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Express Tribune Editorials – 25th March 2016

Trigger-happy security guards

Ours is a society that has become increasingly comfortable around weapons, despite this increased weaponisation leading to innocent lives being lost in great numbers. The most recent victim of the ruthless use of weapons is an 11-year-old boy, who was shot dead by a private security guard in Karachi’s residential area of Bahadurabad. The reason behind the child’s death is impossible to come to terms with. He was playing on the road with a toy mask over his face, which according to the guard, startled him and he mistook the boy for a ghost. The guard reacted by shooting him in the neck. There can be no words to express the horror one feels at this brutality. This is not the first incident of its kind. One is reminded of a similar incident where a 17-year-old was shot dead by his classmate’s guard in Karachi a few years ago.

The ease with which guns are available in the country is frightening to say the least. Weapons point down from rooftops as students enter school or college premises. There are armed guards outside restaurants, at parks, and gun nuzzles point at ordinary citizens from the windows of vehicles. Yet, the authorities appear to be least bothered with the question of regulating the use of guns. This becomes an especially serious issue when one considers how private security firms in the country operate, which often provide their guards with weapons without carrying out prior checks on the personnel they hire. In the case of this particular tragedy, the security firm that had employed the guard is equally responsible for the child’s death. Private security firms often hire their personnel without giving adequate attention to their training. Considering the nature of the job, it is essential to not only provide training to guards at private security firms, but to also have a stringent hiring process as well as placing checks on both mental and physical health. If the state is unable to provide security for all its citizens, the least it can do is regulate the activities of private security companies.

Changing horizons

The evolution of Pakistan’s foreign policy in the last two years has been both rapid and positive. For decades, it has been hamstrung by the cloying dependency on particularly the Arab states in the Gulf region. Those relationships were — and still are — essentially transactional and energy-based. There is little flowing from Pakistan into the countries of the Arabian peninsula beyond migrant workers with the reciprocal outflow of their remittances. In historical cultural terms, Pakistan is more closely linked to the Aryan groups than the Arab, and our warming relationship with Iran may be seen as something of a course correction in that context.

President Dr Hassan Rouhani of Iran is making a visit to Pakistan on March 25-26. He is here at the invitation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is himself gradually emerging as having elements of statesmanship about his tenure as well as a grasp of realpolitik. We share a border with Iran unlike the Arab world, and have a range of common interests that reach far beyond our energy needs. President Rouhani’s entourage is a reflection of that. This is no mere protocol mission, a glorified photo-op; this is about doing business. The lifting of sanctions post to the nuclear non-proliferation deal reached between Iran and a basket of nations in 2015 is the key that is unlocking doors everywhere. Sanctions are not yet completely gone, and care will need to be taken with some transactions if the ire of Uncle Sam is not to be triggered. Thus it is that at least initially, trade is to be conducted in euros rather than American dollars, avoiding the need to get clearance from a US intermediary bank. There are ‘sensitivities’. Pakistan has joined — or has been co-opted, there is a lack of clarity — into the 34-nation Saudi-led coalition designed to counter terrorism. Iran was not invited. Neither Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Doubtless that will be discussed, as will our polite demurral of an offer to join the Saudi ground campaign in Yemen, a country where Iran has its own agenda, which is not congruent with that of the Saudis. There are interesting outcomes on the near horizon.

A strategic trade framework

In another delayed but much-awaited announcement, the government unveiled a medium-term Strategic Trade Policy Framework 2015-18 that plans to boost the country’s exports by almost 50 per cent to $35 billion by the end of fiscal year 2018. The framework was announced a day after the government also put forward the automotive policy for the next five years, signaling that the authorities have finally heeded to, and finalised, its economic goals in writing. However, increasing exports by assigning an ambitious target will be a very difficult task to accomplish, as general statements like “export competitiveness would improve by focusing on quality infrastructure, labour productivity etc” are not going to improve a field Pakistan has struggled in for years.

Even so, the positive aspect here is that the energy crisis may be on its way to being resolved and the influx of LNG and falling oil prices are going to help industries focus on production. For long, the very basic issue for Pakistan has been to provide enough energy to businesses to run their operations. In such a scenario, increasing exports seemed like an improbable task. But as the country maintains its momentum in resolving its power woes, a part of the problem could be resolved.

The focus on improving compliance with international standards — especially in the case of edible items — is one key area that can help Pakistan improve its export competitiveness. An economic slowdown in Pakistan’s favoured markets and increased competition in its favoured sectors have already led to a decline in exports. A solution to the problem of declining exports is diversification — not just in the kinds of products being made, but the markets the items are sent to. Here, diplomacy and the private sector need to take the lead. Businesses need to be able to persuade and impress the government enough for it to allow them some incentives that would enable them to tap unexplored markets. The trade policy framework is trying to do that. What is now needed is for the private sector to make the requisite effort as well. A demand-driven growth model is needed, but it has to be complemented by an export-led model that can boost the economy. Too much dependence on either is always problematic. This is what our policymakers and the private sector need to realise.

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