Pakistan’s political elites look to overseas Pakistanis to bankroll the country - and their retirements

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zafar Bangash

Jumada' al-Akhirah 21, 1420 1999-10-01


by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 15, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1420)

Political instability is so much a part of life in Pakistan that it hardly evokes any concern. It is when the escalation of political instability begins to threaten economic life that the powers-that-be get restless and send their current ‘leader’ packing. That point may be approaching fast for prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Pakistan’s economic misfortunes are not entirely his doing, although it would be naive to dismiss allegations of corruption against his family and associates as entirely enemy-inspired. Pakistan has not known an honest politician from its earliest days. Not only is honesty virtually unheard of in Pakistan, but honest people are frankly ridiculed as simpletons.

Pakistan’s present economic predicament can be traced to the aftermath of the nuclear explosions in May 1998. Its fragile economy was thrown into turmoil by the economic sanctions imposed by the US and its allies. This in itself is indicative of how precarious Pakistan’s existence has become. Like a heroin-addict who cannot do without a regular supply, Pakistan depends for its survival on handouts from the west. Withhold these, and the country teeters.

This is a sorry state of affairs that did not come about overnight. Sharif’s predecessor, Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Zardari, emptied the country’s vaults before being thrown out. The fact that they were allowed to do so for nearly three years also indicates the culture of corruption that has permeated all levels of government and society. Its history goes much further back.

Of late, the Pakistani government has been trying to attract money from the one source that it can emotionally blackmail: overseas Pakistanis. According to conservative estimates, overseas Pakistanis, especially in North America, are worth about US$85 billion. This is a fortune of unimaginable proportions which has got the gnomes in Pakistan drooling. If they could get their grubby hands on even a portion of this vast sum, it would solve many of their problems. Compare this with the humiliation Nawaz Sharif has to undergo in order to get a tranche of $280 million from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and one gets the true picture.

In recent years, successive Pakistani governments have floated numerous plans to get their hands on some of the $85 billion. The annual conventions of the Overseas Pakistanis Foundation (OPF) have attracted Pakistanis from different parts of the world. This year’s convention in Islamabad in mid-August was a grand affair. Several outlandish proposals were floated by participants and approved by the prime minister instantly. For instance, it was proposed that Overseas Pakistanis be allowed to start and operate their own airline. A bank proposal was also floated and immediately approved, without pause to consider the legal and international implications of such proposals.

The prime minister was also asked to explain why Foreign Currency Accounts (FCAs) were frozen last year. Sharif threw this hot potato into the lap of finance minister Sartaj Aziz, who candidly admitted that out of the US$11 billion deposited, there was only $1 billion left at the time of the nuclear tests. Had the government not frozen these accounts, he explained, there would have been be a run on banks and the government would be unable to meet its obligations.

Aziz’s frankness, while creditable, does nothing to solve the problem of people who had deposited their hard-earned income into these accounts after receiving guarantees from the prime minister himself. What good are such guarantees if at the first opportunity, the government reneges on its solemn pledge and violates its own constitution?

Pakistanis living abroad feel a natural affinity with the country of their birth and would like to help but tales of corruption and mismanagement work as strong inhibitors. In the seventies and eighties, Pakistanis working in the Middle East sent some US$2 to $3 billion in remittances annually. Even based on the lower figure, this amounts to more than $50 billion. There is virtually no trace of this money. True, much of the money was sent to relatives for their upkeep or to build houses, but it entered the Pakistani economy and added to the wealth of the country. Successive governments have frittered these resources, which could have been used for such fundamental and long-lasting policies as industrial development. Instead, the ruling elites have large bank accounts in Switzerland, France, Britain and the US. Overseas Pakistanis are likely to ask: if the government is sincere in its promises, why do the rulers and their hangers-on do not bring their foreign currency back into the country first?

One reason - simple greed apart - is that many are preparing to move out if the country descends into political chaos to accompany the economic chaos they have created. While the Jama’at-e Islami offers no alternative to the existing system, the crowds it has brought into the streets to protest against Sharif’s cosying to India and other unpopular policies terrify the country’s Elites. Benazir Bhutto is not the only politician to have made plans for a comfortable exile.

While ensuring the survival of Pakistan is essential for the Islamic movement, the root causes of its problems must be analysed and understood before throwing money at it. Pakistanis abroad should tell the ruling elites: put your money where your mouths are before asking others for their hard-earned income which may be pilfered by the plane load.

Honest and clean government, rather than inducements such as voting rights and special $200-identity cards for overseas Pakistanis, would probably be far more effective in attracting investment. But clean government is the one thing that the present elites cannot afford to permit, and are in any case incapable of providing. In fact, the thought would probably not even occur to them.

Muslimedia: October 1-15, 1999

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