Below is a redacted summary of the author’s subcontracted advisory report submitted for a major consulting group associated with a global financial body dealing with Pakistan.
Ismail Y Syed
Year 2022 has already been challenging enough following the Covid19 pandemic, possibly the worst in Pakistan’s 75 year history, a country hit by the worst ever avoidable climate disaster – the 2022 Pakistan floods. As if this was not enough, the economy is teetering on collapse with the foreign exchange reserves being so low, that it has only enough to cover for few weeks of vital imports. So how did Pakistan get to this? This question itself is wholly a separate topic already congested by many commentators and development economists but this is not the topic for discussion now. What this piece aims to provide here is how Pakistan can come out of the economic mess, what immediate short term steps and long term steps need to be taken in order to move forward without having to rely on periodic rentier curse of IMF bailouts or other international loans rescheduling.
This piece will focus on the immediate and long term solution towards not only clearing the economic bottlenecks but how it can eventually help the country to progress forward as an emerging economy and avoid or at least minimise the possibility of falling into similar trap in the future. The author aims to provide brief and concise no nonsense approach in dealing with current economic crisis and rather more so challenge the failed status quo where others have preferred to overlook.
So what are the steps that need to be taken? These can be termed as follows, explained in each paragraph denoted by a letter:
A) Emergency land reforms: abolishment of zamindar/jagir landlord feudalism. Pakistan must carry out land reforms on an emergency basis—ie dismantle vast swathes of lands owned and passed down through the hereditary landlord system commonly termed as zamindari nizam/jagirdari system, a type of feudalism that existed in the Indian subcontinent owing to the colonial legacy of the British Raj which still continues to date, albeit evolved with some changes but still remains far below 20th century land reforms that took place in neighbouring India post independence. Such dismantling is to be done through land repossession gratis by the state (possibly by enacting legislation or using emergency constitutional powers by treating such land reforms as a matter of national emergency after providing the landowner with a capped limit allowance eg 20-25 acres) and redistribute the acquired lands to peasants/farmers for farming (who could be retrained for modern sustainable farming/and or training to develop export-driven profit-making farming if needed be). The landowners/jagirdars/zamindars whose lands to be forcefully repossessed gratis by the state, can be compensated for the provable maintenance and up-keeping of the vast land estates up to the cost of median level for the most recent period eg up to 3 years prior to the date of forceful repossession/nationalisation (as to be assessed by the state). Additionally parts of the state-acquired lands can also be used towards establishing free trade zones and export processing zones etc. All of the above emergency land reforms and subsequent utilisation can fetch, in both tangible and non tangible value if not in cash value, at least up to PKR 25 trillion (around USD 100 billion as per exchange rate at the time of writing) in medium to long term.
B) Emergency reform of Pakistan’s military affiliated entities and military perks:
Place military-run business-commercial empires including construction and housing all under Pakistan’s Ministry of Finance and Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) with parliamentary or judicial oversight and:
- Abolish plot schemes and other lavish perks for the armed forces. Majority of parliamentary democracies around the world do not provide such extensive perks to armed forces. Pakistan is more similar to Egypt where the armed forces’ presence extend almost everywhere (and unsurprisingly Egypt’s economy is also at a crisis level once again). It is absurd that Pakistan’s armed forces is not fully in line with other major countries’ armed forces’ renumeration and perks. This itself would save at least PKR 80.8 – 114.5 billion (around US $300 – 425 million) according to author’s conservative estimate, in the short to medium term while the annual defence budget of PKR 2 trillion (USD 7.5 billion as per past exchange rate, currently likely to be much higher) can still be maintained if not reduced. It is absurd that the country spends over 20% GDP on defence while it struggles to even meet a bare 1.77% of GDP on, say education for its population.
- Moving the vast spiralling 50 commercial entities linked to Pakistan’s military (save for military-related technology and communication entities and businesses that provide direct ancillary technical support to the front line in the battlefield) over to civilian-run government institutions with parliamentary oversight. Civilian-led control and accountability could also help to provide employment to a sizeable number of Pakistan’s already educated yet 16% unemployed population. All funds and benefits for the armed forces personal should be “rerouted” through civilian-run Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence under full civilian-led parliamentary oversight. Military should free itself and concentrate where it is confined to do best: defending the borders and facing off external threats including engaging in peacekeeping missions under parliamentary oversight, as opposed to managing or running the country or its businesses. The vast military enterprise from construction and housing to mining, instead of providing indirect revenues, would provide direct revenues to the exchequer under full civilian-led accountability (possibly through form of public-private partnership or public-private community ownership cooperative) and is estimated to generate at least additional PKR Rs200 – 275 billion (around US$740m – 1.2 billion) each year after initial leakages and inefficiencies through the transition period.
