Self-reliance or smart engagement? – By Dr. Niaz Murtaza

Having failed to ignite a revolution with their fiery speeches, the fierce, self-appointed defenders of Pakistan’s interests are now focusing their energies on preaching the virtues of national self-reliance. Their definition of self-reliance remains vague. However, their ire has focused mostly on portraying foreign aid, especially US and IMF aid, as the source of all our ills. The begging bowl must be broken, we are told, if Pakistan is to prosper.  Trade, not aid, is the panacea, the sages suggest.


What are the pros and cons of aid and other forms of external flows such as trade and investment? A strict policy of self-reliance would mean shunning them all. North Korea is currently the most adept practitioner of such isolationism. It is also among the poorest countries globally. Hermitism constitutes a splendid individual strategy for gaining nirvana but represents poor national policy. The proponents of self-reliance may protest that they object only to aid. However, foreign aid is not all bad nor the other types of external flows without attendant problems.


While living in splendid isolation clearly ensures national ruin, the one-size-fit-all, one-step-open-all form of economic openness preached by the IMF is also inappropriate for developing countries. Rather than the development ladder that their proponents present them as, such policies constitute a ladder and snakes game where spectacular, sudden and spurious short-term growth is often followed by steep climb-downs as financial bubbles burst. The recent economic openness and consequent development of China and India is presented as the perfect validation of neoliberal prescriptions. While both have certainly opened up recently, they do not subscribe to neoliberal policies and are still classified as “mostly unfree” by the US-based Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. Thus, national success lies neither in isolation nor unfettered openness but in smart, selective external engagement.


Foreign aid often suffers from high overheads, corruption and politicization. However, well-disbursed aid clearly benefits developing countries, especially in the social sectors since the fruits of trade and investment often do not flow to the poorest. The key to success are the policies of the donor. Ironically, here the Pakistani firebrand critics of US aid are not entirely wrong. The US is the most miserly donor, with the lowest aid-to-national income ratio among rich countries. It does not even rank among the top ten on the US-based Center for Global Development’s Commitment to Development Index, which measures the quality of bilateral aid. Its aid is linked very closely with its foreign policies. Thus, the three biggest recipients of US aid are not the three poorest countries globally but strategic middle and high income countries (Israel, Egypt and Pakistan).


Despite its low aid ratio, its huge economy makes it the largest single donor globally and its aid did benefit strategic allies like Taiwan and South Korea during the Cold War. Much depends on how you negotiate with Uncle Sam and fit in with its security interests. The aid of other rich countries and UN agencies usually tends to be beneficial and there is little justification in being wary of it. The important thing is to see aid as a complement and not substitute for national resource mobilization.


Much the same is true for trade and investment. While often portrayed as a panacea for developing countries, the global trade and investment regimes crafted by the WTO and rich countries often disregard the interests of developing countries. The US again leads the way in entangling developing countries into one-sided bilateral trade and investment agreements. As such, developing countries must exercise caution in negotiating bilateral and multilateral trade and investment treaties.


Thus, sensible policy lies in selective, carefully analyzed engagement with foreign aid, trade and investment, as done by China and India. Unfortunately, such nuanced prescriptions do not translate into catchy political slogans. Consequently, politicians will continue to breathe fire and fury against foreign aid. However, hopefully others will recognize the benefits of a nuanced approach.


The writer works as a Research Associate at the University of California, Berkeley with a focus on political economy issues. This article was recently published in the Express Tribune



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