As Pakistan nears bankruptcy, patience of foreign lenders wears thin
GRAEME SMITH, Globe and Mail, Dec. 28, 2010
ISLAMABAD: A terrifying kind of mathematics has become popular among aid workers, analysts and others who spend their lives tracking the fate of Pakistan. It’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation about how the country will get through the coming years without declaring bankruptcy: take the country’s foreign debt ($53-billion), add interest, subtract the $1.8-billion that won’t arrive as scheduled on Jan. 1 from the International Monetary Fund because Islamabad failed to meet loan conditions. Add the staggering cost, perhaps $10-billion, of rebuilding after summer floods.
The numbers seem bleak. The government floated the possibility last week of running a deficit for the coming year of $15-billion.
Islamabad’s latest plan to raise revenue, a reformed tax law, has become bogged down by stubborn opposition parties, front-page criticism and street protests. The cabinet’s economic team is threatening to quit.
Pakistan needs a bailout. But is the country still a good investment?
“That’s the conversation people are having now, about whether you’d be throwing good money after bad,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, a development expert and policy analyst based in Islamabad.
The international community has accused Pakistan of poor financial management for years. Cables recently posted by the website WikiLeaks show a U.S. intelligence official complaining in 2008 about the country’s preference for spending money on strategic military hardware instead of development: “Despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world.”
Many of the nightmare scenarios envisioned after the floods have not emerged, however. Epidemics did not ravage the country as some predicted. The biggest export industry, cotton textiles, limped through the disaster but survived.
Pakistan’s own expatriate community abroad, which already sends home almost $10-billion per year, proved generous with their countrymen. In some backwater corners of the country, flood victims forced to live in camps have experienced better hygiene, education and health care than in their own villages. Those people could get a fresh start, if the international community decides to invest in major reconstruction.
“Let’s build better, this time,” Mengesha Kebede, the Pakistan head of the UN High Commission for Refugees. “There could be a qualitative improvement in the quality of life.”
Others say that demographic forces, and a thirst for education, will ensure that the country eventually pulls itself out of its current problems.
Tahir Andrabi, an economist at Pomona College who has been working on a four-year study of education in rural parts of central Pakistan, said the country already has the falling fertility rates and a growing cohort of educated women usually associated with strong development.
“It’s remarkable, what’s happening in Pakistan,” Mr. Andrabi said.
“This is supposed to be the most dangerous country in the world, and female education is skyrocketing.”