Published Date: Jan 13, 2012
THE ILLEGAL ECONOMY IS DIFFERENT FROM THE INFORMAL, TAX-EVADING ECONOMY: EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, SPDI
Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri is a social policy analyst and development practitioner based in Islamabad.
Since 2007 he has been serving as executive director of leading Pakistani think-tank “Sustainable Development Policy Institute”.
Dr Suleri earned his doctorate in food security from University of Greenwich, UK, in 2001.
Dr Suleri is a regular contributor to national and international newspapers, and is serving on various policy formulating fora in South Asia.
He is part of Planning Commission’s task forces on climate change and social sector development.
He chairs the finance & audit committee on PSO’s board of management.
BR Research: Please take us through the history and role of the SDPI.
Abid Qaiyum Suleri: SDPI was founded in August 1992 on the recommendation of the “Pakistan National Conservation Strategy”.
This highly acclaimed document, approved by the federal cabinet in March 1992, outlined the need for an independent, non-profit organisation to serve as a source of expertise for policy analysis and development, policy intervention, and policy and programme advisory services.
SDPI’s mandate is to provide policy advice and conduct policy-oriented research and advocacy from a broad, multi-disciplinary perspective.
To us, “sustainable development” is central in promoting the implementation of policies, programmes, laws and regulations.
SDPI actively engages with the civil society and facilitates their interactions with the government.
The research findings and public education are disseminated through media, conferences, seminars, lectures, publications and curricula development.
SDPI, in a way, contributes to building up national research capacity and infrastructure.
In a nut shell, the research programme at SDPI drives three main activities: policy advice, advocacy and training.
The institute is a going concern: professionals come and go, but the institution keeps on functioning.
BRR: What differentiates SDPI from so many other non-government, non-profit organisations in the capital?
AQS: SDPI is an independent, self-sustaining policy think-tank.
We have never received any grant or endowment from any donor including the government of Pakistan.
We do not receive endowments or grants, but provide our intellectual services to various bilateral development agencies and UN organisations.
It was only last year that we won a very prestigious competitive award from IDRC (think tank Initiative).
SDPI is one of the 16 think tanks in South Asia which were selected for this award.
This award would cover our activities amounting to 20 percent of our annual budget for four years.
Our funding streams include partners like IDRC, DFID, Royal Norwegian Embassy and various UN agencies who approach SDPI for conducting paid research in our specialised, selected areas.
SDPI is picky and choosy in selecting research projects, as it is important for us to maintain our independence, credibility and positioning.
We’re perceived as an independent think-tank, and there’s some cost we have to pay for it.
For instance, as a norm we do not do projects for Brettonwood institutes as well as USAID.
Likewise we work with Government of Pakistan but not for Government of Pakistan.
This norm helps in taking research based positions such as favouring “Valued Added Tax” or “Power Sector Reforms” without the risk of us being labelled as a think-tank that takes position to please its funders.
You have to understand that we are not a bunch of activists.
As researchers, we are diagnosing and prescribing all the time.
We do take positions and stances based on our research findings, but we are also flexible and open to changing our point of view in case evidence changes or new facts come to light.
BRR: Where do the policy guidelines come from?
AQS: I must say that SDPI’s “Board of Governors” allows a huge amount of academic independence to the organisation.
The board itself consists of distinguished individuals from numerous disciplines, including economics, law, community development, political science, social sciences, finance, business and industry, engineering, science and technology.
BRR: How does the SDPI function?
AQS: SDPI has a unique modus operandi.
We have both regular and visiting fellows.
Physical presence of visiting fellows is not required.
Presently, we have five residential fellows and seven visiting fellows.
Our total headcount, both regular and contractual, sums up to around 100.
Around 40 of them are hardcore researchers.
Others work in policy outreach, training, HR, WebTV, admin, finance and MIS departments.
BRR: Please tell us about your upcoming research projects?
AQS: Very soon, we are going to launch our report on “Illegal economy in Pakistan”, in collaboration with UNODC.
The “illegal economy” is different from the informal, tax-evading economy.
In this project, we looked at drugs trafficking, human trafficking, arms and ammunitions, illegal timber, and kidnappings for ransom.
Pakistan is uniquely placed in the crime and illegal economy nexus due to its proximity with Afghanistan which is source for more than 90 percent of the world opium.
