NEXT week, Pakistan will host a conference along with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the status of Afghan refugees in the country as a timely reminder to donor nations and international aid agencies to live up to their promises. The event will be attended by the UN Secretary General António Guterres and UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi. Last year, several donor countries (including the US) had taken a pledge to do all they could to help in the repatriation of Afghan refugees — with all the dignity and respect that these displaced families deserve — and yet, it seems as if the global community keeps forgetting about the plight of the second-largest refugee population in the world, along with all the promises it has made to them. The issue is especially relevant given the current talks taking place among Afghanistan’s various stakeholders since one cannot help but wonder: where do the millions of Afghan refugees fit in this so-called peace plan? Given that the world, including the former and present superpowers, have contributed to the countless challenges faced by the Afghans it is only fair they play their part to help solve their problems now. The Afghans have suffered multiple wars, invasions and militarisation, and have seen foreign actors fight for their own vested interests through the use proxies over the years, resulting in a steady stream of refugees escaping violence and poverty to seek sanctuary in other lands. For decades, Afghanistan has been described as ‘war-torn’. This has remained its greatest tragedy and given rise to a host of other malaises.
In 2019, the BBC reported that an average of 74 Afghans were killed per day in the month of August alone — three times higher than in the more recently declared ‘war-torn’ countries of Syria and Yemen. As long as Afghanistan is wreaked by violence, terrorism and religiously inspired militancy, there is little hope that any solution carved out for its refugee population will prove long-lasting. Till last year, there were an estimated 1.4m documented Afghan refugees living in this country. Despite various repatriation programmes, their numbers have been consistently high and many of those who live in Pakistan are still undocumented. In accordance with the laws, those born in the country are supposed to be awarded citizenship, yet this has often not been the case and millions are forced to live a life of uncertainty.
Empty university chairs
TO say that successive governments — including the current setup — have squandered several opportunities to project a positive image of Pakistan would be an understatement. For instance, a report published in this paper says that 14 Pakistan chairs in various international universities have been vacant for six to 10 years. These universities are located in Germany, Egypt, Turkey, China and the UK where scholars from here would have dealt with subjects pertaining to history, the Urdu language, and the political and social sciences. Five Pakistani scholars were nominated by this government after scrutiny, but their appointments have hung in the balance. In fact, one of the best ways for scholarly minds in Pakistan to share their analyses would have been through academic ambassadorship. The scholars would also have been able to bring home new ideas to enrich local learning. The matter does not seem to concern the government which has more often than not displayed a lackadaisical and sometimes suspicious approach towards intellectual pursuits. This can only reinforce shallow, international impressions of Pakistan as a terrorism-hit, oppressive country. By comparison, India has around 300 academic chairs in a number of foreign universities and these positions are used to promote local and international academic and people-to-people interactions.
It is not as if the government does not realise the importance of improving international perceptions; after all, it is trying to dispel the negative image of the country by discussing the potential of tourism in Pakistan and inviting vloggers to come and record their impressions. It can do the same in other areas, especially if opportunities are available, for instance, by sending scholars abroad. Had these university chairs been filled by now, it would have helped the world see the country through myriad lenses ie history, culture, politics etc and not just through the prism of militancy and instability. The government should not be reluctant to send scholars, perhaps fearing that certain academic viewpoints may not echo its own.
RATTLED by the public censure of its harsh economic and fiscal policies in the wake of the recent surge in food prices, the government has finally leapt into action to try and mitigate the extreme pain of inflation. The district administration in Punjab swung into action against alleged hoarders and a relief package has been approved by the federal cabinet. The package has several planks, some of which may have been motivated more by political considerations and aimed at deflecting criticism of poor governance and harsh economic policies than easing the suffering of the common man.
The relief plan puts on hold, at least for now, a decision to further increase electricity and gas tariffs, a major contributor to price escalation along with the sharp currency depreciation in recent months. A scheme to reintroduce ration cards for the ‘deserving’ before Ramzan begins is also expected. And in order to provide immediate relief to the people, the government intends to dig out Rs10bn from its pro-poor Ehsaas programme for providing food items such as wheat flour, ghee, rice and lentils at marginally reduced rates for the next five months through its network of utility stores. Few expect this arrangement to help slash food expenditure for the targeted population though. Given the tainted reputation of the Utility Stores Corporation, it is feared that a big chunk of these funds could be stolen or get lost on its way to store shelves. That is not all. The plan effectively excludes from its ambit the rural poor and a substantially large number of urban lower-middle-class households that don’t have access to these stores. The subsidy is more likely to end up in the pockets of some USC elements or in the kitchens of those who probably don’t need it.
With food prices escalating by over 20pc last month and headline inflation numbers more than doubling to the nine-year high of 14.6pc from a year ago, the government needs to realise that its policies are squeezing the economy and impoverishing the middle class. The cost of living has rocketed manifold because of rising utility prices, higher indirect taxation and steep devaluation. After cutting their other daily expenditure, middle-class households now have no option but to slash their food budgets. Economists project anaemic growth and high inflation that will push at least 1.8m people into poverty during the present fiscal year. The solution to this hardship is not to be found in short-term, myopic policies or knee-jerk responses to criticism. The situation is tough and calls for out-of-the-box solutions that look beyond ineffective, meagre price subsidies. Implementing policy measures to ease inflationary pain doesn’t necessarily have to involve a rollback of the stabilisation programme. The answer to the country’s economic problems lies in initiating a debate on the government’s current policies, and tweaking them to control inflation and grow the economy. The use of subsidies to influence the markets rarely works.