Dawn Editorial 31st December 2023

In democracy’s crosshairs

IT is usually assumed that spying on citizens is a feature of authoritarian regimes. But if one were to ask American whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the answer would be a resounding no. Democracies are in trouble and the assorted freedoms they once promised are crumbling. The media bears the brunt of the betrayal, a fair share of which comes from perennially fragile South Asian democracies. But it is in India that democracy is sliding on the steepest of slippery slopes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in particular, has put Indian and foreign media alike in the crosshairs of his Hindu nationalist project. The raid on the BBC’s offices following its well-chronicled documentary on the Gujarat pogroms was symbolic of the times. Journalists are being harassed and jailed, opposition leaders getting expelled and suspended en masse from parliament.

It was of a piece with the rot when in October, Apple warned independent Indian journalists and opposition politicians that government hackers may have tried to break into their iPhones. Mr Modi’s officials promptly acted the next day, but against Apple, questioning whether the Silicon Valley company’s internal threat algorithms were not faulty. An investigation was announced into the security of Apple devices, instead. Many of the more than 20 people who received Apple’s recent warnings have been publicly critical of Mr Modi or his long-time ally, Gautam Adani, an Indian energy and infrastructure tycoon. Of the journalists who received notifications, Anand Mangnale and Ravi Nair belonged to the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a global alliance of independent, investigative newsrooms. A day after the OCCRP emailed Mr Adani seeking comment for a proposed story on alleged stock manipulation, a forensic analysis of Mr Mangnale’s phone by Amnesty International, and shared with The Washington Post, found the Israeli spyware Pegasus planted in it. Is it a coincidence that Mr Adani runs Israel’s Haifa port, and Mr Modi supports Israel’s war in Gaza? Where do freedoms stand a chance?

Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2023


Promise of Exim

THE operationalisation of the Export-Import Bank ought to transform the banking and trade finance landscape in Pakistan. It is expected to boost the competitiveness of exporters, create opportunities for the export of services, help exporters diversify products and markets, and mitigate risks to banks. Exim’s creation and operationalisation was a key goal of the previous IMF programme signed in 2019, but was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and political and economic turmoil in the country. Such institutions, as pointed out by caretaker finance minister Shamshad Akhtar in her address at the bank’s launch recently, play a tremendous role in export promotion. This can be gauged from the fact that export-import institutions disbursed $2.5tr of trade financing across the globe, helping to drive up the exports of over 60 countries last year. One of the most successful institutions is the Vietnam Exim, which has helped push the country’s exports from $124bn in 2012 to $336bn in 2022. Whether or not the Pakistani version of the bank succeeds in enhancing exports depends largely on the government’s ability to get international reinsurance to scale up its operations.

Under the IMF programme, the powers to disburse concessionary credit for exporters will now be transferred gradually from the State Bank to the Exim bank in a phased manner. With this, the responsibility to provide subsidy on these loans will be shifted to the finance ministry through budget allocations. This should bring about transparency in the disbursement of concessionary credit, and increase such financing for small and medium exporters, who are more in need of support and were until now at a disadvantage because of the influence of large businesses. At the same time, it will make monetary policy transmission more effective in taming inflation. While the other core function of the bank will be to introduce export credit insurance products to protect exporters against the risk of credit default on their foreign receivables and mitigate risks to bank, it is also expected to support efforts to crowd in foreign direct investment and green finance as its Vietnamese counterpart has done. In short, the new institution will strengthen external trade, attract investments, and foster broader economic growth in the country. However, it would have to be shielded from political interference to allow it to implement its mandate effectively and transparently.

Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2023


New beginnings?

POLITICAL chaos, economic fragility and resurgent terrorism were the key issues confronting Pakistan in 2023, and will have to be dealt with head-on in 2024 by the new government if the country is to embark on the path to stability.

Needless to say, the three issues are interlinked, and only a credible election bringing about an uncontroversial administration can address these existential issues. Any other outcome — especially one that is managed in an undemocratic manner — will deepen our miseries.

The abyss of default was narrowly averted in 2023, but that does not mean we are in the clear. As observers have noted, stability has returned, but unless we fix our economic fundamentals, the next financial crisis may not be too far off. While promises of our friends in the Gulf to pour in billions of dollars are reassuring, structural changes are what is really required. This entails living within our means, and not depending on the benevolence of others in order to run the country.

Further, the elite must bear the largest burden of financial readjustment and austerity, not the toiling masses that have already been crushed by record inflation.

It is a given that financial solvency can only be achieved through political stability, which the country has been missing for the last several years. Controversy continues to dog the pre-election process, and if the 2024 polls are judged unfair by the electorate and the principal political players, stability will continue to elude Pakistan. In fact, the success of all future state policies is linked to a non-controversial, democratically elected set-up.

With regard to terrorism, 2023 saw a huge surge in attacks by the banned TTP and allied groups, mostly targeting security forces. The incoming dispensation will have to act fast before these militant attacks transform into a full-blown terrorist insurgency that military operations can at least partially quell.

The new set-up will also have to frame a proactive foreign policy. The larger region — the Gulf and the Middle East — is ready to explode, and Pakistan must be prepared for the geopolitical, economic and military fallout should a wider conflagration erupt.

Meanwhile, ties are at their lowest with India, and later in 2024, a new government will also take the reins in New Delhi. Managing this prickly relationship, reinvigorating the peace process, and finding a just solution to the Kashmir question will be major challenges vis-à-vis ties with India.

Suffice it to say, good governance will not be easy for the next administration. State institutions can take either of two paths in 2024: the first entails respect for the constitutional order and working to build a more progressive country; the second is to keep plodding along the same tired course, and prepare to face the consequences.

Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2023

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