C: Reform fiscal policy & taxation and tax evasion deterrence: by making it both effective smart revenue-driven in line with other countries. This means:
- Increasing land taxes up to 40% on a sliding scale (to discourage hoarding and rentier-zamindar system;
- Sign double taxation agreement treaties and Tax Information Exchange Agreements (TIEAs) with foreign states including with offshore tax havens; and
- Introduce laws similar to/on similar model to US FATCA that requires all foreign banks overseas to provide details of Pakistani citizens and their assets held to Pakistan’s Treasury/FBR.
- Implement a US-style “worldwide” based income—as opposed to source/residency based—irrespective of whether the income is generated in Pakistan or not and irrespective whether Pakistani citizen/foreigner with permanent Pak residency resides in Pakistan or not; and have effective deterrence measures in place for tax evasion such as:
- Auto-freeze (which may require statutory instruments or new legislation) of movable and immovable assets of those whose taxes are still outstanding/pending taxes.
- Passport suspension/refusal to renew for those who are suspected—on judicially provable reasonable grounds—of evading taxes or have outstanding tax liability. Though such legislation or state measures may exist, still a radical step needs to be taken to make it radically effective both tax revenue maximisation and deterrence for tax evasion.
- Registering tax evasion/non-payment of taxes as debt with credit reference agencies at both home and abroad.
- Ban dual nationality: prohibit office holders, politicians or legislative members, military officers, members of the judiciary etc, AND their respective immediate family members from holding permanent foreign residency permits, let alone foreign nationality (it is has become a common feature to see immediate family members eg spouse, children, parents etc more often than not used as a vehicle to siphon off the laundered assets abroad so as to avoid scrutiny).
- Making tax evasion not just criminal offence but sharing tax crime record globally as well as sharing with all foreign embassies and high commissions in the country (which may affect visa issuance for tax evaders).
- Wealthy children’s overseas education and elite private education at home should be treated as another tax avoidance scheme. Therefore, the government should arrange measures to levy tax/duty as a percentage of overseas tuition fees. It is common that many laundered money and corrupt proceeds from the wealthy elites go towards children’s education. This can be adjusted for struggling low income households through tax relief, payment plans or setting a threshold and setting a set quota for tax free overseas education, to be determined by a lottery system.
- Obligating (through legislation/emergency ordinances but better with enacting legislations) overseas Pakistani citizens (including those with foreign citizenship) to file in annual tax returns (similar to other countries eg US, New Zealand, Eritrea etc that require yearly tax filings for their citizens living at home or abroad). Having a robust and user-friendly IT system can ease the process for overseas Pakistanis to file in their yearly taxes smoothly with minimum hassle from the comfort of both smartphone app and PC (and also for accountants to file on behalf of their clients with minimum hassle).
- Filing yearly tax returns must be made one of the key requirements for overseas Pakistanis to maintain their Pakistani citizenship or Pak-origin status (henceforth, being able to pass down Pak citizenship or Pak-origin status to their descendants). This complements point J below (Pakistan’s soft power and mutual loyalty with its overseas citizens).
- To make tax filing more effective and to generate maximum revenues, Pakistan government must immediately get to work with foreign states to sign mutual treaties on double-taxation agreement/and or TIEAs. This requirement alone, after discounting exodus and citizenship renunciations (estimated to be up to 30%), can generate anything up to PKR 26.95 billion (around USD 100 million) each year.
D: Immediate business competitive environment:
- Introduce US-style antitrust/anti-monopoly laws and laws to break up industrialists’ monopoly and create level playing field. Politicians and public office holders and their immediate families must not be tied to or connected with any business interest/industries unless there is legal and accountability safeguards in place eg blind trust laws. For too long politicians and their close cronies maintained monopoly in various business and industry sectors.
