IN a rare moment of bold, honest, reflection, on Dec 24, members of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Finance, which included at least one prominent PPP member, demanded the resignation of Pakistan’s finance minister, Dr Hafeez Shaikh.
As reported on Dawn’s front page, perhaps signifying the importance of the nature of the demand itself, they made the case that the finance minister “had no time to listen to parliamentarians’ proposals to put the economy on right [sic] track”.
They were clearly outraged enough, according to the report, to “force” the chairman of the committee to write a letter to the prime minister asking for the finance minister’s removal. They demanded that the finance minister be replaced by an “elected member”.
It was not just the inability of the finance minister to listen to the parliamentarians’ proposals which was significant in the reasons for demanding his removal, for this must surely be a more generic demand affecting most other ministers as well, given the nature and quality of service and governance. But the members of the Standing Committee on Finance had much more to say about the status of Pakistan’s finance minister.
Members of the committee stated that the finance minister was available “only at the time of the budget speech”, but more importantly, made the point, that like his predecessor Shaukat Aziz, he was an “imported finance minister”, and that “we really need to get rid of these suitcase economists”. Strong words, indeed.
One must agree with a great deal of what the members of the standing committee have said. The finance minister, one of the most important cabinet positions at any time, but more so when the economy has done poorly, has performed far worse than many expected. By all accounts, his tenure has been one of many failures, where the absence of leadership and direction has been the hallmark of his office.
Moreover, it is also true, that he has spent much of the last three decades outside Pakistan in the World Bank, and by that definition is a ‘suitcase economist’, who will probably leave Pakistan once his tenure is over, as he did the last time he ceased to be a minister in the Musharraf government.
In fact, perhaps in the last decade or so, Dr Hafeez Shaikh has lived in Pakistan only on account of him being a minister in one government or the other.
What is more interesting, however, is that Dr Hafeez Shaikh only follows in the footsteps of not just one ‘economist’ — Shaukat Aziz, who was actually not an economist — but numerous economists imported almost exclusively from the World Bank and the IMF, to head the three most important economic and financial institutions in Pakistan. It almost seems like a rite of passage.
Mahbubul Haq was the most illustrious, and was the key economic manager of both generals Ayub Khan and Zia ul Haq. Later, Moeen Quraishi from the World Bank became caretaker prime minister in the 1990s and his colleague Shahid Javed Burki adviser on finance to the prime minister.
Governors of the State Bank almost always seem to be recruited from abroad: Muhammad Yaqub (IMF), Ishrat Husain (World Bank) and Shamshad Akhtar (Asian Development Bank). The incumbent deputy chairman of the Planning Commission is also a former IMF official. Clearly Dr Hafeez Shaikh is just the most recent recruit in a long line of economists asked to join the government from abroad.
Interestingly, it is unelected governments — caretakers, military — which invite such technocrats, a tradition which the incumbent PPP government seems, sadly, to be following.
The inability to find, in the words of the Standing Committee, “an elected member”, is a sad reflection on the abilities and trust of the PPP in its own constituency, to not be able to find political, elected or resident economists to head the finance ministry and the Planning Commission.
What is more disappointing, however, is that it has taken the Standing Committee on Finance almost three years to wake up and realise that the current finance minister is ‘imported’, a well-known fact and a grievance which they should have voiced at the time of his appointment.
Clearly, while they too are complicit in allowing yet another suitcase economist to be imported, asking him to be removed with just a few weeks left of his tenure has little to do with him being imported, and reflects entirely on his dismal performance, a fact which has also been acknowledged by the committee.
However, the biggest irony is that the two most important positions in the cabinet, the finance and foreign ministries, are held by former Musharraf ministers who were colleagues in a government which has been responsible for most of Pakistan’s economic and foreign crises since 2008.
It is not just the Standing Committee on Finance which has failed to set a new precedent and standard with regard to who ought to be competent to qualify as Pakistan’s finance minister, but the fact that the democratic, elected and political PPP has had to take crutches from a military dictator’s government, is a sad comment after almost five years in power, on its ability to believe in itself.
The writer is a political economist.