As Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s increasingly embattled government sharpens its knives to block Imran Khan’s promised storming of Islamabad on Nov 2, Monday’s visit by the IMF’s managing director is set to be celebrated as a grand recognition of Pakistan’s economic success.
In reality, however, neither Christine Lagarde, the former French finance minister who currently heads the Washington-based lender, nor the ‘baboos’ of Islamabad’s finance establishment, led by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, can just gloss over the pitfalls confronting the country’s troubled outlook.
With more than half the population in distress because of a crash in agriculture and almost a third living below the poverty line, Pakistan’s future does not seem to be promising.
Meanwhile, falling exports continue to highlight the economic woes confronting the nation. Such stark challenges notwithstanding, the government is in no mood for a radical shift of priorities, meaning that it should shift its focus from glitzy road and transport projects to meeting the needs of an increasingly stressed populace.
Even the recent end of yet another loan from the IMF disbursed over the past three years has failed to tackle the most pressing challenges surrounding ordinary households. Exactly what tangible benefits will the IMF managing director’s visit bring to the country remains a central, valid and pressing question.
The only thing to cheer about in this instance is that the IMF has completed a loan to a country, albeit through many waivers. This sharply contrasts with Pakistan’s history of broken promises, number fudging and recurring failure to meet financial targets agreed upon with lenders. The prospect of Pakistan’s return to the Washington-based lender remains a very real probability.
Policymakers like Dar, recently honoured as South Asia’s best finance minister by a trade publication but only after alleged hefty official payments to its commercial benefit, are eager to proclaim that the economy is booming. Matters like a significant lift to liquid foreign reserves and a higher economic growth rate than three years ago stand central to his claim.
Tragically however, on matters like fixing a key problem in revenue collection by roping in many more taxpayers to one of the world’s worst performing collection systems, there has been limited headway. Hardly one per cent of Pakistanis pay an income tax while the system lets many who deserve to be locked virtually go scot free.
And Lagarde’s visit takes place just weeks after the annual deadline for filing income tax returns was extended by a month, reportedly on the pretext of many taxpayers having been in Saudi Arabia last month for performing Haj. The change has aroused fresh scepticism over the ruling structure’s ability to tightly enforce its writ — the deadline was extended repeatedly just last year too due to a reported technical glitch in a supposedly landmark e-filing system.