Express Tribune Editorials | July 9, 2020

‘Ghost schemes’

The rulers of Sindh seem to have gained expertise in introducing new terms carrying the prefix “ghost”. People have long been familiar with “ghost schools”, and now they are getting familiar with “ghost schemes” worth billions of rupees. A report in this newspaper says during the previous budget session, many were surprised to find massive amounts earmarked for development projects but there was nothing to show by way of progress on the ground nor were there any explanations by the departments concerned.

The provincial government had allocated Rs2.3 billion anticipating floods in 2017. The floods never occurred, but details of expenditure for the purpose was shown in the budget books. According to official documents, the irrigation department had devised nine pipehole schemes expecting flood and rain emergency. The floods were anticipated in 2017, the schemes were approved in 2018, and the funds were shown utilised in 2019 and 2020. Officials of the relevant department say they are unaware of the issue. An official of the irrigation department, however, says the funds were utilised for rain emergency, because there was a forecast of heavy rains and the government spent the allocated amount on reinforcing embankments on the Indus. Another official from the department claimed the allocated funds were diverted to controlling urban flooding. Experience in recent years shows that the funds were used for other purposes but not spent on containing urban flooding. No official came up with a convincing explanation as regards the funds.


GDA parliamentary party leader Hasnain Mirza says he had asked the CM and other ministers about those funds of Rs2.1 billion meant to tackle floods in 2017, which never occurred. A scheme for setting up a cadet college in Badin was approved in 2017. The scheme is yet to get off the ground but the budget documents show that Rs25 million had been spent on it. This gives a glimpse of the level of alleged official corruption in Sindh.


New Trump order

US President Donald Trump’s hatred of foreigners was already well known, but he now appears to be taking it to new levels. The US is now threatening to deport foreign students whose universities have shifted classes online in light of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Thus the foreign students in the US — 8,000 of whom belong to Pakistan, according to the US embassy in Islamabad — are left with the option of risking their lives or risking deportation. In many cases, the choice may not even be theirs. World-class schools such as Harvard are among the 8% of American universities that have already confirmed that they will be shifting to online-only models for the fall semester, meaning that international students at these schools will be deported.

Around 23% will be following hybrid models, and almost 9% of universities still have to decide, while the rest will open for normal classes. But even in the case of the hybrid models, students may not be able to pick the right course combinations for their degrees without risking deportation. Students who cannot figure out a way to meet the classroom quotas at their current schools could transfer away from their dream schools and still be deported for failing to meet the requirements.

Who does this benefit? Not even the Trump administration knows. One suggestion has been that Trump fears these students may commit visa fraud to stay in the country. But unlike 67% of his wives — or 100% of his foreign-born wives — most international students are highly-qualified upstanding citizens who either return home or legally get jobs in the US.

The US was the biggest beneficiary of its international student programmes. These students paid top dollar — as much as three times the fees for local students. Their presence in the US also provides US companies with the opportunity to scout and hire top minds, while for local students, they provide multicultural exposure. Without those fees, many universities, especially state-run ones, will struggle to operate. Without those top minds, US innovation may lag. Without that multiculturalism, xenophobia may strengthen. Considering that last point, maybe Team Trump does know what it’s doing.


Our saviours abroad

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the global economy. The contagious disease has forced many businesses and industries, which cannot switch to work from home, to shut. In part, it forced the national economy to register, for the first time, negative growth. And while the country tackles immense economic challenges at home, it is now facing a crucial problem — the loss of some external inflows.

For years now, the only thing shoring up Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves was a steady stream of remittances from its army of migrant workers around the world. The largest contributors to this remittance economy are the millions of workers in the Gulf. When the pandemic hit, it impacted thousands of these workers. Many of them, particularly labourers, lost their jobs and with it their only means of staying in these countries. The government operated emergency flights to bring many of these people back in the past four months.

It was recently suggested that some 5 million households, who have at least one member of their family working abroad, face a drop in remittances — often the only source of income for many of these households. Another projection suggested that future remittance flows are expected to decline by 21.2% in 2020 and 19.4% in 2021, with the full impact of the shrinking remittances to manifest over the next 18 months. This will prove to be a major blow to the national economy as it struggles to stay afloat in these testing times.

And then there is the issue of reabsorbing the migrant workers who have returned and may not be able to leave soon. These are all very tough questions with very complex answers. The government must speak to these countries and ensure dues of its workers are cleared as early as possible. It must also convince these countries to provide a pathway for the return of migrant workers.

Published in Express Tribune, July 9, 2020

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