Business Recorder, December 10, 2014

Long gone are the days of top -down planning commissions that directed the economy from commanding heights; the future in todays market-led globalized world lies only in what may be called as indicative planning. This was the starting point of one of the plenary sessions (titled: Planning in 21st Century) at the SDPIs annual conference that kicked off yesterday in Islamabad.

The panellists that included representatives from Indian and Bangladeshs economic communities, along with their Pakistani counterparts, agreed in identifying that planning in todays world has to be a more dynamic exercise – something which this column has been arguing time and again.
The reason for that is simple: the 21st century is on a bullet train to evolution to the point that it is increasingly becoming volatile. Anything and everything can happen, so try not to be off guard; black swans that emerged rather rarely in the preceding centuries are now emerging more rapidly and dissipating at the same pace.

In such an environment, there are some who argue that why plan in the first place. Why hold this sense of grandeur to channel the economy and indeed the society in any direction? they ask. But to these voices one must quip that just because seas have become stormy it doesn mean that the captain should stop giving directions to better manage the ship and try to reach relatively safer waters. We all need a sense of direction and a North Star to guide us.

One such North Star is the UNs MDGs that serve as the guiding force in several countries. The same has been adopted by and large in Planning Commission of Pakistans latest Vision 2025 document. But there are two other elements that Pakistans Planning Commission should consider looking at.
First, as has been demanded in Indian constitution – though not entirely practised to the fullest – is the adoption of district level planning council. These are to help focus on local variations in development, albeit of course it would require a listening government, an effective local government – things that remain elusive in Pakistans society.

The second thing that this column would like to suggest is to have members from the private sector on the board of the planning commission, at home and abroad. These members should come from the academia, the media, think tanks and other representatives from the civil society. Perhaps even representatives from business community, just so long they do not hijack the commission to their favour alone.
The idea is not just to invite private sector input in the planning process – as is done via external consultations – but to have them on board in the execution and oversight process as well. This would not only improve the feedback loop, but would also be more consultative in a relatively real time basis, as against a one-off consultative exercise.

Having private sector members on the board of planning commission can also help the commission be more responsive to the needs to the ever changing economy, and the society at large, as the private sector is arguably better placed in reading the pulse of the economy and react to it on a timely basis.

When BR Research excitedly pitched this idea to Pradeep Mehta, the secretary general of CUTS International – one of India’s top civil society think tanks, to find out what he thinks about it, he responded by saying that the same has already been proposed in India. So much for a new idea!
Anyway, following the scrapping of India’s Planning Commission by Narendra Modi, a policy proposal to have private sector representation on the board of India’s soon-to-be-launched new planning body has been put forward and given Modi’s tilt towards the market, it will not be surprising if that prescription is accepted. Whether Pakistan adopts a similar strategy depends how visionary the Vision-walas are.

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