We are both a victim and transit route for drug trafficking from Afghanistan to the world and precursors from the world to Afghanistan.
Since it’s first of its kind research, quantitative estimates of various crimes are necessarily imprecise but good enough to provide volume of their magnitude.
Salient findings of the report are: almost 40 percent of the heroin produced in Afghanistan is trafficked through Pakistan.
Street prices of drugs in Pakistan are just small percentage of the total value in international markets.
The value of precursors is small in world, but, its smuggling in Afghanistan is potentially more profitable than trafficking opium in the world.
Similarly, unlike many other countries of the region, in Pakistan, human trafficking is negligible in occurrence while incidence of human smuggling is very high.
Similarly, report mentions that $2 billion worth of arms which were meant to transit through Pakistan to Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, 70 percent of these never made into Afghanistan.
The report is being launched in Islamabad during last week of January.
BRR: What else are you working on?
AQS: We have identified some very interesting research areas.
We’re exploring the issue, if industries are closing down, inflation is in double-digits and poverty is pervasive, then how is it possible that money in circulation is increasing and people are spending more than they were three, four years back.
We are also assessing the change in magnitude of “need-based corruption” with the rise in inflation.
We are also working on gauging the impact of global financial crisis on South Asia.
Then we are looking at the impact of 2008 SBA with IMF on Pakistan’s economy.
In the education sector, we are assessing the impact of discrimination due to religious, sectarian and personal beliefs on quality of education.
We are also working on a project which assesses post-conflict economic development in the restive areas of Pakistan.
We have seen that there is a marked difference in perceptions held by the donor agencies, implementing agencies and affected people on the ground.
Our hypothesis is that every area has different economic dynamics and local livelihood patterns have to be understood to bring things to normalcy in turbulent areas.
For instance, training for refrigerator repair wouldn’t mean much if electricity is not there.
BRR: SDPI also has an in-house training programme.
What are the focal areas of training?
AQS: The purpose of training is to produce a cadre of people who may catalyse transition to sustainable development in Pakistan.
SDPI has an in-house “Centre for Capacity Building”, where training courses on trans-disciplinary issues are conducted by SDPI’s senior and mid-career researchers, as well as resource persons from specialised fields.
These courses strengthen associated networks and lead to subsequent collaboration among the public, private and NGO sectors, in addition to partner institutions.
Each year, the CCB prepares and implements a calendar consisting of about 25 to 30 short and specialised research courses.
Since 1998, when it was first set up, the CCB has trained more than 6,000 individuals, including over 1,000 women.
More than 215 organisations and partners have benefited from its trainings/workshops.
In addition to this, the CCB is bringing in another innovation through supporting SZABIST in developing curriculum for their Masters programme in Sustainable Development.
BRR: In closing ceremony of the 14th Sustainable Development Conference held in Islamabad last month, SDPI launched its WebTV.
What is the vision behind this project?
AQS: This alternative media project, called as SDTV (Sustainable Development Television) has immense future four to five years down the road as its purpose is to highlight social sector issues.
We would like to position SDTV in the league of satellite channels like NatGeo and Discovery, and not just another current affairs or news channel.
Presently, SDTV live streams the lectures, seminars and conferences organised by SDPI and its partner organisations.
We are going to establish a studio for 24/7 live transmission, and we are also planning to bring talk shows on the channel.
BRR: Since, you are a specialist in food security yourself, how do you view the issue of food insecurity in Pakistan?
AQS: Unfortunately, the concept of food security is misunderstood in Pakistan.
Food security goes much beyond mere self-sufficiency in production.
One also needs socio-economic access and adequate utilisation.
In addition to this, access to clean drinking water, health services, sanitation facilities, and balanced diet, all are important for food security.
The dietary culture of a region has to be understood as only a balanced diet can help the body to function at an optimal energy level.
In Pakistan, food insecurity has vicious connection with violence, militancy, suicides and prostitution.
Food insecurity gives rise to poverty, poverty gives rise to violence, and it’s a vicious circle.
When individual’s insecurity gets an identity, then class-conflicts are born, with ethnic, religious or provincial underpinning.
This is happening in Baluchistan and parts of Karachi, where existing insecurities are breeding further insecurities.
COURTESY: Economics and Finance Department, Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, prepared this analytical report for Business Recorder.
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