- Deregulate to some extent and remove red tapes in areas that would stimulate FDIs. Deregulation must be accompanied by efforts towards building a healthy competitive environment. This includes:
- Pakistani citizens and for foreigners being able to swiftly create and register companies with ease as well as open business/commercial bank accounts with minimum fuss (Singapore and Hong Kong are good examples) preferably with zero physical paperworks requirement, by utilising online system (or such system must be built and implemented) whilst also ensuring compliance with global AML & KYC (anti-money laundering and due diligence checks) standards and FATF guidance are met – Pakistan cannot afford to fall back into FATF grey list.
- Initiate golden investment visa/nationality schemes and FDI-friendly foreign currency regulations for foreigners and Pakistani diaspora choosing to invest in the country. Pakistan may take advantage of many “worse off” conflict-affected regions where wealthy and middle class skilled citizens for one reason or another have been shut off from migrating to the safe sanctuary of the west or Far Eastern countries. Already many conflict-ridden African countries’ affluent citizens, shut off/denied visas to the west and the Far East are choosing Bangladesh as a destination to settle or base their businesses (not least because of their children already studying at the country’s popular private universities campuses spread across the country).
E: Monetary policy:
Pakistan must reform monetary policy on rupee, banking sector and more so State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), the country’s reserve bank. Among them:
- Make State Bank of Pakistan constitutionally and statutorily independent from the executive government. Making SBP fully independent is a must so it can manage its own monetary policy without any political interference—while being accountable to parliament and the government for providing periodic updates—and more so, would assist in carrying out the following vital emergency steps:
- Allow devaluation of rupee as much as possible to manageable levels as opposed to going for knee-jerk reaction of restricting imports as one analyst suggested (although this author has a mixed view of this, as eventually if the reserves runs out or reaches to a critical point where no excess foreign currency reserve is left for imports, people would naturally be forced to cut down on imports). Restricting imports could translate into becoming a final nail on the coffin for the country’s ailing export sector that relies on importing vital commodities.
- Easing foreign currency controls to attract foreign investors. This need not contradict with light-touch effective measures to restrict abrupt capital flight (eg by requiring or incentivising foreign investors to go for only medium to long term investments, thus discouraging speculative or short term investments).
- Reforming the currency i.e. rupee structure – dropping rupee’s unit of double zeros when calculating with foreign currency such as the dollar (eg 1 USD = 2.70 PKR instead of USD 1 = PKR 270 as per prevailing exchange rate at the time of writing). Such cosmetic changes wouldn’t change anything in the short term and in fact may bring in some inflationary pressures (with some price increase) but so long it can be managed with effective fiscal and monetary measures, the longterm forex-related inflationary pressures would be better adjusted, even if PKR slides to, say PKR400 to USD (in revised format, it would be 1 USD = 4 PKR).
- De-risking and diversifying away from dollar is a must through both alternative currency agreements/and or currency swap agreements and trade settlement accounts in emerging market currencies (other than the US dollar and similar hard currencies) eg Chinese yuan, Turkish lira, Brazilian real, South African rand, (and even neighbouring Indian rupee and Bangladeshi taka). Some may also suggest Pakistan should also go for alternative currency agreement/trade settlement agreement in Russian rouble and vice versa by mutually opening vostro accounts as India is doing but writing from UK, this can’t be suggested here due to Russian sanctions which UK is strictly adhering to.
- Graduating towards making payment/insisting on paying for part of its imports in Pakistan’s own rupee currency in proportion to its export level (even though it may sound minuscule but every little helps).
- Selling government bonds/institutional bonds and wage earners bonds denominated in Pakistani rupees only, to both foreign investors at institutional level and Pakistani diaspora. This may seem very far fetched, given Pakistan’s current crisis and poor ratings but there is always a market for risk-taking global investors looking to diversify the portfolios, away from the western markets for whatever sensitive or commercial reasons.
- Bring further efficiencies in its recently rolled out domestic card payment system PayPak on similar scale as India’s RuPay, and further develop the country’s own payment system with incentives so as to gain wider acceptance in the country; and take immediate steps to internationalise PayPak payment. Radical incentives can be introduced for a set period (eg 2-5 years) charging at 0% or even provide bonus cash backs and thereby undercutting Visa, Mastercard, Amex usage. Using foreign payment operators like Visa Mastercard etc not only levies a sizeable portion of merchant fees but also means subsequent flight of profits which can add, as negligible it may seem, pressure on the rupee. Local payment system would save crores of rupees (which can amount to yearly up to anything between USD25 – 100 million in profits leaving the country) through added government-backed incentives.
