education do not do enough for this to happen? Perhaps, the middle class parents should have helped improved the government schools, instead of surrendering to the private schools?
A national budget is presented once a year in all countries of the world (well, maybe, some still have five-year plans, which is not a bad idea). But we should not only reflect on allocations to the sectors and the specific budget lines; we should also reflect on the broader issues, as I have tried to do in this article. A budget is less economics and numbers than we make it to be. A budget is based on theories, ideals, wishes and plans. It is to a major extent based on values and group interests. And then again, I believe we should be firm, but yet mild when we criticise a budget and the government that has presented it. We should first and foremost consider the foundation it is built on and its broad effects, if it takes us in the right direction.
At the same time, we should also be humble in our criticism because a budget is also built on imperfect analyses, conflicting interests, pressure and loyalty from various groups, and so on. True, there may also be self-interest, especially before an upcoming election. But a sitting government, if it again wins the election, must also have taken into account that it will reap what it has sawn!
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.