Restructuring, reforming and reviving the Planning Commission
Courtesy: Professor Ahsan Iqbal
Pakistan’s road to development has proven to be a turbulent one. While the changing nature of the global political economy has been a key factor in determining the scope of economic planning in other countries, in Pakistan shifts between the military and democratically-elected governments played a major role.
One effect of this instability is that the role of the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform has oscillated between extremes of being the birthplace of leading development ideas like Human Development and being reduced to a rubber stamp organization as a post-office of PC-1s under other governments.
In the recent past, the ministry went from being a major player in the process of planning Pakistan’s economy until the late 1990s, to abruptly being demoted by the military regime to the status of a commission under the Ministry of Finance. With this demotion, the military regime took the reins in its own hands. In doing so, it replaced the 5-year planning process with a day-to-day dealing of both public and private sector development, the result of which are the economic and energy crises we face today.
This ad-hoc approach to socio-economic planning transformed the role of the Planning Commission to a rubber stamp organization, underutilizing its capacities as a centre for research and innovative thinking. Without any clear expectations, the staff here have either preoccupied themselves with other more gratifying activities or just simply absolved all responsibility of initiating innovative development plans.
This kind of work culture has contributed to a low morale amongst working members and has also fostered a brain-drain from the public sector to the privately and donor-funded non-governmental sector by detracting potential innovative thinkers from joining the government in its planning process.
This has resulted in the intellectual collapse of the public sector. Instead of serving as a hub, which brings different sections of the society together to envision long-term innovative and forward-looking strategies in the public interest, research on socio-economic issues has become vulnerable to donor agendas and sporadic, short-term financing.
Today the capacity of the Ministry of Planning & Development is not even one-fourth of what it used to be during my last tenure as its Deputy Chairman in the 1990s. Over the past 15 years, the ministry has become a graveyard of ideas, reports and planning. Whereas at one point in time, innovative thinkers like Mahbub-ul-Haque, the founder of the Human Development Report, Sartaj Aziz, AG Kazi, Shafi Niaz, Javed Azfar, Dr Baqai and Shahid Javed Burki served here, today, Pakistan hasn’t even achieved its share of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Is it not shameful that foreign governments and agencies have to tell us what is the importance food for us; education, health, water, nutrition? Are these issues not our own agenda?
Things are not all gloom though. After the new government took office in 2013, not only the Ministry of Planning and Development was restored as an independent ministry but its scope was enhanced to include reforms as well. In the spirit of reforms, we have expanded the functions of the ministry to include: the facilitation of the role of the private sector in economic growth, emphasising the roles of social capital and infrastructure in development, a constant evaluation of Pakistan economic competitiveness vis-à-vis changing global trends for better policy-making and providing assessments of the impact of new technologies on development processes, and public sector modernization to form a new partnership of government, private sector, academia and diaspora of development.
Due to the weakening of Planning Commission’s role in effective development planning and monitoring, Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP) has become a graveyard of projects with cost overruns, delays and leakages, which cost the nation billions of rupees. Project scrutiny and monitoring systems are being strengthened to ensure proper scrutiny and timely implementation of projects.
In addition to this, another major priority is to revive the ministry’s lost status as a hub for generating new and innovative ideas by bringing together different stakeholders to foster broad public ownership of the process of planning. The Vision 2025 initiative stressed on public-private partnerships which brought together members of civil society, academia, the private sector and the government on the same table so that Vision 2025, five-year plans and policies formulated are done in a collaborative and participative way with stakeholders from all over Pakistan and abroad.
For the first time ever, the Ministry of Planning has created an Advisory Council which brings together senior experts from institutions like NUST, LUMS, to give their expert input on the Vision and the Five-year plan. The ministry, which had become a parking lot for retired civil servants, is now being staffed with professional members through a transparent and merit-based selection process. Three new members for Private-Sector Development, Governance Reforms and Innovation, and Development Communications have been added.
We have created a Development Communications Unit, which will consolidate and disseminate Pakistan-focused, constructive and innovative debates and research on socio-economic development issues. Moreover, right in the first few months of the government, we also pioneered the ‘Young Development Fellowship’ programme, with the aim of providing young professionals an opportunity to contribute towards national development. The programme has brought 40 energetic and highly qualified youth to re-invigorate capacities and bring fresh perspectives into the ministry.
To modernize the public sector, in order to develop a world-class capacity to implement policies in high performance mode, we have launched an “Innovation in Governance and Reforms” grants programme. This is to attract individuals and institutions who can formulate creative and practical projects to make our governance structures more efficient. Furthermore, we are revamping our monitoring and evaluation processes with the creation of a Performance Delivery Unit. This unit will ensure that the goals outlined by the Vision 2025 are being monitored, and those accountable are being held as such.
We have also taken steps to transform the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) into a leading development economics research institute of Asia. PIDE is a leading economic think tank for the government which has lost its previous glory because of bureaucratic mismanagement. We have appointed a new Vice Chancellor through transparent and merit-based hiring process. A new campus which will provide world-class facilities is also under construction.
We are hosting a Festival of Thinkers in April 2014, which will bring the most-forward looking brains and Nobel laureates in the world to inspire Pakistani youth to think outside the box and participate in the future development of Pakistan. These thinkers will help Pakistani youth think about creative ways in which they can get involved in new technological developments, develop innovative business ideas and lead scientific and social research in Pakistan. We are regularly hosting debates on new and critical ideas in development in order to create the space for constructive and optimistic public discourse.
The Ministry of Planning has the important responsibility of planning for Pakistan. Its revival is synonymous with the revival of Pakistan. It’s my effort to make the ministry a hub of intellectual output, ideas and innovative initiatives that will transform Pakistan.