- Make market-friendly environment through modernising Pakistan’s stock exchanges and the security laws and invite foreign companies to float on Pakistan Stock Exchange with innovative fiscal and legal incentives.
F: Exports sector.
Pakistan must flourish in what it can do great in terms of manufacturing eg textiles, agriculture (though Pakistan also has nascent defence export industry—which the author doesn’t condone) etc.
- It can follow Bangladesh’s example of developing government incentives to grow export sectors in tech, high tech agriculture, pharmaceuticals etc. It must gradually wean off exporting unskilled migrant labour to Middle East and thus coming off remittance-dependency.
- Knowledge economy. The country must aim for the manufacturing sector but equally or more so, for the knowledge economy sector i.e. export higher education through public and private universities (and through facilitating setup of private research-driven universities) and incentivising foreign students to study in Pakistan. This means the government must go beyond what is prevalent in neighbouring countries: massively increase GDP by funding and investing in R&D sectors including universities’ both STEM and social science departments—enough to attract brightest minds of faculties and students from home and abroad. Whilst allocating fund in the short term is challenging—not least prioritising public primary and secondary education to reach the recommended literacy levels as per international standard—this can be achieved through public-private education partnership and tax incentives. Also private universities and private medical schools can play a role. This also means the country need to invest in expanding the/establishing a central library of national importance that would attract students from across the world.
- Health tourism. Pakistan already has a decent cosmetic surgery and dental sector utilised by foreigners visiting Pakistan as health tourists (including many uninsured Americans). The government can provide key incentives to make this sector expand even further.
- Pakistan also need to invest and expand in its arts and creative sector including tourism. The country must develop and promote the ailing or unacknowledged tourism sector, not least being endowed with unrivalled areas of outstanding natural beauty as well as rich ancient and Perso-Islamic heritage. These are easier to establish than establishing hard manufacturing exporting sector. Pakistan is fortunately well-steeped into rich history and cultural artistic heritage since ancient Vedic Indus times through to golden Muslim Persian Mughal era.
G: Rule of Law (“ROL”). To make above work, Pakistan must work towards establishing robust world-class legal system. This is must for attracting FDIs and FPIs. Pakistan already has a well developed English common law system (alongside Sharia law and Islamic commercial law system). This means:
- Investing in/setting up commercial courts within the high courts alongside fast-track commercial tribunals and work towards bring more legal and judicial efficiency.
- Clear backlogs by digitisation and implementing world-class IT systems and recruiting and training judges of highest calibre from among the practicing untainted lawyers with years of experience.
- Expand and offer arbitration services for foreign LDC-based companies and businesses. Work towards establishing a centre of excellence for international arbitration or regional arbitration for LDC countries. Pakistan can turn this area of legal industry i.e. arbitration and dispute resolution service into a key legal export product aiming at the LDC market initially, complementing above point F.
H: Political stability and rooting out corruption. This complements above ROL and robust legal system (see above G). This means:
- For political stability, Pakistan should take lessons from Bangladesh: permit the ruling party-led government to complete its FULL term—no matter how flawed the incumbent government may be—for the sake of stability or else be prepared to pay the price (henceforth, giving the chance for behind-the-scenes Establishment’s interference).
- Establish or work towards consolidating the country into a full-fledge American or Swiss-style federalism with each province/state being fully autonomous and responsible for its own governance, policing, provincial level judiciary, economy and fiscal policy. The federal centre should only be responsible for foreign, defence, currency/monetary policy, communication, and federal appeals-level judiciary.
- Local governance. Pakistan seriously lacks or has ineffective local governance at district/county and tehsil levels. Constitution or legislation must reflect and empower local governance. To rephrase, the country must come out of the unitary system of centralised governance. Centralisation empowers corruption. Localisation and democratisation minimises or lessens corruption and helps or democratises accountability. Along with inefficiencies and corruption, over-centralised unitary government has been a curse for the country. Neighbouring India has partly addressed this hence economic and political empowerment reflect this.
