Game of words – Newspaper – DAWN.COM –

EVERY time there is a tragedy or a violent incident in the country, the official response is the same. First, there is the usual round of condemnations. Then there is an expression of sympathy for the victims, photo-ops with them, and resolve to deal ‘firmly’ with those responsible for the atrocity.

But often words and tweets are all that are on offer rather than tangible actions to prevent the next tragedy. Soon, the incident is forgotten, and the government as well as the media move on. The underlying problem responsible for the tragedy is left to fester and flare up again.

Consider the horrendous attack on the churches and homes of the Christian community in Jaranwala by violent mobs. This was followed by strong words and calls for “inter-faith harmony” by government leaders, an appearance by the caretaker prime minister and Punjab chief minister in Jaranwala, and assurances to track down and punish the perpetrators of the rampage. Were any meaningful actions taken to signal that the state will not tolerate such behaviour, whatever its motivation? No. And not for the first time.

Attacks on minorities have continued with impunity as the deterrent against such attacks simply isn’t in place. The guilty are rarely caught or prosecuted, much less punished. This is evidenced by the absence of convictions in most previous incidents of violence against minorities.

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Moreover, there is a lack of protection for minorities and their places of worship, or efforts to calm the situation when there is a clear and present danger to their safety. Beyond delivering homilies, governments do little to avert another attack. Successive governments have, in fact, responded so timidly to violence by religious extremists, that it has unintendedly encouraged rather than deterred them.

The reliance on words rather than actions is, of course, not limited to official reactions to tragedies and violent events. It is pervasive in every area of government functioning and has become a familiar practice among political leaders and other managers of state.

Sermons are delivered with tiresome frequency and exhortations are issued that urge people to do one thing or another. But the surfeit of rhetoric hardly obscures the lack of policy and administrative actions to deal with the issue at hand. Government leaders announce goals (‘we will end violence’, ‘we will promote harmony’, ‘the rule of law will be enforced’, and so on) as if they are magically self-enforcing. Showcasing intentions is deemed sufficient to show they are governing. Platitudes and trite statements serve as substitutes for policy measures.

All talk and no action denudes governments of credibility.

Nowhere is this more telling than in the area of economic governance. Here, government rhetoric has long clashed with grim reality. It is one thing to try to build confidence by offering a positive outlook. But if there is a yawning gap between official claims and on-ground reality, the effort boomerangs.

Also, goals are stated without identifying the means and strategy to achieve them — ‘we will increase exports’, ‘record tax resources will be mobilised’, ‘inflation will be controlled’. Clichés are stated as profound statements of policy.

Pronouncements about attracting foreign direct investment are a case in point. New bodies are set up with hyper claims that overseas investors will flock to the country. Investors are expected to respond to official exhortations to take advantage of opportunities and rush forward.

Again, the disconnect with reality is telling. There has been a precipitous decline in FDI in recent years. Even the modest level of $2 billion in FY 2022 (0.4 per cent of GDP) declined by 25pc in FY 2023. It is now negligible as a consequence of the macroeconomic crisis and protracted political uncertainty.

Foreign investment flows to where the security situation is stable. Investor interest also depends on the quality of available infrastructure and reliability of power supplies as well as certainty about judicial enforcement of rules. An unstable macroeconomic environment is an obvious impediment. So is the absence of policy continuity and lack of consistency in rules among provinces.

Significant investment can hardly take place when policies lurch between liberal business measures and foreign exchange restrictions, profit repatriation curbs, and import controls. Words and exhortations do not change this reality.

In some instances, words are used in a self-delusionary way. Some ministers in the previous ruling coalition made extravagant claims in the last days of their government about ‘trillions of dollars worth of mineral deposits’ in the country waiting to be exploited. When investment in this sector hasn’t been forthcoming for decades and has still not materialised, it is misleading to make such hyperbolic statements, especially as there is a big difference between theoretical/technical potential and economic value.

Another disingenuous statement was made recently by a minister in the caretaker government, who declared he is “determined to take Pakistan’s ICT exports from $2.4bn to $10 to $20bn”. In a short-duration government?

Perhaps the most glaring example of a ‘policy’ announcement made amid much fanfare but not grounded in reality was two years ago, when the then government proclaimed that Pakistan’s foreign policy focus would shift to geoeconomics from geopolitics.

Apart from the fact that the two are interrelated and thus inseparable, the wordy document issued on this set forth a vision without identifying a strategy to achieve it. It also conveniently ignored the most fundamental requirement for a geo-economic strategy — a strong economy powered by growth and investment.

A crisis-ridden economy perpetually on the brink can hardly become the basis of such policy. Serving as an element in another country’s global geoeconomic strategy doesn’t turn Pakistan into a geoeconomic player.

If Pakistan wants to pursue a geoeconomics policy in any meaningful sense, it has to transform its economy through structural reforms, ensure a stable political environment, and reorder its budget priorities.

Geoeconomic power cannot be ‘borrowed’ or ‘imported’ from outside, but acquired by building a strong economic foundation with attractive and efficient markets and substantial trading capacity. Policy shifts are not accomplished by just talking and the use of buzzwords. Little wonder then that official reference to this policy shift has all but vanished now.

Announcements long on rhetoric and short on action only leave governments with a crisis of credibility.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2023

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