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Shoot the messenger

“Officials at the Federal Board of Revenue also questioned the criteria of selection of the contributors. Many of the contributors are either lawyers or chartered accountants. Such contributors prefer to vent their frustration with the government in international surveys to settle some scores, they said. Business leaders, however, negated such an impression and stated that they were patriotic people who would do their best for the country. However, the government should improve their performance instead of blaming the contributors, they said. They also urged the World Bank not to share their details with the government as they feared repercussions for telling the truth” extracts from a news item in a daily newspaper.

At the outset, I was not one of the contributors and quite frankly, would not jump at any opportunity to provide honest feedback on any such survey since it could be detrimental for my health. The ruling elite, across the globe, does not take lightly to criticism directed against them in any manner whatsoever. While in the developed world the repercussions of criticising those in power oscillate between hounding by the tax collector, being blackmailed into submission for some indiscretion in the past and being harassed by the legal system on trumped up charges, in the developing world the stupidity of speaking the truth can be downright fatal. Take a guess how many in North Korea can hope to live after pointing out that Kim Jong-un is a bit oversized!

And democracies are no better at shooting the messenger. The terms post truth, fake news and alternative facts have been coined in the so called oldest democracy of the world. A key pillar of democracy, at least in theory, is accountability, but with the truth strangled by fear of repercussion, or downrightly ridiculed, that particular pillar perhaps was always a non-starter. And might I add, while trembling with fear, that without accountability, a democracy is worse than a dictatorship; the latter at the very least in not hypocritical.

On a related note, all of us, over time, have been systematically brainwashed to cherish and hence protect the great gift of free press, supposedly a conduit to bring out the truth; but what have we to show after a decade of being extremely fortunate. At best a realization of utter hopelessness, and perhaps another realization that those propagating the free press are its biggest beneficiaries. Undoubtedly sensational expos�s related to corruption and abuse of power are common these days, except that they disappear as quickly as they appear, and beyond improving channel ratings, they seem to serve no other purpose; absolutely nothing happens in substantive terms. It would not be incorrect to assert that the self proclaimed free press is seemingly not interested in any logical judicial conclusions of the treachery and abuses they themselves report. Perhaps because no news is not good news for the media; they unfortunately have a conflict of interest with normality which is why they are the messenger that is not shot. Clearly, the days, when PTV was the undisputed news king in Pakistan, all the time broadcasting government propaganda, were still better; again at least that was not hypocrisy.

Reverting to the opening paragraph above, the extract was in relation to the World Bank report on Doing Business 2017, specifically for ranking Pakistan 174 out of 189 economies on the “Trading Across Borders” indicators. Frankly I would in this case tend to agree with the Finance Ministry that the World Bank definitely got it wrong; if clearance at the port had been cumbersome and full of hassles, Pakistan would not be on course for setting a new record for importing goods worth US $50 billion in a year. On a separate note, the government for some reason does not seem to be interested in broadcasting this particular record. Notwithstanding, having accepted that the government got it right and the World Bank erred, perhaps a better strategy for the government would be interacting with businessmen directly to hear their side of the story and make attempts to improve perceptions, rather than start a witch hunt to find out the culprits who dared to criticise, and make their lives miserable.

Except I am not sure how much the country’s ranking will improve if these errors were corrected by the World Bank. To venture a ballpark guess, we might probably get to a 120th position overall from the current around 140th out of 189 economies; which still is nothing to write home about. Pakistan needs seriousDOMESTIC INVESTMENT in manufacturing, and it would be an extremely productive strategy to carry out a detailed review of the World Bank findings and take concrete steps to achieve a target to be under 75 for 2018. And perhaps while we are at it, let’s make customs processing excessively cumbersome to further impede imports; if are ranking falls because we make life miserable for traders, that should be something to be proud off. Rather than shooting the messenger let’s do something positive; let’s help our businessmen do honest business.

And this is not the only time when we have wanted to shoot the messenger. A while ago, a series of articles appeared in domestic newspapers, including BR, essentially in relation to a dispute between the government and certain private economists over the size of the public debt. According to data on the State Bank of Pakistan website, Pakistan’s total debt and liabilities, at second quarter FY 2017, stand at Rs 23.14 trillion. But I am not now sure how much of it is genuine public debt; I somehow missed the conclusion of the debate, if at all it was concluded. Even in this case one can appreciate that the private economists were not as informed as the government is necessarily expected to be, so perhaps a better strategy was to have a powwow and came to an agreement, which could be decimated through a joint press release. Perhaps such interactions and brainstorming might even highlight solutions to manage the debt going forward; interest rates going up or the rupee devaluing can have serious adverse impact on annual debt servicing.

The story does not end here, criticism of any government policy, even with a positive intent, is looked at suspiciously and the protagonist carries a huge risk of being whisked away in the dead of the night. Perhaps it is to do with the culture of distrust, cultivated over the years, because of which any form of criticism is deemed a direct threat to those in power. Consequently, as a rule, the incumbents are secretive about major public initiatives jealously guarding the details to avoid any critique. Even today, the exact details relating to CPEC, and many other infrastructure or large supply contracts remain opaque. The downside of all the secrecy is that mistakes, if any, continue to be overlooked or at the minimum better options, which may or may not exist, remain unexplored. What the ruling elite should come to terms with is that decisions taken while in government are not personal, and every Pakistani has a right to access information relating to decisions taken on his behalf.

Perhaps there is a need to formalize a policy for whistle blowing in the public sector at the very top, and to provide immunity from any adverse action to the critics of government, with penalties for shooting the messenger!

Syed Bakhtiyar Kazmi, "Shoot the messenger," Business Recorder. 2017-04-17.
Keywords: Economics , Patriotic societies , Judicial opinions , Importing goods , State Bank , Direct democracy , Material accountability , PTV , CPEC