- As for rooting out corruption—complementing above tax policy (see above C)—immediate cashless digitisation of government services is a must, along with regulatory oversight (possibly alongside or under judicial oversight) plus government “safe space” for whistleblowers with government or legislative immunity and witness protection. Also phase out cash-based transactions by consumers.
- Corruption can be lessened by: obligating AML-KYC (anti-money laundering and due diligence checks) on any transactions—that is above certain threshold or through a quota utilisation (similar to foreign currency quota)—by consumers and businesses;
- Criminalising wage payment via cash/obligating wages to be paid via bank transfer—even wages of labourers/domestic workers. This would also complement and strengthen illegal tax evasion (see above C).
- Government contracts and procurements stands to be the biggest expenditure in the country’s GDP, henceforth, stands to be the biggest source of corruption. To minimise this, full digitisation and democratisation of IT is a must where records of tenders and projects are only filed and accepted if its logged on to the system and being made available for public information and scrutiny using widely available open source platforms. Pakistan can emulate Ukraine, a country that is arguably among the most corrupt country in Europe, amidst its war with Russia is now taking innovative steps at citizens level to tackle corruption using ProZorro, an app that “include corruption monitoring and risk management tools” with auctions and bids for projects can be filed, sealed and monitored in near real time. This system alone can fetch, after investing and factoring immediate costs, in excess of PKR Rs26.95 billion (around USD 100 million) in additional revenues each year at the very conservative estimate through savings and tax evasions, and prevent wastages and corruption worth up to PKR Rs267.5 billion (up to US$1 billion) annually.
I: Pakistan’s soft power overseas and overseas Pakistani diaspora
Pakistan needs to be projected not only before the world through its soft power but also among its overseas Pakistani diaspora. Soft power isn’t just about using PR agencies to promote Pakistan’s image (though it helps but that alone without making structural changes would be futile). Soft power can be projected through:
- Creativity, innovation and productivity in both manufacturing, intellectual and cultural arena (sport/cricket along is not enough), as discussed above.
- Pakistan’s image cannot be allowed to be further dented, rather it should be enhanced. For this, every Pakistani citizens should be made (statutorily) as role cultural ambassador for her/his country. Educating the citizens from primary level with core values of honesty, integrity and exemplary civic duties is a must (which the country may have such curriculum but it is ineffective/more geared towards capitalist profit-earning career ethos at the expense of any moral and ethics).
- This means also having robust effective deterrent measures in place for Pakistanis committing crime abroad or engaging in fraudulent activities or visa violations as explained in one of the twitter threads sometime back. Pakistanis must be made aware that there is a severe price to be paid for committing crimes overseas or engaging in fraudulent activities or visa violations while abroad. Severe penalties may include families back home facing collective consequences for the latter’s role in aiding or abetting the overseas Pakistani to travel/live abroad/and or family members benefiting from the criminal proceeds/proceeds from visa violations by Pakistanis overseas (similar to stringent anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism measures being in place to ensure family members and close associates at home do not benefit directly or indirectly from terrorists’ proceeds abroad). This is of course should be subject to normal periodic judicial scrutiny and rule of law principles.
- As for overseas Pakistanis, for Pakistan to gain its loyalty and enhance its image, it has to work both ways: incentives must be given for overseas Pakistanis (many who are also foreign citizens/born overseas) to visit Pakistan periodically and bind them to file in yearly tax returns if Pak origin status/Pak-ties is to be maintained as mentioned above under point C. Neighbouring India has similar scheme in place for its NRIs (overseas Indians), albeit it can afford to have loose rules in tax filings and loss revenues, given its vast economy but Pakistan cannot afford that.
- There is nothing wrong obligating Pak citizens who holds foreign citizenship, to file in tax returns (America has it despite being the wealthiest country). This would complement above point C in maximising tax revenues. This tax-attachment with the home country would be a reason for overseas Pakistanis to pay close attention to their home country’s affairs and if needed be, return home and contribute or invest. Of course this would mean giving further concessions such as enabling overseas Pakistanis to vote in national elections (like the US has) and permitting them to be part of any potential social security safety net and pension scheme if the country establishes one at some point in the future.
