Dr Vaqar Ahmed
Published Date: Feb 20, 2012
INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY MUST NOT ROT IN FILE CABINETS: HEAD OF ECONOMIC GROWTH UNIT, SDPI
BR Research:What is the focus of the Sustainable Develop-ment Policy Institute (SDPI)?
Dr Vaqar Ahmed: The SDPI is currently focused towards research, capacity building and advocacy of four types of security in the country: energy, water, food and environmental security.
Within these realms we try to perform push, pull, join and help function of a policy think tank.
While we aim to critically look at policies from a welfare perspective, we also stand ready to help government at any macro sector or even micro initiatives.
We are innovatively looking towards extending the Planning Commission’s goal of pro-poor growth in the country.
In this regard empowering universities particularly their economics (or related social science) departments can play a central role in developing local-area growth strategies which may not only kick start the process of job creation but also provide opportunities for entrepreneurship.
While academia continues to carry out research in isolation there continues to be a disconnection between academia and policy.
There is a significant communication gap between policy makers, academia and practitioners.
Due to this, we have encountered numerous problems in the building consensus around innovative approaches provided in the Framework for Economic Growth or the Tenth Five-Year Plan which was abandoned before its release.
Just getting a couple of economists on the Economic Advisory Council is not working.
Our primary objective over the next few months will be to develop an inventory of research in region-specific comparative advantages.
We aim to collate this information so that duplicity of research and wastage of educational resource can be curtailed.
Many times donor agencies start funding studies on subjects that have already been or are being researched by existing universities or think tanks.
So the idea is to ensure that all the existing and ongoing researches and other studies are collected in a single accessible location.
BRR: How can inclusive policy making come about particularly in making private sector an engine of economic growth?
Dr Vaqar Ahmed: In a recent meeting with universities, one of the vice-chancellors of a leading Islamabad-based university categorically stated that the research being conducted by academia in the country is largely irrelevant to our society.
So, in order to boost research on entrepreneurship, we at SDPI aim to raise funds for academics that are able and willing to carry out research on the economic potential of their localities.
In line with Planning Commission’s growth strategy we are interested in the potential of cities having population above 1 million; however, we remain sensitive to considerations of social justice, sustainability and equity – which certainly go beyond cities.
Then SDPI in collaboration with the Center for International Private Enterprise helps forge links with local chambers of commerce and industry.
We plan to arrange capacity-building programmes for chambers of commerce who are now feeling left out of the policy-making process.
There current view is that while the big boys’ club is represented by the Pakistan Business Council, the voices of small and medium enterprise sector remains unheard.
Such initiatives from SDPI will help them build their case.
The private sector needs to become a partner in the process of inclusive policy making if consensus-based solutions to thorny issues such as energy shortages, Pakistan – India MFN, are desired.
As the private sector is never fully on-board, it so happens so, when we take our recommendations of trade policy reforms to the Economic Co-ordination Committee (ECC), suddenly all sectors in the economy oppose the proposal citing reasons such as loss of jobs.
Many remain unaware that for example liberalising import of intermediate goods, in effect, increases the profit margin of private sector.
Some of the local chambers are very well organised and already have vibrant youth and research wings; such as the Islamabad chamber.
In other places, we have received very encouraging responses from members who want to develop and enhance research in their locality.
In Sialkot and Gujranwala, the private sector has come together to provide many of the services that the government was ineffective in providing.
BRR: Tell us about some of the educational institutions in various cities that you are working in collaboration with?
Dr Vaqar Ahmed: In our engagement with the private sector, we have found many innovative voices.
The academia at Gujarat University, Agriculture University of Faisalabad, University of Sindh-Jamshoro, FC College Lahore among others have taken a lead in generating debate on issues like urban management, local area governance and connectivity.
In the aftermath of the 18th Amendment, it is imperative to have local solutions to local problems and these universities can do exactly this.
Each of these urban centers has a population that rivals that of Hong Kong, Ireland and many other countries of the world.
They need their own home-grown visions and strategies.
If only the academics can be brought into the mainstream of public policy making, then the institutional memory which rots in the file cabinets of public sector can be saved.
We also have to make donors aware of the existence of educational institutions in places like Lasbela and Panjgur – which also host well-qualified professors.
Let’s empower them instead of thinking that we have to personally go over there and conduct research ourselves.
If economic policy formulation is to be grounded at local level then universities and chambers of commerce and industry are windows in this direction.
BRR: In your view what is the role of the provincial governments in empowering locals in terms of policy formulation and implementation?
Dr Vaqar Ahmed: I think that the provincial governments have a long way to go in terms of their own business process reengineering.
The potential of well-meaning initiatives such as 18th Amendment cannot be reaped unless participatory development is not adopted.
The provincial governments need to put in place their own medium-term development framework, develop sectoral key performance indicators and move towards a results-based management.
Both Dr Nadeem Ul Haque and Dr Ishrat Hussain have stressed upon a single most important point which is a prerequisite for implementation of socio-economic policies.
That is to first reform the apparatus that is expected to implement change, ie, civil service.
No sectoral plan can be revamped without the ability and willingness of the bureaucracy.
BRR: Let’s talk about the New Growth Strategy.
There are many hurdles to its implementation.
Where do we go from here?
Dr Vaqar Ahmed: There are some main issues that we can highlight.
First, any such strategy has to be steered from the top.
When we consider international best practices, we can see that Malaysia and Indonesia have embarked on similar quests.
There, the prime minister presides over a review meeting every fortnight where the progress of reforms and not necessarily mega projects only is reported regularly.
Secondly, this has to be a long-term vision.
Growth cannot be targeted with a one- or two-year horizon.
The government has to shift from a reactive mode, to a proactive mode in order to successfully pursue the path of reform.
Finally, the economic managers must know that once in office tough decisions are part of the job.
The Federal Government, regulatory bodies and the provincial governments are not communicating effectively enough to be able to implement a national strategy.
Over the next two or three years we have to develop the relevant systems that can help generate co-operation within the various tiers of administration.
But, again the main push has to come from the top.
There are limits to how much good micro-governance can be sustained without a good macro-governance on top.
After the 18th Amendment Planning Commission’s role must evolve.
It can help provinces in establishing the capacity towards optimal service delivery in social sectors and also help in framing policies that help accumulation of social capital.
The PC should be considered the Prime Minister’s second opinion provider.
So, for example, when a sectoral ministry delivers a proposal, the PM should be able to reach the PC for an assessment of the recommendations that have been tabled to him.
Ultimately and like China’s Planning Commission should be made National Reforms Commission.
The deskwork and firefighting related to expenditures on development projects may be left to the Finance Division.
BRR: In your opinion should provincial capacities be developed in parallel to the Planning Commission now that health, education and other areas have been devolved?
Dr Vaqar Ahmed: Provinces have their own Planning and Development Departments which must be upgraded to embrace the challenge of futuristic development administration.
These departments must identify their provincial and district level predicaments, advance a governance agenda based on local priorities, free up the markets of regulatory distortions, ease private sectors’ entry into policy decision making, improve connectivity between people and places, allow for equitable distribution of resources and power and, finally, embark towards youth engagement – which will remain Pakistan’s greatest potential in future.