Pakistan fears poverty surge
By Syed Fazl-e-Haider
QUETTA, Pakistan - Concern is growing in Pakistan that levels of poverty may
worsen if the country gets additional support from the International Monetary
Fund (IMF) in addition to a US$7.6 billion deal agreed late last year. A better
source of cash, they say, would be the United States in return for Pakistan's
contribution to the "war on terror".
The poverty rate has jumped to 37.5% from 23.9% during the past three years.
More than 64 million people, out of a 160-million population, were living below
the poverty line in 2008, as against 35.5 million people in 2005, according to
the Planning Commission of Pakistan.
Pakistan is seeking an additional $4.5 billion loan after agreeing to the $7.6
billion standby loan last November as it grappled with
a 30-year high inflation rate and fast-depleting foreign exchange reserves.
Strict IMF conditions have forced the government to ignore social-sector
spending and more people are being pushed below the poverty line. A reduction
in the fiscal deficit, higher interest rates and a cut in the country's
development program have been dictated by the IMF, leading to further increases
in unemployment and poverty levels. Local experts fear that tough IMF
conditions will drag the country further into a vicious circle of poverty while
increasing debt-servicing liabilities.
The government forecasts that the economy, South Asia's second-biggest, will
grow at its slowest in seven years after raising interest rates as part of the
IMF conditions. The fund late last year released $3.1 billion as the first
installment to save Pakistan from defaulting on external payments. Pakistani
and IMF officials are now holding talks, due to last until February 26, in
Dubai in the United Arab Emirates as part of a review for disbursing the second
installment of $775 million under the 23-month program.
"Pakistan is [also] to ask for an additional loan of $4.5 billion from the IMF
to patch up an economy wilting under a widening trade deficit," the private Geo
TV channel reported, citing a Finance Ministry official. Pakistan may seek that
amount from the IMF as the country's fight against terrorists is hurting the
economy, Shaukat Tarin, the finance adviser to the prime minister, said on
February 15, according to Bloomberg.
While there is little question that Pakistan needs help in meeting its
financial obligations, critics question whether the IMF terms and payback
conditions do not make the US a more desirable source of support, given the
partnership the two countries profess in the "war on terror" on Pakistan's
eastern border with Afghanistan.
"Before asking for more loans, the government needs to say how it will pay it
back?" Business Recorder quoted Muzzammil Aslam, an economist at KASB
Securities in Karachi, as saying. "The government should seek aid from the US,
and not a loan from the IMF, as compensation for fighting terrorists. It is
time to consolidate the economy and adjust policies for pro-investment
activities. The IMF loan can only be used for balance of payments and building
foreign reserves. The government needs to cut interest rates to boost
Islamabad is facing a 45 billion rupee (US$564 million) shortfall in revenue in
the first seven months of the current fiscal year, which runs to the end of
June, after cutting the budget deficit 27.24% during the first half of the
fiscal year to 259 billion rupees compared with a year earlier.
The fiscal deficit is targeted to decline to 4.2% of GDP this fiscal year from
7.4% in 2007-08. In the first six months, the deficit was held back to 1.9% of
GDP against a 2% target.
"To meet the IMF's 4.2% fiscal deficit condition, a major cut was made to the
development budget," according to a report published in Business Recorder. The
report, citing a Planning Commission document, said achieving IMF conditions
ultimately would lead to ignoring social sector spending.
The government spent only 19% of the federal Public Social Development Program
(PSDP) total allocation of 371 billion rupees, during the six months through
December, the lowest since 2005. This PSDP has already been cut by 100 billion
Pakistani authorities finalizing the next budget outlay will keep in view the
IMF's terms and conditions, according to a report in The News.
These terms include a commitment to increase the ratio of tax to gross domestic
product. The Federal Board of Revenue submitted to the IMF an action plan for
the tax reforms late last year. If the plan is approved, the government will
have to choose between increasing the tax base by incorporating the agriculture
sector, real estate and stock markets under the tax net or pile up new taxes on
Taking the latter route would risk public unrest and political agitation.
Local industrialists, meanwhile, are unhappy over the central bank's decision
to keep interest rates at 15%, a level well above rates in the developed world.
Critics say the government agreed with the IMF to raise the discount rate by
350 basis points in two phases, with an increase of 200 basis points (or two
percentage points) made effective before last year's $7.6 billion deal was
approved by the IMF board. An increase of 150 basis points would be dependent
on the behavior of relevant indicators this fiscal year.
Industrialists are already struggling from the global slowdown, with textile
exports falling 1.79% during the first six months of the current fiscal year.
It now looks unlikely that the export target of over $22 billion for the full
12 months will be met.
"The financial crisis in the US and Europe [Pakistan's most important textile
markets] has a spiral impact and Pakistani textile products are no exception to
this global issue," the Daily Times reported Federal Textile Commissioner
Mohammad Idris as saying.
Exports are being hit despite a more than 30% deprecation of the rupee, what
has increased import costs and removed the potential benefits of a 70% decline
in the price of oil in the international market. The country’s oil import bill
increased by 45% to $5.48 billion during the first five months of the current
fiscal year, from $3.8 billion over the same months the previous year,
according to the Federal Board of Revenue.
The oil import bill did decline in November, but only on the back of a steep
dip in demand from the slowing economy.
The government has given a commitment to the IMF to reduce domestically
financed development spending by about 1% of GDP through better prioritization
of projects. The government wants a total adjustment of 100 billion rupees by
slashing the Public Sector Development Programme, according to Business
The Planning Commission of Pakistan has sent a summary of its rationalization
proposals to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. In the next phase, projects
that require foreign lending will be cut in the face of government difficulties
in obtaining loans from international donors, the report said, citing
The cuts will come amid forecasts of an average 2% growth in Pakistan's economy
by June, with expansion now dependent on the performance of agriculture after
the manufacturing sector shrunk 6.5% in the six months through December.
The IMF has forecast real GDP growth of 3.5% in the year through June, down
from an average of 6.8% in the past five years and the slowest pace in seven
Syed Fazl-e-Haider(email@example.com) is a Quetta-based
development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of six books, including
The Economic Development of Balochistan, published in May 2004.