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Conversation with Economist Namet Ilahi on Pakistan’s Biggest Challenges, Opportunities

January 27, 2016

Blog-Banner_60-60v2The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Pakistan, Ameena Ilahi, recently spoke with veteran development practitioner and economist, Namet Ilahi, who began his career in the early 1970s as Pakistan’s joint secretary in the Planning Commission, and since worked as a lead consultant in over a dozen countries on critical development challenges in the environment, governance, institutional strengthening, and public policy. Namet Ilahi also happens to be Ameena Ilahi’s father.

As an accomplished development practitioner, looking back, what do you consider the highlight or most remarkable moment in your career?

In Pakistan, the development sector really began to flourish in the 1970s when I served as joint secretary in the Planning Commission. I was part of a management team that encouraged political, social, and economic progress and growth in the country. Since migrating to the West and completing my doctorate, I have worked in many developing countries as a lead economist, and every such initiative has given me an immense sense of accomplishment. I recall two important achievements during my career. In the early 1990s, I led environment sector projects in Indonesia and other countries on behalf of the Canadian government during a period when the environment was not a strategic focus for most countries, much less donor agencies. I reviewed options for country and water sector programming in Indonesia, which subsequently led to further work in improving the country’s water sector, including the planning of the Bongo Irrigation Project. In Sri Lanka, I undertook a cost-benefit and institutional analysis for the planning of the Mahaweli Environmental Rehabilitation Program. There were clearly challenges in establishing credibility in the environment sector at that particular time, but overall these were successful projects with immeasurable effects on long-term thinking in this sector.

Another milestone was when I served as a public finance Advisor to the Ministry of Public Service in Zimbabwe during which time I developed and delivered training courses for civil servants there. Zimbabwe was a newly independent country at that time, and the state governance structures lacked resources and technical depth. I had to develop and maintain trust among local government representatives and stakeholders to be able to strengthen their institutional capacity and ensure sustainability. It proved a very challenging and at the same time, promising task, yet it has been one of my most memorable experiences as a development practitioner.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities that the future holds for Pakistan?

During the period when I served with the Government of Pakistan in the 1970s, there were tremendous developmental opportunities and potential for progress in the country. More importantly, there was a commitment among the state and Pakistani citizens toward social and economic advancement, and to upholding the highest level of standards in service delivery. With ensuing political instability in the decades to come, however, the nation underwent significant transformations that led to weakened democratic systems, economic underdevelopment, increased corruption, political failures, and social bifurcation.

In my view, good governance is a prerequisite to progress and development for any country. Effective governing structures and institutions, backed by strong democratic processes and rule of law are the basic foundations upon which countries can thrive. Pakistan’s development has repeatedly been undermined by poor governance, leading to the enormous economic, energy, environmental, and security related challenges we see today. Increasing levels of corruption and nepotism have demoralized capable and talented individuals to avail suitable opportunities they deserve on the basis of merit, abilities, and skills. Lack of access to quality education – particularly for girls – is another important factor in the country’s underdevelopment. Lack of investment in girls’ education has perpetuated the cycle of poverty, as uneducated girls face heavy burdens later in life through early marriages, numerous pregnancies, and malnutrition. One of the greatest long-term challenges for Pakistan is the lack of opportunity for higher education in rural areas, particularly for girls.

Lack of environmental concern is also an important and often overlooked consideration, particularly in the water sector. Pakistan faces major challenges in water scarcity, gas shortages, and energy, all of which have had substantial economic implications for the country. Extended periods without electricity has undoubtedly affected industries and businesses, while increasing urbanization and continued population growth will put added stress on water and other environmental resources.

Pakistan has tremendous opportunity to capitalize on its booming youth population. Pakistan has recently witnessed an upsurge of a talented and skillful pool of youth. This generation is globally connected, socially and politically active, better educated, knowledgeable about national and international issues, and technologically savvy. They are also energetic, compassionate, talented, and committed to bringing positive, enduring changes in the country. The education sector is seeing slow improvements, although far from meeting global standards in education. Higher percentage of girls are seeking education, entering professional fields and making gainful contributions. It is a major leap toward progress but surely will take some time before we are at par with the developed world.

Based on your leadership experience, what advice would you give to young leaders in your country today?

Pakistan has immense talent in its new generation of youth, who are resourceful, socially, politically and economically mobilized, and motivated to bring positive changes in Pakistan. The youth today are not burdened by history or patronage; with higher levels of education and global connections, the youth have access to knowledge and technology, allowing them to confidently demand for their rights and better living conditions. Based on my experience, I would like to advise the youth to expand their minds and explore new vistas of personal and professional development. Seek higher education, avail opportunities and contribute back to society and the country at large. Unfortunately, I see resentment and disappointment among youth due to the lack of viable opportunities and resources which prompts them to seek opportunities outside Pakistan. However, I would advise the youth to bring a change within themselves; it will eventually bring a change in the larger society.

As a former grantee of The Asia Foundation, what are your recollections about the experience and how did it help to shape your career?

It was when I was serving as the joint secretary in Pakistan from 1972 to 1976 that I applied for an academic scholarship with The Asia Foundation to pursue higher studies. The opportunity had a profound impact on me and my family in that it literally changed the course of our lives. The scholarship offered me the opportunity to travel to the United States to pursue a doctorate in public administration at Harvard University. Since completing my PhD, I’ve traveled the globe in pursuit of development work with leading international organizations and local government ministries of several developing countries. My original plans to return and make a positive contribution to my country after completion of my studies were sidetracked when, during my tenure in Boston, Pakistan’s democratic government had been toppled and seized by military dictatorship. While this was an unfortunate thing at the time, the scholarship has had a multiplier effect, and today, other members of my immediate family are able to prosper in a democratic, open, and progressive country where they could realize their aspirations.

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