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Express Tribune Editorials – 14th December 2015

Paris — a historic agreement

Pakistan, along with 194 other countries great and small, is a signatory to the legally binding deal on climate change signed in Paris on December 12. Negotiations had been going on for a fortnight and were complex in the extreme. Much credit has to go to the French who both hosted and facilitated the conference and it is a waypoint along a road the world started to travel 20 years ago. The last conference on climate change in Copenhagen was a failure and we may never know how close the Paris conference was to failure but no matter, it is a significant success.
Success it is but, as many have observed in the hours since the conference ended, this is but a beginning, and for some a small beginning at that. The aim is to hold global temperatures to a rise of 1.5 degrees centigrade, below the two degree centigrade red line defined by some very cautious climatologists. There is a promise to raise $100 billion per year by 2020 in order to help poorer and less developed countries, one of which is Pakistan, to adapt their economies to the needs of the deal. Given the rolling energy crisis we face and the slow development of alternative power sources other than coal, honouring our commitment to the deal is going to be easier said than done. The deal envisages the ultimate phase-out of the use of fossil fuels, a massive growth in renewables and new ‘carbon markets’ that will enable countries to trade emissions and thus protect the vital forestation that is part of the ‘lung’ of planet Earth.
None of the delegates or the leaders present at the final session saw the agreement as perfect. Climate change is not some myth put about by conspiracy theorists, it is very real and Pakistan is among the top 10 countries likely to suffer from its worst effects. Extreme weather events are already more frequent and not a year passes now without loss of lives and economic ruin coming to the people of Pakistan. We warmly welcome this agreement and trust that the incumbent and successive governments work for its implementation.

An economic ‘dressing-up’

Not for the first time, the government’s economic managers have applied certain ‘tactics’ to make the country’s economic performance look better than it is. While the government blows the trumpet on increasing foreign exchange reserves, it conveniently ignores the fact that public debt forms a significant portion of the increment. It cites improved macroeconomic indicators, but ignores the help received through tumbling oil prices. Circular debt is parked in a holding company to reduce the budget deficit, but efforts aimed at decreasing that amount through power sector reforms are absent. At least technically, there is nothing wrong with such measures.
But the government’s latest such tactic is to exclude a certain portion of the loans it has taken, from the public debt figure, as it aims to decrease the debt burden on paper. The move will help the authorities in meeting an IMF condition that caps the maximum borrowings the government can make for budget financing. All this would have been easier to swallow if there were assurances that efforts would be made to reduce future borrowings. However, this move is only aimed at enabling subsequent borrowings. This is nothing new. Pakistani governments have the tendency to make most things look good on paper. They, however, ignore that regardless of which head the debt amount is parked under, nothing can change the fact that the country owes that money and will need to pay it back to the lenders. By moving it from one column to another, Pakistan’s fiscal position will not improve in reality. No short-term measure can relieve us of the debt burden. It can only reduce in actual fact if more Pakistanis contributed towards tax revenue than they currently do. By increasing its debt portfolio, Pakistan is sacrificing crucial development spending that could benefit us. The SBP and the finance ministry differ on the amount of public debt the country owes. What can be agreed upon is that it is definitely more than Rs18.14 trillion and needs urgent attention.

The struggle to educate

Of the many battles that Pakistan has to fight, one of the most important — and hardest to win — is to educate. Education is frequently spoken of by successive governments as being vital to growth and development — which it is — and yet the national education budget has never exceeded more than four per cent of GDP since Partition, and with the 18th Amendment devolving education budgets to the provinces, a yawning hole in the capacity to implement is revealed. As a nation, Pakistan is singularly ill-prepared to reap the benefits of the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ and is playing catch-up educationally to every country in the region, Afghanistan excepted.
Thus it is that a welcome is to be extended to the launching of the Education Reforms Programme, which aims to renovate and upgrade 422 schools in the federal capital, Islamabad. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spoke at the centenary celebrations of Islamia College in Peshawar saying that his government was revolutionising education via an improved curriculum, training for teachers and an improvement of facilities that will strengthen the education base. Crucially, he urged provincial governments to do the same and there lies the rub. Laudable as the uplift of schools in Peshawar and Islamabad no doubt is, there are countless thousands of schools across rural Pakistan — and despite galloping urbanisation, we are still primarily a rural country in terms of where the population lives — that are below par in every respect. No toilets, no boundary walls and often, no teachers. Irregular pay, no library or science laboratories and no training for the often poorly educated teachers. There is no uniformity in the national curriculum and sectarianism still poisons textbooks, as does a revisionist view of history. We do not in any way begrudge the beneficiaries of this latest initiative their good fortune, and it will be to the benefit of countless thousands of teachers and children, but if there is to be a true revolution in the education sector in Pakistan, there must be uniformity across the land and any announcement to that effect we would warmly applaud.
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