- Also overseas Pakistanis must get incentives (not just on remittances but remittance incentives of course helps, as Bangladesh is a leading example) but incentives to invest in the country or input, including enhancing Pakistan image abroad. Incentives can be in the form of civil/national awards that comes with privileges e.g. higher consular/enhanced state protection or assistance abroad and while in Pakistan, set number of VIP lounge access and fast-track facilities at airports in Pakistan and VIP access at Pakistan embassies abroad/and or to make use of facilities and spaces at Pakistan’s foreign missions overseas.
- Establish fast-track land dispute tribunals to hear and adjudicate on land and property disputes for overseas Pakistanis/Pakistani diaspora, through online hearing or through other efficient means including establishing circuit court system held at various Pakistan’s overseas missions. This complements above point G. This system, by gaining more loyalty and confidence from overseas Pakistani diaspora, would fetch around US $1.3 billion (PKR 34,772 crore) in additional revenues over a decade or less, according to author’s conservative estimate – in form of land and real estate investments and subsequent developments that result in tax revenues.
J: Removing military from all spheres of state governance (alongside above point B).
- The armed forces must be removed from every aspect of executive government function and this includes foreign policy, defence matters at policy making level. Both for investors and for economic growth, expansion of military’s influence into governance sphere outside the military sphere is a great put off, and shakes the market confidence.
- Removing presence of military personal from the PM office. This also includes placing prime minister’s personal protection and security details under civilian-led security force with its own intelligence/secret service agents responsible for PM’s security and protection (though this may need to be formed initially with current serving personals under current arrangement but under entirely civilian leadership).
- Making constitutional and legislative offence for military officials to contact or interact with (or be allowed to be contacted by) heads of states/PMs and foreign and defence ministers of foreign states including foreign states’ civilian national security advisors and civilian intelligence officials. All of those foreign civilian-led political figures must only interact with their legitimate political counterparts in Pakistan, that is the elected and appointed political and civilian officials, even on matters of military and security matters. Military contacts with foreign state should strictly remain at military to military level only, subject to civilian government oversight (eg PM, defence minister etc). It still beggars belief that a foreign minister of a foreign state can directly pick up the phone and speak directly to country’s military head instead of speaking to his Pakistani political civilian counterpart ie foreign minister or civilian national security advisor etc. Such interaction between foreign political officials and the country’s military brass bypassing the elected civilian government makes a mockery of democracy and in the long run damages democracy and rule of law.
- Removing the country’s premier intelligence agency ISI from military control and place it under full civilian oversight, headed by a civilian who shall be directly accountable to PM and parliamentary intelligence committee/and or foreign minister. This may require legislation or constitutional amendment. Having the country’s premier intelligence agency under full civilian oversight (like neighbouring India and US; even Saudi Arabia’s intelligence is under the full grip of civilian monarchy) would not only free up the armed forces to dedicate its resources in defending the country and eliminating external threats as tasked by the parliament and government of the day but also prevents casting shadowy influence in the functions of civilian government.
- The only military-led intelligence that makes sense to remain is military’s own internal military intelligence agency that is strictly limited to military sphere in accomplishing military tasks as guided by the demands of the elected civilian government and civilian-led intelligence agency, and to serve the purpose of maintaining internal check and balances within the military.
To sum up, some points (ie A-E including parts of point J), not least carrying out emergency land reforms by dismantling colonial era inherited zamindar-based feudalism, along with radical overhaul of military perks and bringing military-affiliated business empire under civilian control with parliamentary accountability, and making market-friendly competitive business environment—combined with smart taxation system including implementing global income based taxation—all of these are achievable in the short term (1-3 yrs) by taking immediate emergency steps as a “national security” measure (which may require emergency legislations/constitutional amendments/and or ordinances/executive orders). The other remaining steps (ie points F-J), not least judiciary/rule of law, political stability through federalism and full democratisation, and Pak-foreign/Pak-diaspora relations, all are to be achieved in the long run (within 4 – 8 yrs). For the sake of political stability and market confidence, military once and for all be must be removed from having any role in managing state’s affairs and be brought under full civilian supremacy. Centralisation and colonial-style pervasive military influence along with land feudalism have been the source of curse for Pakistan since its inception. If India and Bangladesh can move on, surely Pakistan can. It’s not too late. But it is now or never.
The writer is a research scholar based in London and is a former London-based banker at HSBC with experience in observing South Asia and Middle East markets closely. AFP file photo used for illustration.