We are in the midst of budget season but no worthwhile debates are being held on what kind of a budget we should have. Seminars, conferences, lobbying, and advocacy efforts are on but without a sense of purpose and direction. The print and electronic media have little serious to offer on the subject to educate the public. Budget is an annual account of expenditure and income estimates and thus holds a lot of importance in a Third World country like Pakistan where people are economically depressed and marginalized.
The budget is supposed to be the most important element of any developing economy. The budget is the balancing of government accounts where revenue and expenditure items ought to reflect the policy direction of the government. The unfortunate reality is that public reasoning and conversations on policy are wanting, whereas that on fixing the governance failures of federal and provincial state machinery is absent. Most policies are made without consultation with the stakeholders. If and when consultations are done, say by way of roundtables, they are not managed properly. Not only such roundtables are one-off events, a formality, they are also not adequately representative.
It is a national failure that the budget is not given the importance it deserves for the sake of balanced economic growth. Matters are made worse by the fact that there is a culture of hiding information from the public. On the other hand, economic journalism is not very well developed to delve deep into issues like industrial and agriculture policies, population control, citizen right to information, or the duties of local, provincial, and federal governments on various affairs that affect the lives of people. There are no broad based debates or conversations. The vast majority of economists and corporate leaders talk among themselves, where highlighting the same old problems over and over again consumes most of the time.
The debate over solutions to problems is also wanting. For instance, everyone says education problem should be fixed, and flags various indicators that show Pakistan's poor performance in education. But there are no debates over various number of solutions to the education problem, and implications of each of those policy choices. As for the governance, the reform thinking seems to have been hijacked by Doing Business and other such fancy indicators. Some experts only try to fix those indicators, mostly on donor funding, instead of fixing the whole governance machinery. Over and over again, in each of the seminars and TV shows, university debates, corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy features as the most serious problem. Yet neither the business chambers, nor the donors, nor the government, nor any other so-called champion of reforms have made civil service reforms as a single biggest agenda item.
No matter how much money one puts into the system and how many creative policy tools are crafted, if the government machinery - that is supposed to use those funds and policy tools - is weak, corrupt and inefficient, the impact of that funding and policy will remain limited. Which is also why the budget unfortunately remains the single biggest talked about event about economy every year, because of the ad-hoc fiscal incentives that are doled out to direct the economy in the absence of effective holistic policies. Let us see what good or bad news the budget brings for the people. If past experience is any guide, the upcoming budget will only add to the economic woes of the people.