Apr 262008

While it is important to debate issues, it is equally, if not more, important to set the parameters of the debate right
We are told that General (retd) Pervez Musharraf spent Rs1.5 billion on foreign trips in the last eight years. Predictably there is some consternation over this sum because any amount on the expenditure side involving the exchequer that touches the one billion mark and is presented without reference to other factors is likely to evoke negative emotions.

There is yet another factor, the current political fad, or call it temptation, to add another villainy to Mr Musharraf’s long list of villainies. But it would be wrong to do so not because Mr Musharraf is sacred but because it is important to debate such issues and, for that reason alone, we need to set the parameters of the debate right.

That tv channels are discussing this issue is good; that most are debating it wrongly is bad.

First, this money has been spent over eight years; second, it comes to just over USD23 million (at the rate of 1 USD = 64.67 PKR); third, it means nothing to quote expenditure without reference to any earning — or even to quote anything as standalone.

The question to ask then is: Can we determine that the cost of Mr Musharraf’s foreign jaunts resulted in any benefit for Pakistan?

We can set the benchmarks for those benefits: have the foreign exchange reserves increased; has FDI increased; has there been more spending in the development sector and so on.

When Mr Musharraf took over, forex reserves stood at USD800 million; today they are upwards of USD16 billion. The debate should focus on whether there is at least a correlation, if not a causal linkage, between this and Mr Musharraf’s foreign visits.

The same can be applied to FDI, which has gone up from being in the millions in 2001 to over USD6 billion in 2007. As for spending in the development sector, budget documents and State Bank reports can be relied on. One may also want to study the correlation or a causal linkage between more fiscal space and an expansionary monetary policy and Mr Musharraf’s jaunts.

The result may be in the negative — i.e. we may determine that his winging had nothing to do with anything that Pakistan got on the basis of some of the benchmarks we have noted above or any others that could be worked out. Or, conversely, it may be found that his visits did contribute something and that that something did exceed the expenditure of USD 23 million by many hundred or thousand millions in terms of direct and indirect benefits.

So, while debate we must such issues, especially expenditures involving public funds, it is equally, if not more, important to put things in a perspective. For instance it would be downright ridiculous to say that Mr Musharraf was being extravagant while one bag of flour has gone beyond the reach of the common man. But that is exactly how some of us choose to debate an issue, mixing up categories to the point of becoming absurd.

There is also need, if we are on this issue, to compare Mr Musharraf’s jaunts with what happened during the nineties. This can be done in two ways: one, by comparing expenditures in absolute terms (since neither prime minister stayed in the saddle for eight years we could take the figure for what they actually spent and use the average to add up to eight years); two, we could use the same benchmarks and compare the cost with the benefits.

I say this because during Ms Benazir Bhutto’s second tenure (1993-96), at an early stage I wrote a piece for The Frontier Post captioned “On board the prime minister’s plane”. There were two prompts for the write-up. Bagehot had written in The Economist about then British prime minister John Major’s foreign travels and Ms Bhutto had decided to go on an international whistle-stop.

Bagehot was of the view that given the stature of the United Kingdom, it was unlikely that Mr Major would achieve much from flying around; that he was better off staying at home. Taking a cue from him I wondered if Pakistan ever had such standing for Ms Bhutto to either emulate Lord Palmerston or work the personal chemistry to the advantage of Pakistan.

I agreed with Bagehot that today’s fresh breath is invariably tomorrow’s halitosis and therefore leaders of middle-sized powers should be very careful in determining what benefits could be had by making personal appearances in foreign capitals.

This essentially proves two things: one, both categories of leaders in Pakistan, heroes as well as today’s villains, have been jetting around; two, we need to figure out whether doing so is much use.

I have a sneaking suspicion, though. If we indeed sat down to working this out, Mr Musharraf may just come out comparatively better than the others. Here’s why. Sometimes, this kind of thing works better when circumstances place a country in the belly of the beast. And that’s where Pakistan has been residing since September 11, 2001.

So maybe, just maybe, Mr Musharraf did invest wisely. But no one need take my hunch for it. Back-of-the-envelope arithmetic takes just that, a used envelope.

Ejaz Haider is Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and Consulting Editor of The Friday Times. He can be reached at sapper@dailytimes.com.pk

Courtesy: Daily Times, 26/4/2008

 Posted by at 8:41 am

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